Folklore and Media Perspectives

Folklore and Media Perspective is the way in which the contested definition of folklore is being presented. At the outset, I would like to reiterate the refreshing observations made by Dan Ben-Amos and would like to quote it as a guiding mode for my thesis in trying to address the issue:

To define folklore, it is necessary to examine the phenomena as they exist. It is cultural context; folklore is not an aggregate of things, but a process-a communicative process, to be exact.

While this conception about folklore clearly delineates the collection that folklore was purported to represent, it lays stress on the contextual aspect of transmission, which in turn allows us to see folklore as a communicative process involving the producer of an item of folklore to share her or his product with an end-user. Thus, it follows that a storyteller can entertain an audience with a story, and while the three are distinctive entities, they are related to each other as components of a single continuum and it is in this way that folklore exhibits a splendid trait of the communicative process. Folklore should be understood as a social interaction which makes use of various modes of communication including the art forms and significantly, mass media.

Recognizing communication as the common denominator of folklore and media, it can be affirmed that no society exists without the activities attributed to it – surveillance of the environment to call attention to threats and opportunities, correlation of the various part of society in making a response of the environment and transmission of the social milieu to succeeding generations. In addition, modern media modes provide entertainment and even an escape from the tedium and grind of everyday life.

This conception of folklore also facilitates the much-needed academic debate on folklore the subject matter and folkloristics the study of that subject matter. If we are to grapple with the realities of our technology-driven civilization as significantly reflected in and perpetuated by information technology and mass communication, we need to be clear in dealing with the scholarship of folkloristics and its very demanding applications.

The identification of communication as the criterion of both folklore and media is the critical point which will illustrate the exciting intersections that occur between the two seemingly autonomous and disparate disciplines. As stated above, folkloristics is the scientific study of folklore and a great part of it is related to the study of contemporary society which generates and sustains its own tradition through media at its disposal. At one point of time, it was widely held that technological media was detrimental to folklore but I feel that this is a naive assertion as the study of contemporary culture implies the use of a range of expressive and communication system which cannot exclude technological media.

Folkloristics is an inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary subject embracing the social sciences, humanities and the arts. Mass media, likewise, is an indiscriminate consumer of raw material, making use of anything and everything to achieve its objective of successful communication. In this, it has been observed that the material or products that folklore provides are adroitly used by the media and presented through its various modes.  Mass culture or folklorismus is the industrial renewal of folklore. It is the process of channeling the traditional folk themes, metaphors, motifs, ideas and beliefs into the mass-produced industrial-commercial products, mass media and other forms of modern communication. Indian society, as we are aware, is not strictly speaking an industrial society at the present moment. However, as a developing country, industrialization is an important aspect of our growth and progress.

The marchen or fairytale has been used times out of number as advertisement material in the print as well as electronic media and again, while the fairytale have been serialized and moulded in comics and cartoon formats, legends  and myths have been presented as news or human interest stories in papers and magazines. These latter examples have often been sensationalized to which accusation Henry G. Gray, a pioneer newspaperman was quick to defend saying “The purpose of a newspaper is to print the truth and make a profit, not necessarily in that order”. I have observed that the tendency of newspapers and magazines to sensationalize has been when there is a “discovery syndrome” story involved.

A couple of years ago, The Telegraph did a story on the practice of name-giving and calling through tunes employed by people living in the remote villages of Khatar Shnong. The reports bordered on exoticizing the place, people and the practice. Admittedly, the tradition is of great interest to readers but to say that the practice is unique is rather far-fetched. Name-calling through tunes is a system of traditional utterance employed by folk groups in different ways. The tradition is widely practiced by some ethnic communities living in the Andean heights of South America and the Tyrolean Mountains of Europe.

The comic book, as a genre of mass communication emerged sometime in the 1930s and the portrayal of the exploits of comic-book heroes completely absorbed the attention of the young and old alike, selling something like 600 million copies yearly and that too during the periods of the Great Depression in the United States. A discerning reader of comic books would easily detect Superman, Flash Gordon, Batman and assorted other comic book characters as spin-offs from mythic and legendary figures. I am tempted here to cite the example of our own folk hero, U Adadak, who is presented as the ideal comic hero in that he, along with his friends forming an alliance and going out to the world in search of adventure. His friends comprise of U Puh Shilum or Hill-plougher, Khwai Shynreh or Buffalo-fisher and Kynting Mawsan or Boulder-thrower. These Herculean figures are accompanied by a dwarf riding a cat. In the hands of a comic book artist or film animation artist, the exploits of these mythic figures would make for very interesting reading or viewing.

