Bengali Folktales in English Translation

'spurious additions': Lal Behari Day and the Discovery of the Genuine Folk

by Rangeet Sengupta

Day's omissions make us ponder - what's so unfolk about the colonial experience after all? Why does a collection of folktales from the late nineteenth century consciously evade references to the one hundred and twenty five years of colonial legacy? How can a late-Victorian collection of folktales of Bengal (which was in many ways the heart of the Empire in India) never breathe a word about its colonial present and past?


In the Preface to his Folktales of Bengal (1883), the first collection of Bangla [1] folktales to be compiled and published as a book, Rev. Lal Behari Day (1824-1894) asserted:

I heard many more stories than those contained in the following pages; but I rejected a great many, as they appeared to me to contain spurious additions to the original stories which I had heard when a boy. I have reason to believe that the stories given in this book are a genuine sample of the old old stories told by old Bengali women from age to age through a hundred generations. [2]

This confession about his ellipses from one of the most intriguing figures of the 19th century bhadraloki Renaissance is startling in its frank honesty. It makes us inquisitive about those “many more” oral narratives that failed to share a place of glory in the Bangla literary Canon along with the Dalimkumars, Phakir Chands and Prince Soburs whom Day had immortalised in his collection. Why did those other narratives fail to be conceived of as “genuine”? What was the nature of the “spurious additions” that Day had detected in them? How does one decide upon the spuriousness of a folktale?

A cursory glance at Day’s collection would give us an idea of what Day is hinting at. Apparently his Raja, with his queens Duo and Suo, lived in a world untouched by the Company and the Raj. The two thieves, unnerved by their ill fame, “resolved to support themselves by honest labour” and chanced upon a jar “full of gold mohurs” (‘The Adventure of Two Thieves and of Their Sons: Part I’). A certain laird offers hundred bighas of “rent-free land” to a starving Brahman if he can cut a branch from a banyan tree haunted by a Brahmadaitya (‘The Story of a Brahmadaitya’).

While many of these stories do evoke references to socio-economic realities, the world that they refer to seems to be distinctly Sultanate and Nawabi Bengal (the mohurs, the “rent-free” jaigir...). While explicit references to the Islamic myths are absent (we do not come across the djinns in any of the tales), we do come across Faquirs who occasionally visit Duo and Suo queens to supply nostrums for curing their barrenness (‘Life’s Secret’). There are also stray allusions to early European encounters, but these are decidedly ante-Raj in their connotations. For example, in ‘The Story of Swet-Basanta’, a certain merchant’s son falls in love with an infant girl who comes out of an egg, accidentally deposited in the wall-almirah (almirah - from Portuguese. armário).

What we do not come across are the Sahibs, the Chhoto-lats, the Boxwallas, the Banyas, the Sepoys, the Jemadars and the rest of the Imperial fare. Day’s omissions make us ponder – what’s so unfolk about the colonial experience after all? Why does a collection of folktales from the late nineteenth century consciously evade references to the one hundred and twenty five years of colonial legacy? How can a late-Victorian collection of folktales of Bengal (which was in many ways the heart of the Empire in India) never breathe a word about its colonial present and past?

Day offers us other clues. He validates his work in the Preface by informing us that it was Richard Carnac Temple, the British military and civil officer and famed folklorist, who had initially presented before him the idea of compiling the folktales from Bengal - remarking “how interesting it would be to get a collection of those unwritten tales that old women in India recite to little children in the evenings.” [3] Richard Carnac Temple (1850-1931) was one of the distinguished “administrator-scholar[s]” of the Raj. Born in India, he was the son of a civil servant himself. After graduating in Anthropology from Cambridge, Temple returned to India in 1871 as a soldier. Proving his valour in the Afghan wars of 1878-79, Temple went on to become the Cantonment Magistrate of Ambala in Punjab. In 1883 (the year in which Folktales of Bengal was published), he had founded the periodical Punjab Notes and Queries - a “miscellany”, which reflected his antiquarian interests. He was busy collecting ballads, stories, and folk-legends for his book on the legends of Punjab, the first volume of which would be published in the very next year [4]. He was also providing scholarly assistance to Flora Anne Steel, the wife of a British civil servant, whose collection of tales of Punjab and Kashmir would also be published in the following year [5]. He would also be the co-editor of Indian Antiquary in 1884. Both Temple (the administrator-scholar) and Day (the Baptist-evangelist and educationalist) were indulging themselves in digging out folk narratives from two distant corners of the Empire in India. By doing so, they were participating in a wider colonial endeavour to discover the folk-narratives – an endeavour that had recently gained considerable popularity. To comprehend the causes for Lal Behari Day’s omissions we have to take a closer look at the genesis of this Imperial game.

