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The study of folklore

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20th-Feb-2015       
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Saifuddin Chowdhury :
Folklore has developed into a discipline for academic study, Dan Ben-Amos, an American folklorist of international fame, defined folklore as "artistic communication in small groups." This definition, though very short, has received wide acclamation in the academic circles. Ben-Amos has admirably explained the rationale of this definition in folklore scholarship. For-the folkloric act to happen, as Ben-Amos holds, two social conditions are necessary : both the performers and the audience have to be in the same situation in which "people confront each other face-to-face and relate to each other directly."
Firoz Mahmud, while recognising the merit of this definition, has shown its weakness in the social context of Bangladesh .. Mahmud writes.
"In the social context of Bangladesh his conditions seem to be too rigid. In Bangladesh the overwhelming majority of the population live in villages where the lifestyle is still very much traditional. Here the commemorative process of social interaction is so widely diffused that in many cases face-to-face interaction between the performer and the audience is not absolutely necessary for the folkloric act to happen. A baul does not require an audience as he sings while wandering. But he is heard by people, many of whom are unseen by him."
What about a metalworker? Although he is involved in folk art/craft, he is not necessarily a folk performer. As Mahmud points out, his activity is not audience-oriented. When works in his atelier, he is not expecting an audience to observe his skill. "His skill is appreciated through his creations. He does not communicate directly with all his consumers, since his products are available to them in bazaars-permanent stores, periodic hats (rural bazaars), and melas (annual fairs)."
"Customarily folklorists refer to the host of published definitions, add their own, then get on with their work, leaving the impression that definitions of folklore are as numberless as insects," says Henry Glassie. "But all the definitions," according to Glassie, "bring into dynamic association the ideas of individual creativity and collective order. I have deliberately chosen a long definition of folklore given by Benjamin A. Botkin. He defines folklore in these words:;
"Folklore is a body of traditional belief, custom, and expression, handed down largely by word of mouth and circulating chiefly outside of commercial and academic means of communication and instruction. Every group bound together by common interests and purposes, whether educated or uneducated, rural or urban, possesses a body of traditions which may be called its folklore. Into these traditions enter many elements, individual, popular, and even literary, but all are absorbed and assimilated through repetition and variation into a pattern which has value and continuity for the group as a whole."
Bangladesh is a living museum of folklore. Expressions of folklore, time-honoured and hallowed by tradition, form part of our cultural heritage as a whole. Our own economic infrastructure has been built on the tradition of our glorious past. It reflects our food habits, dresses, and cultural beliefs. To preserve and cherish them freely, we had to struggle for both cultural and political freedom. We had to fight for the right of our mother tongue in 1952 and for our independence in 1971. The main goal of our continuous struggle was to preserve our own pattern of life. Folklore plays a leading role in the preservation of our pattern of life. Hence Botkin's long definition of folklore fits well into our framework of understanding the folklore of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is enormously rich in folk songs, which are a spontaneous outpouring of the simple spirit of smaller, more homogenous cultural groups. Folk songs deal with themes pertaining to communal activity, mark the significance of certain times in the calendar, exemplify the moral code of an entire group and its shared heritage, or bind the life of an individual into the wider life of the community. Of the folk songs, particular mention may be made of alkap, barongasi, baramasi, baul, bhadu, bhatiyali, bhawaiya, bolan, chatka, dhamali, dhan bhanar gan, dhan katar gan, gajan, gajir gan, gambhira, ghatu, jag, jari, khemta, madar peerer gan, marfati, murshidi, sakta, sari and sapude.
As folk songs are transferred orally rather than in writing, they are subject to alteration and development with the passage of time, even with each performance. At present, as a result of the changes in public taste and aptitude, folk songs are being influenced by the popular musical traditions. Many folksingers are now reluctant to use those age-old products.
Folk art produces functional, handmade objects for a variety of purposes within the community, reflecting its needs and aesthetic preferences. These objects range from pottery to metalwork, from painting to weaving, from children's toys to religious images, and so on.
The producers of folk art, called folk artists, utilise imagery and symbols meaningful to the community. Folk artists generally do not concentrate on originality but rather on conservatism, preserving the traditional forms and designs taught by the previous generation. However, like folk songs, folk art is also subject to fluctuations of fashion and external influence.