When Marconi equipped two US ships to report back to newspapers on the America’s Cup Race in 1899, few thought that the wireless would dominate world airwaves for the next eighty years and bring to people’s  home news, music, stories and the market. The systematic development of commercial radio broadcasting was started by David Sarnoff who became famous for two reasons – one, he was the first person to have heard the distress signal from the sinking Titanic while being stationed on the East Coast of the United States. Second, David Sarnoff became the guiding spirit of Radio Corporation of America. Sarnoff’s plan was to make radio a “household utility” and since then, radio has never looked back.* What followed was a frenzied scramble for frequencies and churning out of programmes of which cultural productions such as radio plays, and songs formed a heavy component. The regeneration in folk music especially was largely sustained by radio stations all over the world. All India Radio Shillong commissioned in 1948 is a case in point. The huge collections of spools in its holdings represent one of the best repositories of folk music in the country.

Allow me to say that the first tentative steps I took in the field of folklore research was encouraged by All India Radio in the mid-1980s. I was working on a part-time basis and under the supervision of the talented late A.N. Kharkongor, we produced substantial programmes by recording live ceremonies and performances. When the North Eastern Service of All India Radio started in the early 1990s, there used to be a slotted weekly programme called folklore retold hosted by Dr. Soumen Sen, a veteran folklorist of North-East India. It was a hugely successful programme and it did a tremendous job to generate interest among listeners.

Film has a pervasive influence on our culture. It shares certain principal elements with literature, another discourse that dominates our culture. The youngest of the art forms, film draws on techniques and conventions from theatre and music yet, all that being said, it has evolved its own narrative method by harnessing the support of technology.

Films are an important part of mass culture everywhere and more so in India where these films play a very important role in the society. This is substantiated by the fact that India produces more films in a year than any other country in the world. In the first place, popular films in India, irrespective of the language they are produced in, are more or less like “modern fairy tales.”  Scholars have recognized that popular Indian films follow the same structural patterns as one notices in fairy tales and folktales. Popular films .with love themes (boy meets girl plots) seem to fantasize love and adventure with themes of the hero winning against great odds through the strength of individual desire which are classified motifs in the celebrated Aarni-Thompson Index of Tale Types. The magic of the myth and the fairy tale has not died out completely- it survives in changed forms in the Indian popular cinema. While Jawaharlal Handoo  talks of four broad categories in popular Indian cinema which seem to operate on folklore, there are more sub-categories which I shall discuss here:

i)             Full Myth Films in which traditional myths or folktales or their national or regional variants are incorporated without changing the basic plot structure.

ii)            Half Myth Films in which the myth or the traditional narrative is imposed on a non-traditional plot-structure or vice-versa. This form is also more appealing both to the city and the village people as it very appropriately establishes the relevance of the mythic metaphors in the modern context.

iii)           Mythic Theme Films represent such films which borrow one or many mythic motifs and use them according to the needs of the plot-structure, which may otherwise be completely non-mythic and non-traditional.

iv)           Fairy Tale Pattern Films are those popular films which exhibit a deep structure-pattern comparable to fairy tales. For example, the hero in such films, just like the fairy tale has to pass numerous tests before being able to trace his heroine, liquidate the villain, win back the heroine and marry her. The donor’s and villain’s actions, just like the fairy tale, are crucial in such films. The logic of the fairy tale pattern: from disequilibrium to equilibrium is an essential feature of such films.

v)            Fairy Tale Reversal films are those that employ folk motifs in a completely reversed format. The best example of this kind is Shrek, where we find the ogre cast in the role of a hero and the stereotyped prince is thoroughly undermined.

vi)           Urban legends with touches of the horrific are doing very well as Hollywood productions and there are a proliferation of films, made in Hollywood and Bollywood, which cater to the consumption fever of the young for the gothic. 