In 1868, Mary Frere published the Old Deccan Days, or Hindoo Fairy Legends Current in Southern India. Frere was the young daughter of Sir Bartle Edward Frere - the Governor of Bombay and one of the most accomplished Victorian statesmen of his age. Mary was once overcome by boredom and coaxed her ayah, Anna Liberata de Souza, to tell her those stories which the ayah told to her own children and grandchildren to “amuse them sometimes” [6]. Anna Liberata was a Catholic convert from a Lingayat family of Deccan. Mary would take notes as Anna sat cross-legged and narrated her tales. These would eventually be shaped into the book, the first colonial compilation of “Indian” folktales. Mary would contact Max Müller (1823-1900) while working on the text – an act which reveals that she had been conscious about the importance of the collection. Max Müller, on his part gladly pointed out to a “Sanskrit original” for one of Anna’s tales. This would help us to relate Mary’s work to the intricate web of 19th century Indological research, scholarship and theorising [7].

From 1872, G. H. Damant started serialising his Bengali Folktales from Dinajpur in the Indian Antiquary. In the first part itself, he narrated a familiar Duo-Suo story with the Duo Rani’s lame son eventually succeeding in restoring his father’s eyesight, while Suo’s sons failed in the attempt (a story which closely parallels ‘Kalavati’ in Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar’s Thakumar Jhuli) [8]. In 1879, Malve S. H. Stokes – another young Englishwoman, published Indian Fairy Tales. Stokes’ collection was drawn from her two ayahs in Calcutta and Simla, from a manservant and from her mother’s retelling of tales told to her by another ayah. Stokes’ father was the celebrated Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes, who prepared an index of folkloristic themes for her book [9]. Thomas William Rhys-David’s Buddhist Birth Stories came out in 1880, a translation of the Jataka (echoing Max Müller’s earlier interest and eventual translation of the Hitopodesa).

Following the trail of Day’s compilation, a host of other folklore compilations cropped up from various parts of India. Rev. Charles Swynnerton published The Adventures of the Panjab Hero Raja Rasalu and Other Folk Tales of the Panjab in 1884 from Kolkata. Rev. J. Hinton Knowles’ A Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs and Sayings and Sir George Grierson’s A Bihar Peasant Life came out in 1885. In 1886 were published Temple’s A Dictionary of Hindustani Proverbs and Knowles’ Folktales of Kashmir. The tales of South India were collected by Mrs. Georgiana Kingscote, with the assistance of the erudite scholar Natesa Shastri in Tales of the Sun or Folklore of Southern India (1890). Campbell brought out the Santal Folk Tales in 1891 in which, among others stories, he compiled the popular Santal story of ‘Seven Brothers and their Sister’ (pp. 106-110) – a story which later entered the popular Bengali literary Canon through Dakshinaranjan’s rendition of it in the Thakumar Jhuli [10]. Swynnerton’s Indian Night Entertainments (1892) was next in print. In 1894, William Crooke published his influential An Introduction to the Popular Religion and Folklore of India – collaborating with Pandit Ram Gharib Chaube who, however, remained largely unknown [11]. Crooke wrote and edited several other books, most notably The Talking Thrush, and Other Tales from India in 1899, Folktales from the Indus Valley (ed. by Crooke, gathered by major F. McNair and Thomas L. Barlow) in 1902 and Things Indian in 1906. This list may be extended to the 1928 publication of Aurel Stein’s Hatim Tales, Kashmiri Stories and Songs to which Crooke prefaced a learned commentary (‘On the Antiquities in the Stories’).

The “colonial folklorists” shared a certain uneasiness about the complex procedure of narration and translation that gave shape to their material. The very fact that they were collecting folklore made them perceive the essential difference in their vocation from that of the Orientalists and Indologists. Max Müller could well study Sanskrit in France (from Eugène Burnouf) or study his texts in the East India Company collection in London. Monier Williams (1819-1899) could, without affecting his philological quest, spend his time teaching at Haileybury and Oxford. But for folklorists like Damant, Crooke and Temple such an academic life was implausible, as it did not suit either their career as “busy Indian official[s]” (as Temple described himself) or their folkloristic pursuits. They had to be in contact with the narrators - a murky ill-defined swarm of balladists and rural bards from whom they “extracted” their stories.

