Previous IIAS fellowship: Sept 2016-June 2017.

From January to June 2018, Carola Lorea is doing reserach at IIAS with a fellowship provided by the J. Gonda Fund

Metaphor, Meaning and Oral Exegesis: The Upside-Down Language of the Songs of Sādhanā
This research concerns the history of Bengali songs and their enigmatic language. If the Nobel prize to Bob Dylan provoked stupor and debate within western audiences, conferring a literary prize to a songwriter would not have raised any eyebrow in pre-modern Bengal, since, as some scholars maintain, “the history of Bengali literature is a history of Bengali songs”

Throughout the history of Bengali and proto-Bengali Tantric songs, frogs eat the snakes' head, girls give birth to their own mothers, and trees have their roots up in the air. Tropes and symbols remain consistent, but who can really understand them?

To structurally decolonise the study of Tantric literature, it is crucial to understand the local discourse around its “upside-down language”: What are the living strategies of exegesis of esoteric songs used for performance as well as for religious goals? What can they tell us to understand older texts and their metaphors? How could these draw a bridge between Tantric studies focused on texts, and modern ethnographies of lived religious experience?

My research faces these questions by using two tools: an ethnography of oral exegesis, which reveals sophisticated strategies of hermeneutics for the multi-layered interpretation of polysemic lyrics; and the study of metaphor, which explains through cognitive lenses why shocking images and paradoxical tropes are used for didactic, mnemonic and meditative purposes among contemporary Bengali singers and practitioners.

Further reading: Gonda Research proposal: Metaphor, Meaning and Oral Exegesis: The Upside-Down Language of the Songs of Sādhanā


previous: IIAS fellowship 1 September 2016 - 30 June 2017
Folklore, religion and diaspora: the migration of oral traditions across and beyond the East Bengal border

My research project is related to the migration of oral traditions across and beyond South Asian borders. I am particularly interested in the history of the journey of Bengali oral literature and folklore before and after Partition, its transformations and its resettlement in different areas.

In short, the constant flow of Bengali refugees that started around 1946 brought a number of oral and performative traditions across and beyond the West Bengal borders. Displaced and re-settled East Bengali communities maintained their indigenous cultural traditions in new territories, while negotiating them with the local flavour, genres and audiences.

These problematic aspects at the cross-roads between folklore, religion and diaspora, have not found the attention they deserved within the academic transdisciplinary study of South Asia. My research project is directed towards the study of the Bengali cultural diaspora from 1946 to 2016 in two specific geographical areas: West Bengal and the Andaman Islands, which represent the most dense areas of resettlement for East Bengali refugees. How did the memory of displacement recover and relocate their poetic and musical sensibility? What is the role of the East Bengali exodus in propagating folk-religions and oral traditions in present-day India? To what extent did these phenomena of relocated folklore sustain and enrich the development of Bengali oral traditions? My research aims to propose some possible answers for such questions, while representing a response and a complement to the recent scholarship dedicated to the memories and narratives of Partition, mainly evidenced with literature and films. This loophole reflects a broader neglect towards the East Bengali population in India, historically subjected to open as well as implicit discrimination.