Thus, the fairy tale, if not in its entirety, but in terms of structural frame and action patterns seems alive and thriving in one form or the other in the modern Indian celluloid industry. The cinematic jargon used to describe actors as celestial objects reveal a happy coincidence of folk speech and functional nomenclature. The Khasis refer to handsome males as Nai khatsaw synnia or the full moon which shares the firmaments with ki khlur or stars. Both the celestial objects are considered   males and in both are fitting examples of luminosity.

The use of folklore in media is not only confined to borrowings from narratives and other performative genres but can also be detected in the structures and practices used in mass media. The cultural expressions of people’s everyday life is the core area of folklore studies and folklorists are seriously studying how folk narratives, metaphors, customs and usages are integrated into community life. A very strong reflection of the process of integration of folk nuances with patterns in communication systems of society is found in television. The rise and spread of the T.V. phenomenon in India have been very fast. It has made a strong impact on Indian society and mass culture. Besides direct telecasting of great Indian epics (Ramayana and Mahabharala were great hits) and myths, and other forms of oral narrative including “frozen” forms such as, “Vikram aur Baital” (Vikram and the Baital) and living folktales in serials like “Dada-Dadi ki Kahaniyan” (tales of grandfather arid grandmother), there are numerous indirect forms in which T.V. as a strong medium of mass culture plays the role of renewing folklore and other forms of oral tradition in modern Indian society.

The modernization of the society led many scholars to believe that folklore was dying or would die out very soon. In fact, some genres did disappear from oral tradition due to the impact of the modernization, but they continued to live on in other forms of modern media. For example the television superheroes in many countries have taken some of the roles that traditional folk heroes have always had. Interestingly, this kind of change and continuity of tradition is more visible in modern mass culture and the heroes of this culture which have the same characteristics as the traditional animal tale heroes.5 Similarly, in many countries the magic folktale is no longer transmitted orally, but through books, videos and television and now in¬ternet and e. mail etc. “Television,” writes Gary Alan Fine,  “has apparently changed the temporal boundaries of entertainment, possibly more than it has altered the con¬tent of the stories.” Parents more often than not use all these modem media and read or retell them to their children. The professional storytellers too adapt them from printed or oral sources. These storytellers are not bound by regional or national folk traditions, but feel free to use stories from any culture.

T.V. advertising is another area in which folklore metaphors, symbols, designs, motifs, and ideas are transformed to popularize or boost modern industrial products, and as such become an important part of mass culture. In the past FIFA World Cup, the Sports giant, Addidas, used an inverted proverb to promote its products. The visual showed a small boy playing football with many world cup football stars, past and present.  When the boy scored a goal, the catch-line came as follows: Impossible is Nothing which is the inverted form of Nothing is Impossible.

A couple of years ago, my students and I did a survey of magazine advertisements (using Time and India Today as source material) with the intention of locating folklore metaphors and symbolism used in the advertisement visuals and texts. We discovered that forty percent of the material making use of easily recognized folk metaphors in products such as Bacardi rum where the bat is a central figure to Visa card, Singapore Airlines and the Allianz Insurance which some feminist group in South India, I think, felt was incestuous. There is even a computer virus named Trojan Horse which has affected my computer system.

Television portrays salient aspects of cultural life and though many programmes are created outside everyday life (News, Sitcoms etc.), they are patterned after experiences and impressions of real-life situations: Mie Berg on the introduction of television describes the phenomenon thus: “Television suddenly brought the whole world into the living room. One switched it on – and the living pictures flowed into the family’s circle…”

Through a mass-mediated production, we become part of a larger world whose influences work their way into our lives and altering our perspectives. As a cultural being, humans are obsessed with routines and rituals and as communication consumers, we structure our everyday lives on a necessity which we customize. I have observed that TV constitutes a very significant marker as far as domesticity is concerned. In a family, members will vie for viewing time and the remote becomes an object of authority even hegemony. Television is consciously anointed as the symbolic order we create out of and for our everyday culture. The invasion of our domestic and mental domain by television can best be illustrated by Michael Marsden  who says: “the television receiver has quietly and smoothly assumed the role of household god, becoming the focal point for interior designer and homeowner alike”