These narrators were essential for the tales to take shape, yet, for them the “administrator-scholar[s]” expressed a certain degree of repugnance and disgust. As Temple goes on to elaborate in the Preface to his Legends, “[M]any as the vices and faults of these people are . . . [t]he bhât, the mârâsî, the bharâîn, the jogí, the faqîr and all of that ilk are in truth but a sorry set of drunkards as a rule – tobacco, opium and a little food sufficing for their daily wants, and I have found out that a small payment, say one or two rupees for each separate song, and their keep in food and an abundance of their favourite drugs while employed, has amply satisfied them, and in some cases have been inducement sufficient to send other of their brethren to me." [12] Temple’s expertise in extracting stories from these bards was a part of the larger colonial game - a discourse of extraction and control. Temple often employs images that would blur the boundaries between his role as an administrator and his vocation as a scholar. His “catching of bards” was rooted in a Foucauldian disciplining through Knowledge. His was the irrevocable voice that could stamp any balladist as “a most disreputable rascal”. [13] It was he who would decidedly ascertain that the bards were “always very ignorant and often stupid to boot.” [14] It was for him to reap the harvest, he was the bard-catcher:

If you know how to recognize them when you see them, and catch them when you have lighted on them, you will find bards still wandering over the countryside by the score, so the harvest to be gathered is a very large one. [15]

The ambivalence of Temple’s position can be easily comprehended if we glance at the actual process of his extraction of the bardic tales. The songs and tales were rendered to Temple’s munshi Chaina Mal in Punjabi and were noted down by the munshi in Persian. This initial note was then “corrected and explained by the bard, his explanations being marginally noted”. It was then this Persian version was transliterated by Temple in the Roman script and subsequently translated to English. This translation was then revised by Temple in consultation with the munshi. It is evident from this complex gaming in various different languages that Temple’s stance of the all-knowing bard-catcher was at the best, illusive. The bards would have known very little Persian – which was primarily the language of Mughal court elites. Temple, on his part, seems to be not overly familiar with Punjabi. Chaina Mal’s proficiency in both Punjabi and English seems to be a matter of speculation. He stands as the mysterious middleman in this entire colonial game. This intricate linguistic exchange was hence pervaded by a sense of miscomprehension and doubt, an incessant latent fear of slippage and chaos. This in many ways reflects the pervasive ambivalence in anthropological narratives born out of colonial encounters [16]. Rev. Lal Behari Day’s omissions become a bit clearer as we comprehend the larger context in which his text was necessarily embedded.

The informants often refused to submit to the gaze of our administrator-scholars. This fact was often left unrecognised by the folklorists themselves who self-consciously, or unknowingly, affirmed their gaze to be omniscient. In ‘Colonial Histories and Native Informants’, Nicholas B. Dirks tells us about the resistance of people giving information on social customs to Colin Mackenzie and his assistants in various parts of South India in 1820-1821:

Knowledge was never imparted without suspicion and the direct invocation of some British authority. When British authority was not absolute . . . there were frequent difficulties . . . [17]

The informants often intentionally misinformed the researcher. Often they feared that the researcher worked “with an intention of exposing the secrets” of their way of life. This mutual mistrust, this mutual act of evasion, omission, gaming, deception – gave rise to the complex colonial discourse(s) that cannot be comprehended merely by a Saidian vision of unilateral hegemony [18]. Sadhana Naithani exposes this inherent ambiguity, this essentially mutual re-framing, in her study of Temple:

What was the response of the folktale narrators to Temple's invitations/ commands? Was it the collector's choice that only stories of saints and mythical heroes were recorded, or is there a possibility of a judicious narration on the part of the narrator and of silent censorship on the part of the munshis? [19]

We realise that answers to these questions are unknown, and also inherently unknowable. Many writers were rewriting each other through the folklorist’s pen.

Discourses were indulged in by both the colonised and the colonisers – each redefining the Other by its own unique experience/s. Besides, these groups were not producing monolithic tonal music – there was plenty of heterogeneous polyphony within these groups too. Folklore in the late nineteenth century India, especially in the Bengali society, evidently reflected this polyphony. Evidently, both the sahib and the native were colonised by each other - both were re-encrypted and reshaped. Yet, the colonial narratives often tried (and mostly failed) to suppress these voice(s) of ambiguity.

The ideals upheld by the Folklore Society (established in London in 1878) were of enlightened parochialism. Its journal Folklore voiced the late nineteenth century ideals of disciplining through Knowledge. Edward W. Brabooke’s article in Folklore XII (1901) and Charlotte Burne’s The Handbook of Folklore (1914) reaffirmed the “empire theory” of folklore, voiced by E. S. Hartland in his Presidential Address in 1900. Hartland emphasised the “practical advantages for the governors, district officers and judges of an enlightened mother-country in learning through folklore about the cultures of the native people under their dominions”. [20] Temple does not delude himself about the reason for amassing his collection. For him, this “will enhance our influence over the natives and render our intercourse with them more easy and interesting.” [21] He was the distinguished Victorian who would subsequently give lectures on Anthropology in Cambridge in 1904. Temple surely affirmed to his “White Man’s Burden”. By collecting his book of Bangla folktales as a response to Temple’s request, Day acknowledged his own position in the colonial paradigmatic discourse of control.

