The Future of Folk in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

On the whole, our folk literature is a creation of agro-culture and, most probably, new creations which are an image of that bygone culture will not be born again. Our urgent duty is to document those old creations and nurture them in modern poetry, plays and so on.

kalburgi art

Literature: A collective asset – partially private property – private possession

Man has traversed from ‘a collective consciousness’ to ‘individual consciousness’. Once upon a time it was natural for people of a village to work together, to eat together – that is, to live collectively. It was a time when people thought that the earth is an opportunity for us to lead life and is not our possession and, likewise, literature is an opportunity for us to express our feelings and is not our possession. In those days when the ideas of ‘individual’ and ‘property’ had not yet dawned, literature did not originate as an individual’s creation, nor was it about a specific individual; even its conservation was the responsibility of people collectively and not of a specific individual. As a result, when a person disappeared after creating a work, his literary statements, his literary creations etc., continued to be alive as a possession of the user. Who created such metaphors as bud-smile, flowery sunlight, whirlwind etc. , which are day-to-day expressions? Who created such beautiful adages as, ‘Spouses grouse till they go to bed’ which are eternally true? Who created the literary mass of folklore, folk songs which are heard in any community? The folklore specialists call this ‘the principle of un-owned authorship’. 

Such literature of un-owned authorship is prone to unconscious alterations owing to the oral medium and conscious alterations owing to different environments. The folk literature begins as, ‘Once upon a time, there was a village, there was a king, the king had a daughter…’ without any reference to a specific time, person or place. Thus it is pliable to any period, any place, any king. Moreover any story teller can modify the constituents of a story according to his taste. Folklore specialists call this ‘the principle of re-creation’.

Tolkappiyam and Kavirajamarga

Ancient Kannada literature has been interpreted so far in the light of Sanskrit literary tradition. It is probable that varied results may come out if it is interpreted against the background of Tamil literary tradition. A comparative study of Tolkappiyam of Tamil and Kavirajamarga of Kannada appears to be very useful from this point of view.

We have been reiterating the borrowing between ‘Kavirajamarga’ and Dandin’s ‘Kavyadarsha’ no sooner is the former mentioned. True as it may be to a large extent, could there have been a critical theory exclusively of the south? If so, what was the form of this treatise? Tolkappiyam and Kavirajamarga may be studied comparatively in the light of these two issues.

Tolkappiyam and Kavirajamarga are the first works available in Tamil and Kannada respectively and are significant literary treatises. Tol + kappiyam means the ground preparation needed for creation of poetry. Even Kavirajamarga generally implies the same. It means a preparatory royal path necessary for the creation of poetry. This clarifies that the fundamental objective of both of these works is the same and they propound the preparation for poetic creation – one through grammar, the other through poetics. More than this, it should be observed that both of them are ‘historical works’ which originated in their respective languages to fulfil the requirements of their times.

Detail of an old Kannada inscription at Badami. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Detail of an old Kannada inscription at Badami. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sanskrit critical theorists write their works on sciences like grammar, poetics, prosody exclusively without mixing them up. Dandin’s ‘Kavyadarsha’, for instance, is an exclusive poetics. Even if linguistic issues crop up in these while mentioning the poetic flaws, they appear as poetry-related linguistic issues and not as grammatical issues. Thus the Sanskrit writers restrict a specific subject to its own frame of reference without trespassing the borders. On the contrary, there are prosodic issues in ‘Kavirajamarga’ though it is essentially a work on poetics. It abounds in grammatical issues. The grammatical issue is significant enough to state that the major contribution of the book is not poetics but grammar. Moreover, the issues concerned with the borders of Karnataka, the special features of Kannada-speaking people, the essence of Kannada, the geographical jurisdiction of essential Kannada and so on have crept in to make one’s brows rise about their relevance in the context of poetics. So there might have been a tradition of mixed subject with a science different from the Sanskrit tradition and that might be the Dravidian tradition.