During the early nineteen eighties, very few families in Shillong had television sets and during important events such as Republic Day parades and I remember specifically, that during the Asian Games played in New Delhi, people used to congregate in homes that had TV sets and sometimes, the sets were placed outside to facilitate wider viewership. Naturally, TV was pronounced TB that is substituted by a voiced bilabial stop because the voiced labio-dental is not present in Khasi. That TB is a short form for tubercolosis is common enough knowledge and some wit would exhibit his familiarity with both the disease as well as the gadget by saying that TB is nowadays curable; the thing is when someone has colour TB meaning colour television, implying advanced stage of TB, then there is a real cause for concern! By a skillful twist of language, the wit has added to the store of colloquial speech. Another example of integration of a folk aphorism with contemporary lifestyle that I have heard is when a person dies, she or he is referred to as having gone to God’s house to watch TV, deviating from the traditional practice of referring to such occurrences as having gone to God’s house to eat betel nuts.

The intersections between folklore and the media cannot be underrated. The two domains are, by academic definition, autonomous yet they display an inter-connectedness that will open up more exciting work in this brave new century.

Prof Desmond Kharmawphlang: A Professor of Cultural and Creative Studies. Desmond L. Kharmawphlang has published a number of books. A poet and a folklorist; he has published books of poetry and collections of theoretical essays on folkloristics pertaining to North East India. He has represented the country in numerous conferences outside the country notably in Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, Norway, the United States, Finland and Greece.