Yet, the recognition of this should not make us conjure a historia of unilateral subjugation. Rev. Lal Behari Day, in many ways, personifies the complexities of the cultural trade that colonialism necessarily brought about. He was born in a Hindu family at Talpur in Burdwan on 18th December 1824. His father, a businessman-moneylender in Kolkata, was a devoted Vaishnav. Lal Behari was admitted to the General Assembly Institution in 1834, where he fared exceptionally well in his studies. Rev. Alexander Duff (1806-1878), the first overseas missionary of the Church of Scotland in India, was the founder-Principal of the Institution. Duff had landed up in India in 1830. He believed that rational education was one of the surest ways of making Indians receptive to the Word, and hence worked for the spread of British Education. He opened his institution in Feringhi Kamal Bose's house located at upper Chitpur Road in Calcutta. In 1836, the institution was moved to Gorachad Basak's house in Garanhata. It was Duff who had influenced and encouraged Lal Behari’s growing sympathies for Christianity and had eventually effected his conversion in July 1843. That was year of the Disruption and Lal Behari, though initially admitted into the Established Church, spent most of his life working for the Free Church of Scotland. Duff lost the mission property after the Disruption of 1843 and opened the Free Church Institution, called by the populace as the ‘Duff College’. It was at this college that Lal Behari started teaching in 1844. He was subsequently licensed as a preacher in 1851 and was ordained in 1855. [22]

Day served as the Headmaster of the Behrampore Collegiate School and then the professor of English Literature in the Government Colleges at Behrampore and Hoogly from 1867 to 1889. In 1877, he was made a Fellow of the University of Calcutta. [23] Day would be an enthusiastic member of the Bethune Society (established in 1851) and the Bengal Social Science Association (established in 1867). He shared, along with Duff and Ram Mohun Roy, the belief in the Macaulayian doctrines as outlined in the Minute for the introduction of English education in India (1835). However, he also wrote papers that reflected his proto-nationalist views – especially those that he read before the Bethune Society. These papers – ‘Primary Education in Bengal’ (1858), ‘Vernacular Education in Bengal’ (1859), ‘English Education in Bengal’ (1859), ‘Teaching of English Literature in the Colleges in Bengal (1874) – reflect upon issues that were variously discussed in the 19th Century renascent Bengal.

On 28th April 1868 the Viceroy, Sir John Lawrence, declared the State Exchequer’s inability to bear the financial burden of mass education in Bengal. “The Bengal Government was thus asked to draw up a plan on mass education and to execute it by levying an education tax on land.” [24] This was however strongly opposed by the British India Association. The Association, formed in October 1851, had evolved out of the earlier zamindar associations like Bangabhasha Prakasika Sabha (est. in December 1836), Landholder’s Society (founded in March 1838), Bengal British India Society (formed in April 1843) and National Association (formed in September 1851). It defended the interests of the Bengal zamindars and pointed out that the communication was an explicit infringement of the solemn covenant between the British Government and the Bangali zamindars. They deemed the compulsory taxation to be an unnecessary burden and urged for the continuance of the existing voluntary system and the Government grants-in-aid. Kishory Chand Mitra, a member of the Association, remarked that it was sufficient to educate the upper and the middle classes. The lower classes could be easily elevated through those above them, he surmised. Lal Behari stood up against the Association and affirmed that it was the Government’s duty to provide education for the masses. He rebuked the British India Association and proclaimed that it was “the higher law of moral justice, not the law of the Revenue Code” that should have compelled the zamindars to bear the educational expenses of the “unlettered ryots”. He pointed out that the common man looked upon the Government as the Ma-Bap, and hence it was immoral for the Government to evade its responsibility. He emphasised the moral effect that education invariably has upon its recipients. Lal Behari’s insistence on mass education grouped him with the liberals of the bhodrolok intelligentsia.

These alignments must be looked into, as they will enable us to comprehend the complexities of Lal Behari’s decision to omit some of his collected tales as spurious. More than anything else, it reflects the convolutions of the debates about colonial Education and Enlightenment that had been widespread both in Europe as well as in India. Way back in 1822, Schlegel’s criticised the Asiatick Society for its highhanded imperial patronising of the rediscovery of India’s glorious past [25]. William Jones’s (1746-1794) hyperpolyglotic attempt to comprehend Indian culture was also sometimes seen as an act of cultural invasion – his Sacontalá (1789) an act of wilful mistranslation, The Sanscrit Language (1786) the beginning of a long-drawn process of colonial appropriation and absorption. As S. N. Mukherjee, Jones’ biographer would assert in 1968 -- “while Jones was a liberal at home, he was an adherent of the Empire abroad.” [26] From a similar perspective, Charles Witkins’s (1749- 1836) pioneering efforts are perceived to be born out of imperial designs; H. T. Colebrooke’s (1765-1837) Digest of Hindu Laws is thought to be reflective of the colonial concern for order and control and H. H. Wilson’s (1786-1860) Sanskrit English Dictionary (1813) may be ascertained as furthering the exploitative colonial discourse in Bengal and the rest of India. While these moulds do not fit the early Orientalists – these were surely some of the ways in which they were reframed in the succeeding centuries. The close collaboration of Jones with Hastings would perhaps further lend support to such an opinion. The birth of the concept of National Education can hence be seen as a response to this Orientalist invasion.