With the rise of industrialisation and increased communication in Bangladesh, pure folk art is dying out in the face of functional items that are being made available more quickly, cheaply and with a higher technical standard than the handworker can really compete with. In the study of folk art it is of utmost importance to compare and contrast objects from different regions. The variations in shape, design, and decoration, if any, represent regional contexts of folk art, and on a larger scale these variations indicate different cultural traditions based on local materials and the basic technologies that are useful to the harnessing of those materials.
Folklorists are generally divided into literary and anthropological categories. The prevalent notion is that each group of folklorists has its own methodology appropriate for its interests. Alan Dundes has challenged this notion. According to Dundes, the basic methodology of studying folklore in literature and studying folklore in culture is almost exactly the same; in other words, the discipline of folklore has its own methodology applying equally well to both literary and cultural problems. "There are only two basic steps in the study of folklore in literature and in culture," says Dundes. He writes:
"The first step is objective and empirical; the second step is subjective and speculative. The first might be termed identification and the second interpretation. Identification essentially consists of a search for similarities; interpretation depends upon the delineation of differences. The first task in studying an item is to show how it is like previously reported items, whereas the second is to show how it differs from previously reported items-and, hopefully, why it differs".
In the past, folklorists went into the field to return with texts collected without their cultural context; they plunged into literary sources and emerged with dry lists of motifs and proverbs lifted from their literary context. As a result, for many folklorists identification became an end in itself instead of a means to the end of interpretation.
In the study of folklore, it is important to analyse content, structure, and context. A focus on cultural aspects and an emphasis on behavioural attitudes will make the study of folk-lore lively. Expressive culture is one domain that embodies social structure. As one of the means through which society conducts itself, expressive culture is ubiquitous and is created in a multiplicity of ways. It is linked with both audience and performance. Folklorists need to utilise both theory and data to  gain an insight into any expressive act.
A serious problem we are facing now is that rapid geographical changes are taking place. Rural walkways are changing into roads for plying rapid vehicles dispelling traditional rafts, boats, carts, and chariots. Rivers are gradually becoming emaciated. They are loosing reserving capacity and flow of water. Moreover, silt deposit is increasing enormously. A good many small rivers have already faded away. Larger ones are flowing somehow. Boats with colourful sails are not seen there. They are now driven with engines.
Again, we are loosing the mangrove forests in Southern Bangladesh because of natural disasters. Moreover, some people are destroying them, ignoring public interest. As a result, the cultural trends of Banabibi, Banadurga, Gazipeer and Dakshina Roy are inevitable to be perished. These no doubt should be the grave concern of the nation.
There is a gulf of difference between a folk fair and an urban fair. We find now that not only the young ones but also the older ones are greatly attracted to the electronic products of the media. This shift is found to have a great impact even on the rural people. Their food habits and cultural activities are changing. Does it seem to have any good effect?
It has become a matter of national and public importance to analyse and evaluate these changes in the socio-economic context of the country. With a view to conducting research most scientifically on our glorious past, discovering the desired elements from our heritage, collecting and preserving them for facing the challenges of the twenty-first century, and existing as a separate entity, the study of folklore with an academic bias has become essential in Bangladesh.
The Rajshahi University is the first institution in the country to serve as the foundation of a full programme of folklore. The Department of Folklore was initially established at this university in Room 225 of Shahidullah Kalabhaban on 12 March 1998. Within a decade the Department of Folklore at the Rajshahi University has become a self-sufficient academic center. It is said that folklore is the origin of all academic disciplines. Hence a bold initiative has been taken here to include necessary applications of history, social science, anthropology, psychology and aesthetics in the study of folk elements. It is also said that folklore is not only an Art but also a science. As their inseparable relation has been fully appreciated. most of the folklorists are now concerned with art and Science at the same time in the study of folklore more methodically and fruitfully. In the past, folklore was treated as oral education or literature, and it was practiced and evaluated from the view points of literature, aesthetics, philology and history. Now anthropology, archaeology, psychology, linguistics, local history, sociology, and other fields have been included in the curriculum to determine and evaluate folk elements. The curriculum covers a wide range of both modern and ancient literature; newspapers; myths and legends; cultural festivals, costume, food habits, religious performances, education, folk beliefs, and birth and marriage-related customs; descriptions of birds and animals; different religions, agriculture related culture, folk treatments, various genres of folk literature, folk dramas, lyrics and poems, stories, proverbs, and spells; names of places; games and sports, folk arts and crafts, and houses; wooden, earthen and metal utensils, ornaments, musical instruments, and furniture; and origin and advancement of language, literature, and culture. It also includes the folk elements of SAARC and European counties and the United States of America so that students may be acquainted fairly well with the world folk traditions and literature. Thus the Department of Folklore provides an opportunity for students in a wide range, of fields to pay focused attention to vernacular communicative resources and vernacular expressions in art, religion, and politics. Folklore's emphasis on ethnographic grounding and theories allows students interested in globalisation, cultural change, and democratisation to understand these processes from the perspective of local actors. Tracing the emergence of vernacular cultural forms, their movements through informal channels, and their adaptations across time and space, folklore provides an important complement to the study of formal institutions. A secondary specialisation in folklore is a valuable credential for job seekers both inside academia and in nonprofit and public institutions.