Culture and Social Values

by Dr Desmond Kharmawphlang

The underlying fundamental challenge facing every society is to create political, economic and social situations and systems that promote peace, human welfare and the sustainability of environment upon which life depends. To even begin to understand and meet this challenge is to acknowledge that achieving the above is a task beset with problems and the only realistic way to engage with them is to work on issues and in spaces where these problems are located. It has been the human experience that the preeminent approach to social problems is to help build common understanding, enable people to improve their lives and reinforce their commitment to society, enhance excellence, and to assure committed participation by men and women from diverse communities and at all levels of society.Culture should be appreciated and used as a very important means of finding promising approaches to modern problems and to usher in new intellectual agendas. As individuals who rejoice in the benign influences of culture, we need to define and employ public values related to fairness and tolerance, respect for knowledge and pluralism, upholding and protecting rights including language rights, freedom of expression and sexual preference. Culture is about participatory decision making, and broad access to asset creation and dependable livelihoods.
Education, the arts, religion, culture and more recently, media play vital roles in the life and vitality of communities and nations. All of these domains help us understand who we are, what we know, what we can imagine and how we function as diverse groups and as individuals trying to make sense of our place in a rapidly changing world. They help us express what it means to be human, and they provide commentary and a critique on human events. They also illuminate differences and similarities, and can serve as forces for positive social change by promoting democratic values, human achievement, pluralism and respect for diversity.
Concerns about poverty and equity are also growing in the environmental field. Many groups have recognized that the protection of natural resources must take into account economic activity — hence the over-used phrase ‘sustainable development’. Environmentally sensitive economic development often ignores the concerns of poor communities. In response, some of the most innovative thinkers about these problems have begun to place concerns about poverty at the center of environmental strategies.
The antiquity and all-pervasive nature of the market-driven economy in human history can perhaps best be demonstrated by the fact that the Inca Empire, in pre-Columbian America, may be the only advanced civilization in history to have no class of traders, and no commerce of any kind within its boundaries. Rich in foodstuff, textiles, gold, and cocoa, the Incas were masters of city building but nevertheless had no money and thus they remained until the decline of this great empire was brought about at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century.1
Therefore, the change in the nature of the world’s economies has been at the heart of many of the ebb and flow of civilizations. Subsequently, the idea that the market economy may have a detrimental effect on moral values has long been debated in the social sciences, ethics, and philosophy, although there has not always been a consensus as to the exact scale of this effect. This can be seen in sharp relief when we look back on how a fundamental disagreement on some aspect of the market economy has resulted in some of the most significant historical upheavals within modern societies. For example, the abolishment of trading human beings was a major issue in the American Civil War. Martin Luther’s critique of the trade of indulgences, in which buyers and sellers exchanged money for the freedom from God’s punishment for sin, was a key element of the Protestant Reformation. Karl Marx’s idea that capital stock should not be tradable, that it must belong to the workers themselves, is a cornerstone of communist ideology.2
Culture and Sustainability
In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted 17 goals as part of its “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. UNESCO affirmed that one of these core goals was to “ensure that the role of culture is recognized through a majority of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including those focusing on quality education, sustainable cities, the environment, economic growth, sustainable consumption and production patterns, peaceful and inclusive societies, gender equality and food security.”3
In light of this statement, we shall briefly delve into the role of culture, as both an enabler, and a driver of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. It is a pervasive feature of market interaction to impose costs on uninvolved third parties. Producing and trading goods often creates negative externalities, such as detrimental working conditions for workers, possibly associated with reduced life expectancy, child labor, suffering of animals, or environmental damage. People who participate in markets by buying such goods often seem to act against their own moral standards. The risk of moral decay through market interaction has been discussed in politics, ethics, and in the social sciences.
Many people express objections against child labor, other forms of exploitation of the workforce, detrimental conditions for animals in meat production, or environmental damage. At the same time, they seem to ignore their moral standards when acting as market participants, searching and buying the cheapest electronics, fashion, or food, and thereby consciously or subconsciously creating the undesired negative consequences to which they generally object.
Until recently, economists have been reluctant to rely on culture as a possible determinant of economic phenomena. Much of this reluctance stems from the very notion of culture: it is so broad and the channels through which it can enter the economic discourse so ubiquitous (and vague) that it is difficult to design testable (i.e., refutable) hypotheses. Without testable hypotheses, however, there is no role for culture in economics except perhaps as a selection mechanism among multiple equilibria. In recent years, however, better techniques and more data have made it possible to identify systematic differences in people’s preferences and beliefs and to relate them to various measures of cultural legacy. These developments suggest an approach to introduce cultural-based explanations that can be tested and are able to substantially enrich our understanding of economic phenomena.
Through the socialization process, by which it is maintained and transmitted, culture affects individual’s values. We distinguish between values that influence economic preferences (such as fertility or labor participation preferences) – which can be thought of as parameters of a person’s utility function – and political preferences (such as preferences for fiscal redistribution). Culture, thus, can affect economic outcomes through both these channels.4
Folklore in the Formation of Khasi Ethics
Ethics plays an important role in the life and history of every people. It shapes their minds and hearts and ensures the continuity of a civilization. Man is a moral being and therefore he is governed by moral laws in his personal and social life. Because he is also a relational being, he is also guided in his relationship with others by these rules of ethics. Ethics makes social life possible and gives integrity to a person in his or her personal life.
Barnes Mawrie, in his book Introduction to Khasi Ethics makes the case for the Khasis as being a group of people in possession of a very sound system of ethics. According to him, they are governed by a great sense of justice and righteousness. The Khasis believe that it was in the Second Divine Assembly Durbar-Blei Baar) that God assigned to them the moral code of conduct. Khasi Ethics has been preserved through oral tradition in the form of narratives which have passed on from one generation to the next. Therefore, we can see the tremendous power and relevance, and the subsequent influence of Narrative in Khasi Ethics.5
Other authors including Hamlet Bareh6 and Soumen Sen have also argued for the central role that folklore plays in shaping the ethics — and by extension — the culture of the Khasi-Jaintia people and how the same continues to serve as a commentary on the configuration and direction of the changes in their society, even in modern times, despite the influx of an ever-increasing array of other cultural forces.
Values — judgments about what is right and important in life — help steer our lives and institutions. Without explicit attention to values, we may run the risk of relying on notions and systems that have become fossilized and consequently fail to appeal and motivate people. Values serve as anchors in a rapidly changing world and that mobilize people around such problems as poverty, injustice, lack of education, intolerance and all kinds of authoritarianism including curtailment of freedom. No single set of values from the past is likely to serve us well in all circumstances but, at the same time, we should not assume that tradition has little to contribute to the solving of today’s problems. We must find fresh combinations of old and new. And we should recognize the challenge the all-too-common notion that modernization necessarily brings secularization.