Such an interpretation would however be simplistic to say the least. As David Kopf elaborates in his masterful analysis of the early colonial encounter:

To appreciate fully the phenomenal Orientalist rediscovery of the Hindu classical age, it is necessary to isolate those components of the European Enlightenment that predisposed the Company servants in that direction. The intellectual elite that clustered about Hastings after 1770 was classicist rather than "progressive" in their historical outlook, cosmopolitan rather than nationalist in their view of other cultures, and rationalist rather than romantic in their quest for those "constant and universal principles" that express the unity of human nature. What made them an especially fertile field for Hastings's experiments in cultural interaction was the idea of tolerance, the mainspring of their historical and cultural relativism. [27]

Hastings’ initial policy had been decidedly secular, and cannot be equated to the Victorian ideology of surveillance and gaze.

Hastings would epitomise the culturally liberal administrator who, despite his overtly exploitative economic policies, never tried to reform the prevailing cultural practices and educational habits in India. He explicitly discouraged missionary activity and found support among the British right-wing Tories. As Percival Spear affirms:

The evidence seems to suggest strongly that Bengalis responded well to foreign ideas and customs when introduced by sympathetic Europeans (Orientalists) who were themselves highly responsive to the Hindu way of life... [S]o long as the European masters viewed modernization as cosmopolitan rather than parochial in nature, the Bengalis offered little resistance to cultural change. When Modernization took on the guise of Macaulayism, the older response pattern collapsed and the cultural barricades of nationalism were rapidly erected.” [28]

The 1813 Charter Act approved an annual sum of 10,000 pounds for “the revival and improvement of literature and the encouragement of the learned Natives of India and for the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of sciences among the inhabitants of the British Territories in India.” Soon the contradiction between the two clauses of the above statement was noticed and the Radicals and Evangelicals won the day in giving a decidedly technological tilt to the Educational curriculum in India. James Mill’s History of India (1817) reflects in many ways the Radical/ Utilitarian position in this debate. However, there were also men like Ram Mohun Roy in India – whose support for the cause of western education cannot be simplified into an inclination either for proselytisation or for an agnostic rationalisation. It was perhaps linked with psychological anxieties and realities that had been brought into play by the encounter with other cultures. [29]

Whatever may be the cause, the results of the Macaulayian shift had been quite amazing. Even before such a shift had taken place the Calcuttan society had been fraught with tensions between the ‘Young Bengal’ adherents of Enlightenment (Dakshinaranjan Mukhapadhyay, Radhanath Sikdar and Pyarichand Mitra) and the members of the Gaudiya Samaj (established in 1824). The Gaudiya Samaj was a heterogeneous grouping of the conservatives and the progressives -- with Prasannakumar Tagore, Dwarkanath Tagore, Tarinicharan Mitra, Rasamay Datta and Radhakanta Deb rubbing shoulders with Debendranath Tagore and Ramaprasad Roy. This varied assemblage got together in order to further the cause of vernacular education. They supported David Hare’s (1775-1842) School Book Society, with Radhakanta Deb (1783-1832) dominating the proceedings. Debendranath (1817-1905) and the Brahmo Samajists (the liberals in this mixed assemblage) eventually formed their own Sabha – the Sarbatattwadipika Sabha in 1832 and the Tattwaranjini Sabha in 1839 (later renamed Tattwabodhini Sabha).

The Brahmos took up the liberal cause and also aimed to affect socio-cultural reforms. The Tattwabodhini Pathsala was established in 1840. Akshay Kumar Datta (1820-1886) wrote scathingly about “Palligramastha prajadiger durobostha” (misery of the rural folk) in the Tattwabodhini Patrika. There was also another group in the intelligentsia, represented by the likes of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-91) and Dwarakanath Vidyabhusan. These men aimed to reform Hindu Society from within, hence they were decidedly differed from both the Brahmo Samaj liberals and Gaudiya Samaj conservatives. Lal Behari Day’s Scottish Reformist viewpoint and his love for indigenous Bangla religio-cultural and folk beliefs represented one among this plethora of divergent discourses. The bhadralok intelligentsia of Calcutta in the 19th century shared overlapping affinities and yet displayed a remarkable range of differences, which would defy a simplistic identification with the Renaissance (the Florentine) model or with the Reformation (the Lutheran/ Calvinist/ Baptist/ Anglican) models. [30]