Currently the Department of Folklore belongs to the Faculty of Arts. Considering the wider role of folklore in academic disciplines, the teachers have been demanding that their department be included in the Faculty of Social Sciences. In support of their genuine demand they organised a seminar and published a booklet, which has been edited by Susmita Chakrabarty and Abul Hasan Chowdhury. Renowned folklorist Shamsuzzaman Khan slongly supports the reorganisation of the Department of Folklore under the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Rajshahi University.
Students wishing to come to the Rajshahi University to study folklore are very strongly advised to contact the Chairman and other faculty members to determine which courses at the Department of Folklore (or outside of it) offer the best match for their interests and professional goals. In general, students may work on Bangla-language topics, particularly verbal art; students may work on specific oral traditions; students concentrating on music may consider an Ethnomusicology programme; students with a strong interest in performance studies may consider Theatre; and students working on arts and crafts should look at a programme in material culture. While folklore students and faculty are concentrated in humanities, graduate courses in folklore typically attract students from a wide range of departments across colleges. In general, the faculty do not expect students to have prior experience of the discipline and welcome them to study folklore (though students are advised to talk to a professor or the Chairman in advance to ensure that the courses are appropriate to their needs). Folklore can be studied up to the level of Ph.D. Open to Masters and Ph.D. students in any department, it provides both focus and flexibility for students, balancing core courses with electives that can overlap with the student's degree programme. Research topics of the folklorists of the Rajshahi University represent both the diachronic and synchronic approach. Besides archival research, fieldwork is undertaken by some of the folklorists, who thus have experience in recording the material and creating sources for future scholarship. A growing interest in contemporary folklore has brought into focus new genres in addition to the classical ones. New aspects, theoretical insights and research problems should broaden the range of folkloristics.
On 27-28 July 2007 the Department of Folklore in partnership with the Mazharul Islam Folklore Institute organised a National Folklore Conference at the Rajshahi University. Shamsuzzaman Khan helped us in many ways to make the conference a success. On this occasion a museum dedicated to collecting, preserving and exhibiting objects of folk art, especially from the Rajshahi region, was inaugurated. But it is still in its infancy. It can create splendid research facilities, internships, and a variety of publications in addition to offering numerous opportunities for students of material culture. The Department of Folklore should also embark upon the collection of traditional music in the Rajshahi region so that its holdings can be regularly used by musicians, scholars, journalists, historians, radio and television producers, and many others. Equally important is the creation of the Folklore Archives.
The Department of Folklore should continue to hold conferences and seminars. The folklore courses should cover the theory and history of folkloristics, poetics and typology of folk songs, minor genres such as proverbs and riddles, folktales and legends, contemporary folklore, family traditions, and popular religion and mythology. It is important to make a requirement for the students of folklore to do some practical work in the proposed Folklore Archives. Fieldwork trips to important sites should be organised armually as an obligatory part of academic studies of folklore.
Another department of folklore is going to be established at the National Poet Kazi Nazrul Islam University. It enlightens the fact that the discipline has won popularity, and it is being appreciated in the learned circles of the country.
Academically speaking, the study of folklore in Bangladesh has remained in a burgeoning state. There are several reasons for this protracted development. Firstly, there is a lack of understanding on the part of other closely related departments in the appreciation of folklore as an academic discipline. Secondly, the Dhaka University, the oldest University in the country, is yet to open a Department of Folklore. Finally, the government has so far been unable to create job opportunities for students studying folklore.
Enormously rich in folklore, Bangladesh has a great potential for its study. Moreover, folklore is a great tool for strengthening national culture. By establishing museums of folklife and museums devoted to folk art, by enriching the collections of other museums with objects of material culture, and by expanding the study of folklore in colleges and universities, it is possible to extend patronage to folk artists, promote the marketability of their products, and create jobs for folklorists.
(Folklore in context)

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