Storytelling in Higher Education
Special Interest Group
Pre-Conference, on July 20

at the National Storytelling Network's
National Storytelling Conference,
July 20-23, 2006, in Pittsburgh, PA

Panel, "How Do We Define Storytelling Studies
as a Discipline in Academia?"

"Questions of Discipline and Genre: Storytelling Studies,
and Subbu Arumugam's
Villupattu (Bow Song)",
Paper by Eric Miller


Storytelling can be defined as the relating of a series of events.  Thus, Storytelling Studies be defined as the study of ways of relating series of events.

As we seek to establish this new category in academia, this paper is dedicated to the question of how we compose the discipline -- that is, to the question of how, within this new category, categories are conceived.  The paper presents the case that to the extent that we identify and study various categories -- or genres -- of performance and behavior in Storytelling Studies, we should always remain aware that both the general and specific uses of the concept of genres are at times questionable.

Genres are abstract categories which may or may not precisely correspond with what storytellers are actually doing.  Storytellers, like all artists, are often combining and transforming aspects of the genres which are identifiable in their own cultures.  It is easy then to imagine the amount of miss- and non-understandings that can occur when people from outside a culture may attempt to assign the work of a person in that culture to fit into a niche in a pre-existing international (that is, Western) classification system.

To illustrate the above, this paper presents a case study: the work of Subbu Arumugam of Tamil Nadu, south India, who calls himself a Villupattu (Bow Song) artist.

Subbu Arumugam, now in his 70s, is a very famous figure in the state of Tamil Nadu, south India (population, approximately seventy million).  He has done a great deal of work on Tamil radio and television, and is by far the most visible proponent of Villupattu.

His work grows out of the "folk" performance genre, Villupattu.  The genre is named after the large bow which is used as a percussion instrument during the singing sections of the performance: wooden sticks are used to strike the string, which has bells hung from it.  A typical Villupattu troupe consists of five individuals: the primary speaker, who sits in the center; a secondary speaker, who sits on one side, and who asks questions of, makes comments to, and sometimes engages in role-playing with the primary speaker; and a singer and instrumentalists who join in during the event's musical interludes.

Villupattu's home region is in the southern portion of the state.  Subbu Arumugam and his family relocated to the big city, Chennai (formerly called Madras), many years ago.  (Chennai is located at the far northeast of Tamil Nadu; it is on the coast, facing Singapore.)

Traditional Villupattu, as portrayed beautifully by Stuart Blackburn in his Singing of Birth and Death: Texts in Performance (1988) -- is a ritual event.  The stories of local legendary individuals are told.  Many of the stories involve fierce inter-caste and/or inter-gender conflict.  At the climax of performances, the spirits of these figures are experienced to enter the bodies of people present at the storytelling event: thus, narration is invocation.  The "possessed" individuals -- who are usually not the Villupattu performers -- dance intensely rhythmically, and sometimes spasmodically, and then answer questions from individuals in the crowd. 

Subbu, however, has omitted the ritual element from his version of Villupattu -- although he continues to present Villupattu as a pious Hindu activity.  He specializes in telling pan-Indian stories (episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata), and in doing Villupattus about health messages, as sponsored by the Government of India and by numerous Non-Government Organizations.  He also occasionally accepts commissions from businesspeople and others to tell, at private functions, the stories of their families as Villupattus.

In Villupattu, the primary speaker speaks for fifteen or twenty minutes, and then there is a musical interlude -- as mentioned, accompanying instrumentalists and a singer join in during these sections.  The speaking sections are in part delivered in a type of chant, which Subbu Arumugam calls "stage-talk."  In this form of chanting, one musical note is repeated again and again throughout a line (or breath), and at the end of the line sometimes the pitch goes up or down.

As I began to learn about Subbu Arumugam (I first met him in Chennai in 1991), I discovered that it was actually the man he identifies as his guru -- N. S. Krishnan, who is more famous as a cinema comedian than as a Villupattu artist -- who was the first to transfer Villupattu from the realm of ritual to the realm of modern civic information dissemination, and instruction.  In the 1940s, as part of the effort to expel the British, N. S. Krishnan traveled about the Tamil countryside doing a Villupattu about Mahatma Gandhi, especially his march to the sea to gather salt (without paying tax to the British).

I have noticed that Subbu's speaking in performance is much different than the speech of other Villupattu performers I had heard and seen.  Subbu does much more conversational talking in his performances.  Eventually, I realized that he has brought a good deal of stage and cinema style dialogue into Villupattu.  He also offers ethical and moral observations, something that is more common in the scholarly and (Hindu) orthodox form of religious discourse known throughout India as, Harikatha (which also features a range of speaking, chanting, and singing).  And the famous, very emphatic, declamatory style of Tamil politicians also finds its way into some of Subbu's Villupattu speaking.

One thing that Subbu has attempted to do with Villupattu is that he has attempted to use it as a tool to unify India (back in the 50s and 60s, many Tamils wanted Tamil Nadu to secede from India).  This is very different from one of Villupattu's original local uses, which was to glorify individuals of certain castes (the performers' and audience members') and vilify others.

With all of these new speaking styles and this new content (aimed at new audiences, beyond the castes that originally attended and patronized Villupattu performances), is Subbu justified in continuing to call what he does Villupattu?  Some Tamil people -- especially some purist scholars -- say no.  The matter is contested.

I would now like to ask: "What genre does Villupattu fall into according to the Western classification system?"  For the moment, I would for the most part sidestep the question, "What is the value of classifying local performance traditions into internationally known genres?"  (One possible answer is that such classification makes international comparison easier.)
In the past, British scholars have categorized Villupattu as ballad-singing.  However, I submit that epic-chanting is more accurate, especially as Villupattu involves a wide range of styles of speaking, chanting, and singing.  Some of the performance is memorized, and some is improvised (perhaps even via the oral-formulaic theory of composition).

Incidentally, a feature of Villupattu is that the lead storyteller often has a set of notes before him, which he refers to in the course of the performance.  Sometimes, these notes are the property of the local temple which has hired the Villupattu artist to come and tell the story of the local divine figure at the time of the divine figure's annual festival.  This practice would seem to present an exception to the sharp split between orality and literacy as proposed by scholars such as Walter Ong.

It may be helpful, at this point, to give a definition of epic-chanting:  Epic-chanting has been defined as the telling -- in stylized, heightened, melodic, and/or rhythmic speech -- of long stories.  These stories, epics, are thought of as being about a figure who in some way represents his/her people.  Epics may be about the founding of a nation, institution, and/or social practices.  They are encyclopedic, with the hero/ine moving through numerous levels of society, and various environments.

In the West, many people tend to think of an epic-chanter as a lone performer accompanying him/herself on a stringed instrument, as in the case of Homer.  However, throughout Africa and Asia, where most of the world's surviving traditions that are identified as epic-chanting exist, the lead performer is often accompanied by a troupe, and performance culminating in "possession" seems to be quite common.

Finally, one might ask: "Why does Subbu cling so enthusiastically to identifying his art as being Villupattu?"  For what gives his art its uniqueness is his very individual style of comedic acting, and scene composition -- much of which, as mentioned, he has absorbed from the realms of Tamil stage and cinema dialogue, and political oratory.

When Subbu Arumugam's art is such a unique hybrid even within his own culture, it strikes me as somewhat unreal to categorize it according to an international classification system.  The same may be true for the work of many storytellers around the world.  Thus, again, I would propose a very broad and flexible definition of Storytelling Studies -- the study of ways of relating series of events -- so that that all such hybrid and ever-changing forms can comfortably be studied within it.