Rev. Lal Behari Day’s involvement in the Baptist cause is indeed symptomatic of the essential ambivalence in the bhadraloki discourse of late nineteenth century and the budding nationalism of the first two decades of the twentieth century. As an urban intellectual and a missionary, he recognised the futility of the feudal zamindari model. His novel Govinda Samanta; Or The History of a Bengal Raiyat ( 2 vols., London, 1874; the book was later published as Peasant Life in Bengal) mirrored the abuses perpetuated by the Permanent Settlement of 1793 and the tyranny unleashed on the ryots by the zamindars of Bengal. Even Charles Darwin praised the novel because of “its powerful espousal of the cause of the children of the soil, the poor and simple ryots.” [31] The “ryot’s degradation” in the “zamindar’s Katcheri” and the pangs of Hindu widowhood were all sympathetically portrayed. This was the well-known liberal-urban stand – but for Day this was also the rationale for his conversion and the analysis of the irreversible degeneracy of the Mughal-Hindu social system. This is however tinged by Day’s recognition of his own Bangali identity, by the irrevocability of his native birth.

Rev. Duff and his colleagues would not allow Lal Behari and other natives to join mission councils. The native missionaries were members of the Presbytery and of the Calcutta Missionary Conference, but had little control over the affairs of the Mission. The Europeans in the Mission got salaries that were atleast two and a half times more than that of the best-paid Indian. [32] This experience of discrimination must have played a critical role in shaping Day’s conception about his identity and about the essentially paradoxical allegiances that he was subjected to. This would affect his tales in a remarkable way.

Lal Behari would provide one of the earliest written catalogues of Bangla’s ghosts (bhoots), in his novel about the exploited ryot. There is the indubitably Muslim bhoot called Mamdo. There is the “Brahman” bhoot Brahmadaitya who inhabits the banyan or the bel tree (Aegle marmelos) and lives a spirit-life of unblemished purity. The Kayastha, Vaishya and the Sudra obviously become ‘commoner bhoots’ (Shadharon bhoot) and live a life of plebeian squalor. These are the skinny fellows, unusually tall and sinewy. These are lascivious and impure, and do not dare to frequent a mandir. Then there is the Skandha-kata - these fellows had their heads chopped off when they lived as humans. They prowl the marshy lands. And who could have possibly left out the Petni, the overtly voluptuous malodorous female (meye-bhoot)? Shakchunni also lurks nearby - the chaste white-sari clad apparition who waits at the shades of trees during midnights, for an unsuspecting victim. [33] Lal Behari, through Govinda, would often identify himself with these folk beliefs – maintaining the fictive veil of narratorial objectivity. Ashis Nandy’s analysis of the psychological paradigms involved in the rise of the Nationalist discourse hints at similar paradoxes that many other Bangla bhodrolok intellectuals/ artists had to jostle with in the 19th century Bangla Renaissance. [34]

Much of Nandy’s reading relates to the ambivalence in the “new definition of masculinity and normality”. It is also associated with an acute perception of disjunction between the necessarily androgynous cultural archetypes of South Asia and the gendered identities of the Victorian Imperial discourse. This led to the perception of the natives as childlike – who required cultural ‘taming’ through the Western, modern and/ or Christian hermeneutical devices in order to mature into adulthood. This also necessitated the repression of the childish (as opposed to the unlearned innocence of the childlike) – the “unwilling to learn, ungrateful, sinful, savage, unpredictably violent, disloyal” traits in the native psyche. This is reflected in the manner in which both the Victorian-Edwardian discourse as well as the incipient Nationalism viewed the South-Asian traditions and wrote its histories. As Nandy explains:

The colonial ideology handled the problem in two mutually inconsistent ways. Firstly, it postulated a clear disjunction between India’s past and its present. The civilized India was the bygone past; it was dead and “museumized”. The present India, the argument went, was only nominally related to its history... Secondly and paradoxically, the colonial culture postulated that India’s later degradation was not due to colonial rule - which, if anything, had improved Indian culture by fighting against its irrational, oppressive, retrogressive elements - but due to aspects of the traditional Indian culture which in spite of some good points carried the seeds of India’s later cultural downfall. [35]

Lal Behari, in his Preface to the Tales, expresses this acutely problematic position of paradoxical affiliations – of writing the tales of the folk who were at once the ossified stereotypes to be viewed from a distance (even if sympathetically), of giving a voice to the old women and little children of a bygone nostalgia-tinged childhood; of identifying intimately, yet, of objectifying out of sheer necessity.

