Cultures of the indigenous: India and beyond

Srivastava, Prem Kumari & Chawla, Gitanjali (Eds.) (2014). Cultures of the indigenous: India and beyond. New Delhi: Authors Press. (257 pages)

ISBN 978-81-7273-923-2 (Hard Cover)

The greatest challenge of projects such as Cultures of the Indigenous: India and Beyond is to disentangle the submerged indigenous from the dominant non-indigenous, and the local from the “glocal”, without losing sight of the particularities of the cultural/spatial registers in question. Such particularities are consequent upon the diverse ways in which cultural artefacts interact with market, milieu and politics. The fourteen essays included in this volume edited by Prem Kumari Srivastava and Gitanjali Chawla succinctly represent the possibilities and challenges of such ventures. These essays explore the binary between, on the one hand, presumably pristine folk cultures, and, on the other hand, non-indigenous dominant cultures which get hybridized on account of their anxiety to absorb the indigenous. Samuel Dani’s essay on Dombaja—the folk music of the Doms from Western Odissa—illustrates how the upper caste residents of Bhalapada appropriate the untouchable quarters of Dompada by extending a ritualized patronage to Dombaja. Entitled “Dombaja: De-territorializing Dalit folk music in multiple contexts”, the essay suggests that Dombaja’s capacity to be the inspired tune of protest against the stifling caste discriminations gets neutralized as the folk performance unfolds within the superstructure of feudalism and the logic of the caste-ridden society. Sutapa Dutta’s essay from this collection explores the ways in which commerce of the exotic in the globalized world has turned the divine madness of the Baul performer and his stoic dispassion from the world into a profitable commodity.

The task cut out for the contributors to this volume, therefore, is to suggest strategies of recuperation and attempt a few rescues and coups too, in the process. Equally important for them is to be cognizant of the fact that a narrative of recovery is not universally a narrative of rebellion against the oppressive hegemon. In certain cases, the story is one of cross-pollination. The American anthropologist Robert Redfield in Peasant Society and Culture (1956) proposes a continuum between the folk and the secular, rather than an essential schism between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Nearly a fourth of the essays included in this volume explore, in different cultural contexts, the possibilities of this continuum and problematize the exclusivity of the indigenous from the modern. Anjali Gera Roy’s essay on the modern “mutations” of Bhangra explains the way in which this art form has benefitted from “techno-determinism.” Most importantly, technology-aided performance and reproduction through the internet has accorded a degree of visibility to the indigenous which it was hitherto deprived of. Nina Sabnani’s essay discusses the ways in which it has now become possible to represent non-verbal texts and ethnographies using animations. 

This neo avant-garde enterprise, as Shrivastava and Chawla argue in the introduction to the volume, demands that conventional rules for engagement with the subaltern should be expanded. For Jawaharlal Handoo, as he points out in his conceptual essay on the marginalization of folklore, this amounts to inclusion of those elements of the indigenous which are elided in traditional ethnographies—the magical and the unreal. This volume is significant in that it not only opens up several theoretical and methodological interventions in the studies of the indigenous, butit also demonstrates ways in which alternative historiographies could deploy these mediations. A good illustration of the latter is Ruchi Kumar’s essay entitled “The Bhils of Rajasthan: Knowing the Intangible through the Tangible.” Ramesha Jayaneththi makes a similar attempt at constructing an alternative historiography of the Rodiyas of Sri Lanka.

Must we construe realist narratives out of the supernatural/legendary accounts, is a question that needs to be asked. In the 1962 classic Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, James Stewart plays a senator whose exploits, although falsely attributed to him, gave hope to the residents of a small town in the Wild West. Years later, when he confesses the truth of his legendary feat to a journalist, the journalist refuses to publish it saying “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Ronald Trickland’s essay in the volume speculates on the paradoxical results which such experiments can precipitate. Such reflexivity, in addition to methodological and theoretical questions raised in this volume, makes it an important read for students and scholars of folklore studies.

Gautam Choubey teaches  English at ARSD College, University of Delhi. He is interested in print cultures, public sphere, Gandhi and Indian Literature.