Surprisingly, even if Kavirajamarga owes its poetics to ‘Kavyadarsha’ of Sanskrit, it resembles Tolkappiyam in its ‘science of mixed subjects’. Even as Kavirajamarga embraces non-poetics (extra-poetics) issues, Tolkappiyam does extra-grammatical issues. It comprises issues other than grammar like poetics, prosody, literary genres (poetic forms), subject of poetry, the form of Tamil people – family – society, the expanse of the Tamil language sprawling from Venkatam in the North to Kumari in the South, Sendamil (beautiful Tamil) said to be the essence of Tamil. So it looks that there is the tradition of ‘mixed subjects’ among Dravidians and these two seem to have originated as its representatives. As if a continuation of this tradition of mixed subjects grammar has got into Nagavarma’s ‘Kavyavalokana’ – in the title of Sabdasmruti’.

Thus Kavirajamarga which has retained a model different from the science-subject-structure in Sanskrit, even with regard to the subject seems to have submitted many new regional issues different from Sanskrit. The literary genres, their forms, utility, cause propounded here are a little different from Dandin’s. New issues like – admission of the classification as prose and poetry instead of mixed form, classification of literature even from the point of subject as prakatitara vastuvistara, niratishaya vastu vistara, qualitative categorisation of litterateurs as eloquent, skilled, clever, knowledgeable and poets par excellence, calling the subject of poetry ‘the man of poetic subject’ instead of calling it feminine – may be contributions of the Dravidian tradition.

All these indicate that it is possible to reconstruct our own definitions of ‘the form of the subject’ and ‘structure of science’ through an in-depth study of the ancient poetics in the Dravidian languages. Song. For instance: the song on the treadmill (tune-oriented), threshing song (beat-prominent). Literary genres take form based on the varied texts in refined literature but in folk literature only one text flows in varied tunes according to the different tasks being performed and takes form as if different literary genres.

Burkina woman pounding grain. Credit: Ollivier Girard for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). CC BY-NC 2.0

Burkina Faso woman pounding grain. Credit: Ollivier Girard for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). CC BY-NC 2.0

Example: The use of a single triplet’s signing in varied tasks: So it becomes a variety of genres like, songs while pounding or grinding.

Folk literature emerges from moments of relaxation as well, even as it does from exhaustion. A person creates this literature by mimicking and describing the work he has completed. So if the literature at moments of exhaustion is ‘Following work itself is poetry’, at the moment of relaxation it is called ‘Mimicking work is poetry’. Such mimicking is mainly concerned with dancing. It may be recalled that he developed dances of plucking flowers, cotton, pulling water from the well, using a gun etc., from actions related to these respectively. He composes poetry by describing his actions at moments of relaxation too. These are called ‘Description (Narration) of action is poetry’. Thus such literature of entertainment is created by amateurs in times of ‘relaxation’. Visual literature (performance of Yakshagana), audio-formation of visual literature (talamaddale prasanga – mere vocal presentation of Yakshagana without action), folk tales, folk riddles are all creation under these circumstances.

A third cause besides ‘work’ and ‘rest’ for the creation of folk literature is ‘ritual’. Folks went on creating folk literature according to their familial and divine rituals. Literature that describes all phases of a marriage as a ritual in a family has originated. ‘Narration of action (work) is literature’ has a place here too as literature that describes several rituals has originated. Now these songs are as significant as ‘incantation of mantras’ (chanting of mantras) on a few occasions. For example: The song while showering holy rice in a marriage.

Besides these, songs take form even on occasions of sacred rituals. Songs of worship may be considered here itself. This has been effective enough for scholars to imagine that folk literature was born first in the context of religious rituals. But it looks fair that this was first born in the context of hard work.