Lal Behari begins his Preface by such an act of problematic reminiscence:

In my Peasant Life in Bengal I make the peasant boy Govinda spend some hours every evening in listening to stories told by an old woman, who was called Sambhu’s mother, and who was the best story-teller in the village. [36]

Day later reveals to us that Sambhu’s mother was not a fictional character, but someone from whom he had heard his own childhood stories. Failing to find someone who could narrate him the unwritten stories that Temple had desired to be collected, he laments:

But where was an old story-telling woman to be got? I had myself, when a little boy, heard hundreds - it would be no exaggeration to say thousands - of fairy tales from the same old woman, Sambhu’s mother - for she was no fictitious person; she actually lived in the place and bore that name; but I had nearly forgotten those stories... How I wished that poor Sambhu’s mother had been alive! But she had gone long, long ago, to that bourne from which no traveller returns, and her son Sambhu, too, had followed her thither. [37]

This passage reveals the intense feeling of unalterable change that characterises the late nineteenth century bhadraloki discourse. The lost childhood typifies this lack – which is half-resented and yet, accepted as irrevocable. This disjunction is expressed by the transformation of the essentially cyclical world-view of the South Asian traditions to the irreversible travel to that “bourne from which no traveller returns”. And there has been an act of appropriation – Sambhu is made to symbolize and justify the modern (and for Day, decidedly, Reformist/ Baptist) discourse by his very absence. The Bangla folktales hence are tales of the past, references to the present are but “spurious additions”.

That this distancing had been the dominant trend among folklorists of Bangla must be recognised. Upendrakishor Roy Choudhury (1863-1915) published his Tuntunir Boi in 1901. He soon came up with another collection – the Golpomala. His stories revisited the world of Mymensingh folk traditions – a world to which he had been acquainted since his childhood. This seems to be an otherworldly fairy-world were the twitty-bird punishes the powerful king (Tuntuni aar Rajar Kotha), where the jola marries a princess (Boka Jola aar Seyaler Kotha), where tigers long to marry a manusher meye (Bagher Radhuni, Bagh-bor). This is world of Gupi and Bagha, who accidentally land up in the marriage ceremony of the bhoots (Gupi Gyne aar Bagha Byne). This was also the arena in which the child was to be written down, disciplined through knowledge, classified and labelled by the safe disjunction of a folk narrative. In the very first tale compiled in the Golpomala, the narrator would observe:

Most people are a bit stubborn in their childhood. Don’t be enraged by my words. Even if one were enraged, it wouldn’t be a discomfort for me... It’s from my own experience that I say these words. The children suffer from a malady. They often disturb others by doing things which were unasked for, yet, if someone orders them to do the same work - the sweetness of the labour vanishes for them instantly. [38]

This bit of rationalsation by the adult discourse is quite unmistakable.

Similar trends continue in the Popular Tales of Bengal (Calcutta, 1905) by Kasindranath Banerji. Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar (1877-1957) would perhaps lend a permanent edifice to this stereotyping of the folk narrative in his immensely popular folklore collections - Thakumar Jhuli (1907), Thakurdadar Jhuli (1909), Thandidir Thole (1909) and Dadamashayer Thole (1913). Dakshinaranjan was brought up by his paternal aunt, Rajlakshmi Devi, at Mymensingh (he was also, like Upendrakishore, steeped in the Mymensingh lore). The Bangiya Sahitya Parishad was established in 1893 by a group of intellectuals (headed by Ksetrapal Chakraborty and L. Leotard) who devoted themselves to rediscovering the indigenous Bangla literature. Dakshinaranjan began to write essays in the journal of the Parisad and took up the task of overseeing his aunt’s zamindari at Mymensingh [39].

Mitra Majumdar’s interest in folk literature was triggered by Dineshchandra Sen (1866-1939) who had written the definitive fin de siècle history of Bangla Literature in Bangla Bhasa O Sahitya (1896). Dineshchandra would go on to write the English version in 1911 (History of Bengali Language and Literature). An undergraduate dropout, he would eventually be appointed as a Reader in the Department of Bengali Language and Literature of the Calcutta University and was entrusted with the responsibility of building and developing the resources of the department. He was made the Ramtanu Lahiri Professor in 1913. His major contributions would be the collection of Bangla ballad and folk narratives from various parts of Eastern Bengal (from Mymensingh, Netrakona, Chittagong, Faridpur, Sylhet). His Maimansingha Gitika (1923) and Purvabanga-Gitika (1926) have been seminal texts in Bangla Folkloristics.

