Monday, April 19, 2010

The oral tradition in Bengali children's rhymes

Tagore's 'Lokashahitya'
Suchismita Sen
This article presents a translation and critical discussion of "Chhelebhulano Chharha," the first in a collection of essays on Bengali folklore entitled Lokashahitya [Folklore], published in 1907 by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Tagore's views on folklore composition as expressed in "Chhelebhulano Chharha" are significant from the perspective of contemporary folklore scholarship. There currently exists no other complete English translation. The essay is followed by a small collection of chharhas (rhymes) compiled by Tagore.
The poems that Tagore refers to as chhelebhulano chharha can be heard throughout Bengal, and are familiar to most Bengali children. Mothers, grandmothers, and nursemaids frequently recite them to soothe crying children, to distract them into eating, to lull them asleep, and to coax and console them in myriad other ways. Recitation occasions vary from peaceful afternoons and evenings when the mother is alone with her child to stressful mornings when she is trying to calm a screaming toddler as she prepares the afternoon meal. The poems thus express a variety of emotions, ranging from happy musings on the child to the general melancholy and sadness that Bengali women often associate with their own social condition. These poems thus furnish a convenient window to the inner thoughts of their composers, and also alert us to the type of cultural influences that Bengali children are exposed to as they grow up.
Tagore's empathy with romantic nationalism in his adolescence prompted him to collect folklore as early as 1883 (MUKHOPADHYAY 1975, 40). With the founding of the Bangiya Shahitya Parishat (The Bengali Literary Academy) in 1894 Tagore found an official platform from which to urge other scholars to collect these "relics of national treasure" (MUKHOPADHYAY 1975, 66). And there was indeed a spurt of activity in the editing and publishing of folk songs, folktales, and nursery rhymes during this period.
Lokashahitya was a pioneering effort in the context of the Bengali literary scene, because at that time very few intellectuals were interested in examining the Bengali folk tradition. Most educated Bengalis were products of the age of the so-called Bengali renaissance. Although it is not clear when the term renaissance was used in the context of nineteenth-century Calcutta, many contemporary Bengali intellectuals, including the novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-1894) and the nationalist leader Bepin Chandra Pal (1858-1932), regarded the nineteenth century as a glorious period of rebirth when Bengali society revitalized itself as it came into contact with the West.
The period witnessed a two-sided process of acculturation, with representatives of Indian culture and European culture expanding and enriching their knowledge of each other (KOPF 1969, 5). British civil servants like Warren Hastings, William Jones, and others who served in India during the first part of the nineteenth century contributed significantly to the acculturation process. Unlike their successors, who did not mix with the Indians, these people learned Indian languages, studied classical traditions, and acted as interpreters of Indian civilization to the outside world. The Bengali intelligentsia, for their part, were exposed to the ideals of the European Enlightenment, acquiring through this a more secular perspective and a desire to raise the level of social consciousness. At the same time they were invigorated by their own newly rediscovered heritage. In this environment things like folklore and folk beliefs were viewed as superstitions, as faulty ideas that society needed to discard. Since, moreover, the Bengali renaissance was primarily an intellectual movement centered in and around Calcutta (a city founded by Western traders and later the seat of the British Raj), there was little involvement by the so-called "folk." With the rise of nationalism, however, attitudes started to change. In the field of Bengali literature, Tagore was instrumental in channeling much of the nationalistic fervor of his countrymen into appreciation for the older folk and epic traditions, including the medieval Vaisnava lyrics and the Baul songs. Not only did Tagore appreciate the vital role of folklore in sustaining Bengali literature, he was also able to arouse the interest of other intellectuals like Dinesh Chandra Sen and Jogindranath Sarkar in collection and analysis.
Tagore was aware of the multiform quality of folklore and recognized it as the verbal creation of the community. This being the quality that sets folklore apart from written literature, Tagore emphasized the importance of preserving variants. This awareness is noteworthy for two reasons. First, viewed from the perspective of the popularity of the "urform" concept among the romantic folklorists of his day, Tagore's position is distinctively modern. In fact, the recognition that the shape and nature of variants of a text depend on the context of the performance has revolutionized contemporary folklore scholarship (see VON SYDOW 1977, BOGATYREV and JACOBSEN 1929, and LORD 1960). Tagore says:
The characteristic primitive and natural rasa [essence] associated with children's rhymes attracted me to their preservation. This sense of primitiveness may not be appealing to everyone, but certainly no one can doubt that it is our duty to collect these rhymes for posterity. They are our national treasures. These rhymes, long stored in our society's collective memory, echo the loving voices of our mothers and grandmothers and reflect the rhythms of our ancestors' childhood play. Because of the rapid changes in our social structures, however, many things both big and small are being lost. The time has therefore come for us to collect and preserve these timeless treasures of our national past.
These rhymes have been collected from different parts of the country. As a result, one will notice variations in the dialect in which the rhymes are recorded. One will also find more than one form of the same poem, none of which are to be discarded. The reason for this is that there exists no such thing as a correct or authentic version among the variants. The rhymes have changed form so much as they traveled through time and from mouth to mouth that it would be totally inappropriate to select one particular version as representative. The variations are part of their essence. This quality of constant change is natural to them. They are not dead, unchanging relics from the past, they are alive and are capable of movement. They can make themselves suit the needs of the place and the time. In order to show this state of constant flux, it is essential to preserve the different forms. (TAGORE 1989, 169)
Tagore's appreciation of the above-mentioned ideal of rasa forms the second noteworthy aspect of his regard for the multiform in folklore. This concept, which forms the basis of the literary theories of classical Sanskrit, assesses the value of literature, both written and oral, on the basis of its communicative powers. These, in turn, depend on the arousal of sympathetic emotions in the reader or audience. Thus the context or locus of a composition and its attendant connotations play a significant role in its success. One notices a similar stress on context and associative meaning in the works of contemporary scholars on oral tradition and performance. FOLEY, for example, writes:
In the case of traditional oral narrative, the various words or units of utterance that constitute the idiom no longer defer simply to the meanings of the everyday language extrinsic to performance, but rather are charged with associative values particular to the event taking place. (1992, 283)
Although Lokashahitya is well known in Bengal, its ideas have not enjoyed the attention they deserve from folklorists. One possible reason for this is the excessively ornate quality of the prose. The overly figurative nature of Tagore's writing often gets in the way of clarity, and poses severe problems for translators. The problem is further heightened by the fact that Tagore approached the subject not as a scholar but as a typically romantic poet extolling the virtues of these simple, homely, oral compositions. Nevertheless, the ideas that are articulated in this essay need a fresh review because of their relevance to current scholarship on oral poetry.
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