Folk literature takes birth from three bases called work, relaxations and rituals. A few made the literature of all these three types a ‘profession’ of livelihood and this may be called the fourth base of literary creation. Folklore became prolific and got propagation owing to these people who relied on songs. This literature became extraneous to the theory of context because of them. In other words the context and the literature began to get dissociated. A literature would be chanted (sung) on any occasion. Though even this is the literature of the time of relaxation livelihood is prominent here.

End of the road for folk songs? Credit: Brad Smith

End of the road? The type of manual work done in yesteryears has disappeared now. So it may be said that literature on the basis of hard work will not be born in future. Credit: Brad Smith/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Thus folk literature exhibits the characteristic of originating from four bases – hard work, rest and ritual and profession. The type of manual work done in the yesteryears has disappeared now. Even the former rituals have disappeared with the disappearance of hard work and rituals literature that mimics them or describes them cannot be born. So it may be said that the literature on the basis of these two (hard work and rituals) will not be born in future. We may, at the most, document literature born ages ago in books, cassettes, CD’s etc. Besides these, if at all, songs of amateurs from the base of relaxation or songs of professional singers, from the base of profession, are likely to be born. But they have to be quite cautious while choosing the subject for such literary forms. For example: using Yakshagana as a tool for propagation of aids prevention is absurd. Similarly,  professional singers singing ballads on subjects like the modern loan fairs conducted by the government is also absurd.

It is possible that any endeavour to revive or nurture the songs related to relaxation and profession looks in vain. For, pastimes like modern musical nights have replaced them. New sources of entertainment like the cinema, the radio have come into vogue. Records are singing instead of singers. So a situation has arisen when even the original folk singers do not get an opportunity.

A great revolution of the 20th century is literary. This has been growing day by day. The oral tradition has been naturally on the decline due to the written tradition. Literature, it should be said, is hostile to the creation of folk literature. Due to this, folk literature has been changing into a medium of hearing and reading in a library instead of a medium of hearing at a ‘performance’. To that extent, it should be admitted, literature jeopardises the oral tradition.

Another threat is record-radio and the visual medium. Documentation of folk literature obviously implies recording it through these media. But the re-creation of that literature ceases. So all these instruments and methods are both a useful tool for conservation of folk literature and a limitation.

A Therukoothu folk theatre performer in Tamil Nadu. Credit: Kannan Muthuraman/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A Therukoothu folk theatre performer in Tamil Nadu. Credit: Kannan Muthuraman/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Eventually, our life-style has undergone a sea change and the tunes of songs have altered accordingly. The pace of life has sped up and its slow pace has reduced. Modern speedy rhythm has replaced the slow rhythm even in expression in folk literature. Utilisation of the former rhythms in new literature and plays seems to be the only option today. As far as Kannada is concerned, Bendre conducted a large scale experiment with poetry. Folk rhythms were used by him marvelously. We have to continue this Bendre tradition. This is how we can honour the folk tunes in plays and the cinema…

On the whole, our folk literature is a creation of agro-culture and, most probably, new creations which are an image of that bygone culture will not be born again. Our duty at present is to document those old creations in print and records for the sake of conservation and nurture them in modern poetry, plays and so on. This task needs to be done on priority.

It may be asked why folk literature should not be formed according to the ‘machine culture’. But it is impossible because of the new methods of mechanisation of working and singing. Even if a little takes form, it should be observed that the print and record cultures are detrimental to the re-creation of folk literature.

M.M. Kalburgi was a scholar of Vachana literature and a well-known academic who served as the vice-chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi. He was assassinated on August 30, 2015.

Translated from Kannada by Dr. MC Prakash

The Republic of Reason: Words They Could Not KillSelected Writings of Dabholkar, Pansare and KalburgiNew Delhi: Sahmat, 2015

The Republic of Reason: Words They Could Not Kill
Selected Writings of Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi
New Delhi: Sahmat, 2015

This essay has been excerpted from Republic of Reason; Words They Could Not Kill – Selected Writings of Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi.

The book can be obtained from SAHMAT


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