“A Folklorist’s Report from Tamil Nadu, South India:
Fieldwork, Public Folklore,
Commercial Folklore-related Projects,

and Teaching Folklore”
(Updated, August 2011)

by Eric Miller, PhD

Dear USA Folklorists,

Greetings!  I have written the following in part to let those of you who know me know that I have not fallen off the face of the earth.  I would also like to invite each and all of you to visit me here on India’s southeast coast (both in-the-flesh, and via videoconference), and possiby to collaborate. 

In looking over my notes, I see that one point I would like to make is that commercial folklore-related entertainment and education projects can have value -- including for members of the community from which the folklore springs.  Another of my points is that folk activities can occur via electronic communication.

In Chennai, I have taught about Story and Storytelling at a number of colleges; I am a Storytelling and Educational Folklore consultant to numerous schools and play centres; and I lead Storytelling Workshops in various contexts.

A native New Yorker and a PhD graduate of Penn Folklore, I have settled in Chennai.  I am married to a Chennai native (Magdalene Jeyarathnam, director of Chennai’s Center for Counselling), and we have a three-year-old daughter.  My dissertation focused on children’s singing-games, and I also study other verbal arts such as men’s rowing chants, women’s lament chants, the telling of folktales, and the chanting of epics.  I have co-founded the World Storytelling Institute in Chennai.  I continue to work towards full fluency in Tamil; my dissertation produced traditional-play-derived language-practice exercises (p. 393-411) including for my own use.  Of course, south India is also a very interesting place in which to learn from local scholars about their perspectives and methods.

This essay consists of notes about (all in Tamil Nadu): 1) My general approach to Folklore work, 2) My doctoral fieldwork in the mountains with members of the Kani tribal people, 3) The Kannagi Story and Storytelling Tour, and 4) Activities in Chennai.

1) My general approach to Folklore work

Being a Penn folklorist (especially having been trained by Roger Abrahams and Dan Ben-Amos), I am imbued with the performance-centered approach to folklore -- which I also apply to folkloric activities conducted via interactive telecommunication, especially videoconferencing.

Fieldwork and public presentation are to me parts of a single activity.  Fieldwork often includes giving technological and other folklore-collection-and-presentation training to interested community members.  Public presentation often includes facilitating interaction between local members of the community, and members of the community in diaspora -- in part for the sake of facilitating the organic development and connectedness of the community, and of the larger society.  Of course, to do all of this well, members of the community and a folklorist need to work in the spirit of collaboration and partnership. 

Public presentation of folklore is in part about engineering society, bringing together members of various groups.  This may involve enabling people who are economically poor to tell stories to people who are more wealthy.  There may be resentment and jealousy by the poor; and fear and disgust by the more wealthy.  Helping people to overcome such divisive sentiments through love of language, art, and culture is a task of the folklorist.  An ethnographer can be a mediator, a conflict-resolution facilitator, between all of the parties involved, including members of the folk community, government officials, and members of the general public.

While more upper-class Tamil people may to some degree wish to keep their distance from sea-fishing and tribal people, they also have to acknowledge that much traditional Tamil culture, especially verbal arts, is being kept alive by such groups -- and for this reason, respect and appreciation is given to the local communities.  This relates to the globally-popular discourse about the sincerity of small-village life, as opposed to the urban rat-race.

It might be useful to reconsider the distinction between “non-profit” and “commercial” presentation of folklore.  (By the way, in India the term, “non-profit organization” is not generally known or used: the equivalent term here is, a “non-government organization,” an NGO.)  Are the goals of these two types of presentation of folklore -- by NGOs and commercial ventures -- necessarily different?  Is folklore work in a “non-profit” setting necessarily more lofty, producing presentations that are more authentic?  Or, might the distinction between these two types of folklore presentation at times just be a technicality?  Presentation in a “for profit” context might give more license to change the folklore, but this need not be the case.  For example, when communicating with members of folk communities -- and developing processes by which people could visit them ("cultural tourism") -- is it really possible and useful to distinguish between developing this process in a “non-profit” or a “for profit” way?  In either case, money is ideally going to come in and be used by community members for their livelihood. 

Members of folk communities here often have little inkling that their traditional culture might be of interest to anyone, or of any value of any sort -- they often seem to think that their traditional culture is just backward, ignorant, illiterate, dirty, and poor.  Making some money from their traditional culture alerts people to the value of that culture.  People need to make at least parts of their livelihood from their culture, in order for them to respect and nurture that culture.

In my experience to date, the distinction between “non-profit” and “for profit” public presentation of folklore has been rather meaningless.  Whenever I have helped to facilitate a folklore-related presentation event, I have spent a small amount of money in the process.  People in India tend to think of such activity as “doing social service” (helping poor people), no matter how much one might explain that one’s goals include collaborating on an arts-related project, and entertaining and educating the public.

