The Newsletter 74 Summer 2016

From acrobatics to worship: bringing together South Asian folklore

Patrick van den Berghe

Reviewed title: M.A. Mills, P.J. Claus & S. Diamond (eds.) 2015. South Asian folklore: an encyclopedia, Routledge (first published in 2003), ISBN 9780415866927.

Research publication on South Asian folklore has a 200-year history. From the late eighteenth century, European travelers and scholars set out to document the cultural practices and beliefs of South Asian groups and people. The aims of this research were multifold: gaining knowledge in a new field of study through a comparative study of local traditions and stories, the wish to convert people by getting insight in their customs and –last but not least- social and political control. While doing some research on Indian culture, my attention was recently drawn to the work of Kamiel Bulcke S.J, a Belgian priest who played a key-role in the study of the Ramayana. Bulcke has received most fame as being the author of the most-used Hindi-English dictionary.

Whatever the goals, most researchers working on matters concerning non-Western subjects before the nineteenth century (and this is not limited to studies on Asia) upheld a European or western-oriented approach, which often included imperialist - or sometimes even racist- undertones. This was a result of the environment in which they were formed or because their sponsors were Western governments. In recent years scholars have followed a different approach. Studies of folklore of non-Western groups have taken on a more objective point of view. This approach does not only counter the imperialistic stance but also the move that was taken by a new generation of nineteenth century indigenous scholars who collected and documented traditions in their country of origin. Some of these researchers have been linked to nationalist movements that tried to prove the social and moral value of these cultural expressions.

Studies on folklore have always been limited to either one country/region or one subtheme (oral traditions, performing arts,…). South Asian folklore: an encyclopedia has a larger scope. It aims at bringing together the work of a huge array of contemporary scholars on different subjects and is in such the first work trying to do so.  Edited by three scholars, the encyclopedia contains close to 500 entries on the local traditions of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The editors point out that cultural production is not bound by modern political boundaries and acknowledge that, because of the size of the region and the uneven state of research, the work presents only a "suggestive sample of the huge range of South Asian cultural practices and productions" (p. X). So the editors are aware of gaps and omissions.

This makes this encyclopedia vulnerable to criticism. Apart from the limitations referred to in the introduction, the reader may notice that some parts of South Asia do not (or hardly) feature in this book. Let me just point to Bhutan. And indeed, some topics do not occur, as is for example the case with the Kumari in Nepal.

Although the editors, in the introduction, elaborate largely on the premises of their publication, nowhere is explained what exactly is meant by the term folklore. We know from the history of the study of folklore that there are many definitions. The reader can only hope that the editors see folklore in its broadest description, as the traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practice disseminated largely through oral communication and behavioral example. 

The alphabetically arranged articles can be divided into three categories: general concept articles, case study articles and definitional articles that introduce either a non-English term or a concept as interpreted in South Asia. The general articles relate to topics that are applicable to the entire region (or to one country, e.g., Nepal) and provide an overview of this topic (e.g., Gender and Folklore, Pottery, Popular Music). Usually two or three pages long, these articles are intended to draw the reader's interest. The case study articles focus on one specific topic (e.g., Comic books in India, Jain folklore, Ramayana). The volume contains a list of articles and, at the end of the book, an index helping the reader pull together all the information related to a specific place or cultural expression.

For the scholar or interested reader keen on finding accessible information on cultural practice in South Asia this encyclopedia serves exactly what the editors hope for: introducing the cultural richness of this vast area to a general audience, while being an invitation to further research!

Patrick Vanden Berghe, independent researcher (