2) My doctoral fieldwork in the mountains with members of the Kani tribal people

In my doctoral fieldwork with members of the Kani tribal people in Tamil Nadu’s western mountains, my research assistant was a young man named Velmurugan.  Long before I appeared in Vellambi (a village beside a sizeable forest), Velmurugan had an interest in electronic communication technology.  A large satellite dish was on the roof of his house, and he had run cable TV lines to homes in the village.

When doing fieldwork, the people I tend to attract as research assistants are young people who are interested in communication technology, and in communicating with the world beyond the local community.  These individuals can be conduits to the seniors in the community who really know the old culture.

These young people should be in office and management positions in relation to public presentation of their community’s folklore.  In order for this to happen, they need to be able to read and write (in the more languages, the better), for despite the increasing multimedia-ness of communication technology, offices tend to still be run by people who can read and write well.

Documentation and presentation of local culture should be done both for locals and visitors.  For children of local communities, after-school programs about the traditional culture need to be developed.  Visits to the forest and other natural environments, where traditional culture in relation to that nature can be explained and demonstrated, can be parts of the program.

In India, one can still come up against the argument that giving communication technology training to members of folk and tribal communities might damage the traditional culture one has come to study.  But it seems to me that refusing to give such training would make about as much sense as refusing to help people learn to read and write (another technology of the visiting ethnographer).  Moreover, at this point, even tribal people living in forest areas are awash in electronic media (especially FM radio, and TV).  This is largely one-way (receiving) mass-media technology -- geared to producing consumers (of information and products).  So really what the ethnographer could introduce is electronic technology training that might enable local people to record and transmit their own culture, and offer training regarding how to use the technology in this way.  I am wondering how this could be damaging to local cultures.  Rather, this seems to me to be a way for local cultures to survive and develop.  That which does not get documented, and does not enter the realm of digital communication, may disappear.  Enabling community members to use this technology helps to empower them and increase their ability to speak and be heard in public spheres.

For the first six months of my fieldwork in Vellambi (a village in a forest area), I brought no electronic technology at all.  After I did bring a video camera and projector, some people in the village wanted to use this equipment in relation to their troupe that dances to recordings of cinema songs (including break dance, and other Michael Jackson-inspired dance moves).  I tried to insist that the equipment should only be used for recording and displaying traditional tribal culture, but in some cases I was overruled.

With the advent of mobile phones that are capable of video recording -- and videoconferencing -- the issue of folklorists putting equipment into peoples’ hands is to some degree becoming moot.  Rather, now the issue might be more about the folklorist possibly suggesting ways to use the equipment.

3) The Places of Kannagi Storytelling Tour

In Tamil Nadu there is an ancient story that connects the State’s coast and its interior mountain forests -- the Epic of the Anklet (Silappathikaram).  Twenty-three years ago (1988) I walked the first half of the path taken by the Kannagi, the heroine of the story; and I completed the walk seven years ago (a total of approximately 400 miles).  This year for the first time, I took others along this route, via air-conditioned bus.  There is a Tour blog, and a documentary movie about the 2010 Tour (no English subtitles yet). 

The Epic of the Anklet is about a woman who goes to the king to get justice.  I have told Kannagi’s story briefly in an article published in a leading English-language daily Indian newspaper, on the occasion of a statue of her being re-installed along Marina Beach; and in fuller detail, in my booklet about my walk in Kannagi’s footsteps.  In short:  In Madurai (the central city of southern Tamil Nadu), Kannagi’s husband was inaccurately accused of stealing the Queen’s anklet.  The King did not conduct a full investigation: rather, he hastily punished Kannagi’s husband, by putting him to death.  Kannagi found her husband’s lifeless body in the street, could not revive him, and went to the King.  She proved to the King that her husband had been innocent, whereupon the King took his own life, the city burned due to Kannagi’s curse, and Kannagi -- accompanied by some of the city’s good people -- proceeded to the Western mountains, where she started a new tribe.

Incidentally, a prominent story of the Kani tribal people, the Youngest Brother Story, tells of a wife who does bring her husband back to life, with the help of a snake and a mongoose who gather, prepare, and apply some plant medicine to the husband’s body.

Kannagi is a unifying figure of Tamil culture, as she interacted with people from various levels of society, and passed through each of Tamil Nadu’s traditional five geo-cultural areas: 1) the coast, 2) agricultural areas, 3) pasture areas, 4) barren areas, and 5) mountain forests. 

Each eco-cultural zone corresponds to a flower, time of day and year, and the stages of a love-relationship.  For examples:  The seashore is the place of separation and longing.  The mountains is the place of ecstatic union.  The geographical rhythm of life in Tamil Nadu is from the eastern sea-coast, to the western mountains.

Story Tours involve visiting the geographical locations and communities at which episodes of a story took place.  Storytelling Tours involve visiting places, listening to people telling stories in those places, and learning how to tell stories in local styles.

The Places of Kannagi Storytelling Tour has been conceived of as an annual two-week pilgrimage, and also as an experience that is available year-round, as individuals along the way are being trained as storytelling tour-guides (providing translation when necessary).  The WSI is coordinating with scholars who have been engaged in a state-wide folktale-collection project -- and with the storytellers with whom these scholars have been working, as the Tour involves listening to, and learning how to tell, other stories in addition to the Epic of the Anklet.

The Places of Kannagi Storytelling Tour is an instance of eco-tourism, because the stories that are told enroute relate to the local nature.  In this way, members of the public are educated and entertained about Tamil Nadu’s natural environments; and it becomes clear that culture and nature are often intertwined and mutually-supportive.  This Tour is an instance of Language-, Cultural-, Heritage-, Eco-, Story-, and Storytelling Tourism.  Such tours are a light version of ethnographic fieldwork with participant observation.

I would like to help develop a theme park with tribal people in Tamil Nadu’s western mountains.  This would be an end-point for the Places of Kannagi Storytelling Tour.

4) Activities in Chennai

A starting point for the Places of Kannagi Storytelling Tour in Tamil Nadu could be, in Chennai, a Theme Park, or Living Museum, relating to the heritage of traditional sea-fishing and sea-travel.  Kannagi’s story officially begins further down the coast -- in a city that, legend has it, has been swallowed by the sea -- but Chennai is the gateway to the South, and to the story of Kannagi.

Some years ago, I visited the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in Cairns, on the northeast coast of Australia.  There I saw how a luxury bus goes to major hotels of the city each afternoon, picks up visitors, and takes them to the venue.  Here people see a show, and can visit a gift shop and a restaurant, before taking the bus back to their hotels.

I would like us to have a similar facility here in Chennai, just south of the main beach.  Chennai is very unusual in that traditional fishing activity is still very much going on, both beside and throughout (at the water’s edge) the huge Marina Beach, one of the largest beaches adjacent to a major city in the world.  However, “development” is generally meaning that people who make little money are being shifted to living areas far away from the center of the city.

Chennai faces eastward toward Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia -- and beyond to the South Pacific Ocean.  There are people with numerous common cultural and racial characteristics in these places, and a Living Museum on Chennai’s seashore could give an excellent sense of the region.

South India, and Chennai in particular, are booming.  The global recession is a minor issue here.  Chennai’s coastal strip from Marina Beach southward is soon to be re-built, possibly including an elevated highway.  As part of this development, the idea of a Living Museum about the heritage of traditional sea-fishing and sea-travel is being promoted.  This would be a museum displaying objects that are still in everyday use, with people of the community among those working on the project, including as tour-guides and translators.

This Living Museum could feature weekly or daily performances of the Sea Story, which has been developed by members of the community, and myself and other outsiders.  The Sea Story is a 35-minute drama with four types of folksongs.  It has been performed numerous times, with a mixed cast (community members and others), in the community and elsewhere around town. 

The Sea Story’s plot is:  A mother and father put their child to sleep (the mother sings a Tamil lullaby).  In the middle of the night, the father and some other men go out to sea in a kuttumaram (a raft made of “tied-together trees”).  The men perform a call-and-response chant as they paddle.  A storm comes, and the father is swept overboard.  The other men cannot find him, and return to land.  Women on shore go into oppari (lament) -- but the man returns, explaining that he was saved by a large sea-turtle.  Some women lead in the singing of a celebratory song

This production seems to mark the first time that local lament specialists (a team of four senior women who work as professional leaders of public lament) have been hired to present lament on a stage, in a dramatic setting.  In its natural context, lament is a serious ritual.  The lady practitioners beat their chests as they chant.  Along with uncontrollable expressions of grief, spirit possession may occur.  A good deal of discussion was required regarding how lament might be presented in the Sea Story.  It was decided that this behavior, in dramatic performance, should be toned down.

Other features of the Living Museum could include:

Storytelling by the Sea -- This idea was inspired by the Saturday morning storytelling sessions over the past 40 years at the Hans Christian Anderson statue beside the model-sailboat pond in New York City’s Central Park.  A challenging difference in Chennai is that here there is a tremendous gulf between the economically-poor fishing people (speaking a slang version of Tamil), middle-class people (speaking more formal Tamil), and the elite (speaking English, and various Indian languages).

Members of the community have recalled and developed a number of folktales relating to the sea that they tell at the storytelling events that have occurred so far.  A way of presenting storytelling that I have developed is:  Elders in the community tell to youngsters in the community: outsiders can be in the periphery, watching these relationships.  As tellers speak in Tamil, someone types it in English and this appears on a large screen beside the stage.

Videoconferencing -- This would enable schoolchildren and others from around the world to make “virtual field-trips” to the Living Museum.  Videoconferencing permits community members to speak for themselves and, literally, to frame themselves.  When schoolchildren meet each other in videoconferences, no money is involved.  However, when lessons are given -- by people at museums, aquariums, and such -- fees often are paid.  A mix of experiential knowledge (storytelling), and scientific knowledge, could be presented.  This could be a form of employment for people in the sea-fishing community.

A Gift Shop -- This could feature books; photographs and paintings; and texts of songs, stories, expressions, and proverbs -- all relating to the sea.  Audio and video recordings could also be available.

A Cafe.

Regarding this Living Museum idea in general: Beginning with the study of folklore (especially aspects of language and verbal arts), I often find myself led to issues relating to preservation of the natural environment, and housing and land issues.  The question arises: to what extent does a government have a responsibility to help members of a community to continue to live where their ancestors have lived for centuries?  My sense is that if members of a traditional community can make a valuable contribution to the public sphere, to the cultural and commercial life of a city, this can help their request for government support.

Another folklorist in Chennai is Dr. MD Muthukumaraswamy, Director of India’s National Folklore Support Centre.  The NFSC is helping to develop multimedia community cultural resource centers in six locations in India. 

The NFSC is funded in part by the Ford Foundation.  Twenty years ago, the Ford Foundation was facilitating a great deal of interaction between USA folklorists and south Indian folklorists, helping to fund, for example, academic folklore work at Xavier’s College (near Tirunelveli), and Madurai Kamaraj University (near Madurai).  Many more folklore scholars are in the Folklore Society of South Indian Languages, FOSSILS (!). 

In Chennai we have an annual Folk Performing Arts Festival called Chennai Sangamam.  I have recommended the Smithsonian Folklife festival as a model that Chennai Sangamam might follow, especially regarding the presentation of individuals, crafts, genres of performance, and stories representing specific localities. This year (Jan 2011) I provided storytellers for four storytelling sessions in Chennai Sangamam: links to photos and a video recording of these sessions -- and my writings about the Festival over the past three years -- are here.

Chennai Sangamam may in the future involve inviting storytellers from the countryside.  The other 51 weeks of the year, people from Chennai could visit the storytellers.  These storytellers could train members of the public in storytelling, as well as perform for them.

I draw inspiration from Nirantar, an organization which conducts ethnographic fieldwork research, and applies it to literacy training.  Nirantar, based in New Delhi, sends fieldworkers to visit with members of rural communities, to find out how people talk, and what they talk about -- and then uses this data to design local literacy-training programs.

There is a long tradition here in south India of cinema music directors using elements of folk music in cinema soundtracks.  “World music” and “fusion music” similarly borrow from folk music.  Tamil rap often incorporates numerous kinds of stylized traditional Tamil ways-of-speaking.

For myself, and many college students I have taught in Chennai: Dreamworks’ movie, “Kung Fu Panda,” opened our eyes about how Asian culture could be packaged into global entertainment.  In addition to taking college students on field-visits to meet members of traditional communities, I have students research and write ethnographic essays on local communities.  Some students have researched professional communities such as auto-rickshaw drivers; and independent garbage collectors, known as rag pickers.  I stress the responsibilities an ethnographer has to one’s informants -- whether this may take the form of paying informants, formally acknowledging their contributions, developing projects in partnership with them, or in other ways.

Sometimes I have students study their own and others’ castes.  College students in India tend to want to avoid discussion of their castes, so as to avoid hurt feelings that such discussion can generate.  As a folklorist, I naturally see castes as treasure troves of folklore -- traditional and conventional ways of doing, making, and expressing things, often related to professions and geographical areas.  Castes are extended kinship groups, and vocational guilds.  The importance of caste is diminishing to some extent, but it is still very strong.  The main problem with castes occurs when one group claims it is better (higher, cleaner, purer, etc) than another, but this aspect can be avoided to some degree.

I have found that many college students in Chennai want to play -- and design -- computer-video games that they can play through social networks (such as Facebook) on their mobile telephones.  G. Muthu, a member of one of Chennai's fishing communites, is very keen on managing a video game center, possibly as part of the imagined Living Museum: I have been encouraging him to think in terms of us developing video games relating to the sea.  I have also been encouraging students and faculty at Chennai colleges I have worked at to participate in this design process.

In the world today, there often seems to be a blurring of the distinctions between museums and theme parks; between education and entertainment; and between non-profit and business-based cultural projects.  One way that the presentation of folklore -- traditions, conventions, and heritage -- can be developed is in a business context, as educational entertainment with audience-participation.  And this can be done both for those who might be physically-present, and for those who might participate via interactive telecommunication such as videoconferencing.

Dr. Eric Miller
Director, World Storytelling Institute (Chennai)