Dinesh Chandra was in many ways the driving force behind folk research and the building of the folk canon in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Immensely gifted folklorists like Chandra kumar De (1889-1946) and Ashutosh Choudhuri (1888-1944) would flourish under his academic tutelage; collecting songs and ballads for him from the rural areas and delivering them to him at the Calcutta University. Dinesh Chandra also lent an academic definition to the Bangla folk and demarcated its emphatically indigenous limits. Dakshinaranjan’s collection was hence entrenched in the Neo-Bengali discourse of the early twentieth century and shares its sympathies with Neo-Bengal School of Abanindranath Tagore (established 1915) and the Vichitra Club of the Tagores.

Writing about a quarter of a century after Lal Behari, Dakshinaranjan shares much of the nostalgia in Thakumar Jhuli’s ‘Granthakarer Nibedon’ (Author’s Preface). He would effuse:

there was such a joy in every nook-and-corner of the sylvan-hamlets of Bangla, such an ecstatic ambience. Maa used to tell us innumerable fairy-tales. - To claim that she knew those stories would be a mistake, fairy-tales were inseparably connected to her daily household chores; there wasn’t a housewife who didn’t know the fairy-tales, - not to know them was something to be ashamed of. But who stole that magical wand (sona-rupa kathi) so brusquely [?] [40]

Dakshinaranjan, like Lal Behari, hankers for the genitive Mother but also realises that he has to look for other substitutes. Lal Behari’s description of his Gammer Gethel makes interesting reading:

After a great deal of search I found my Gammer Grethel . . . in the person of a Bengali Christian woman, who, when a little girl and living in her heathen home, had heard many stories from her old grandmother. She was a good story-teller, but her stock was not large; and after I had heard ten I had to look for fresh sources. [41]

It is interesting to note that Lal Behari’s prime-narrator (he also heard stories from others) was a converted Christian woman, much like Mary Frere’s ayah Anna Liberata de Souza. It is also interesting to note that she defies in many ways the prototypes that Lal Behari tries to fit her in. She is neither Shambhu’s Mother nor Gammer Grethel. She evidently had belonged to syncretic mythological structures – unlike the pure archetypes that Lal Behari is alluding to. This obviously gives us a source for the “spurious additions” that Lal Behari censors and is probably the reason for her stock being not “large” enough. Dakshinaranjan’s narrators were “old women from the village” (polli-gramer briddha) but they offered stories that Dakshinaranjan found to be grossly unfinished. He elaborates that “this temple-of-flowers has been crafted by a yug’s [42] labour over the dispersed, chaotic skeletal remains...” [43] of the original narratives. Both Dakshinaranjan and Lal Behari hence share a distinct ambivalence vis-à-vis their narrators. There is definition and transgression, stereotyping and disjunction.

In Dakshinaranjan’s ‘Preface’ there is also the presence of a man whose creations would epitomise the Bangla Literary Canon (indeed the Indian Literary endeavours) for the next two decades – Rabindranath Tagore. Dakshinaranjan quotes Rabindranath’s variant of a popular rhyme (Jochonay ful futechhe) and mentions his source and the variants in a footnote. Rabindranath had been associated with the ventures of the Bangiya Shahitya Parishad. He had started collecting folklore from 1883 (the year in which Lal Behari’s collection was published). His connection with the mazhar of Lalan Fakir in Cheunriya is well known. [44] In the very year of Thakumar Jhuli’s publication, Tagore would publish his first collection of essays on folk literature, entitled Loksahitya (1907). In one of the essays in the collection, entitled ‘Meyeli Chhora’, Tagore discusses rhymes, which are mostly associated with childish lullabies. To identify these rhymes, mostly “chelebhulono chhoras”, as “meyeli chhora” is significant. Rabindranath thinks about these rhymes as mostly those “that women in Bengal use to amuse children.” [45] Rabindranath states that these rhymes are spontaneous and they are universal. That Tagore thinks of these rhymes as feminine and childish reaffirms the stereotyping of the folk and the normative definition of masculinity and non-folk literature.

Tagore provides a psycho-metaphysical basis to these stereotypes. For example, he would say:

There is a certain permanency in these rhymes. No accounts of their composers exist, and no one asks the date on which they were written. Because of this spontaneous universality they are age-old even if composed today, and remain fresh even if a thousand years old. If one thinks about it, one realizes that there is nothing as old as a child. Adults have been deeply influenced by time, place, and culture, but the child has remained the same for the last hundred thousand years. Eternal and unchanging, the child is born every day among us in human form, yet he remains just as fresh, sweet, and innocent as on the first day. The reason that children remain so universally pure and clean is that they are Nature's creations; adults, in contrast, are to a great extent the product of their own doings. Rhymes, like children, are born naturally of the human mind. [46]

The bhadraloki ambivalence about the folk finds its one of the most convoluted retelling in Rabindranath’s words. The crafty poet brings into play the latent ambiguities hidden in his own assertions, and often emphasises them. His tone is oxymoronic, and relies on deft epigrammatic twists (“there is nothing as old as a child”). However, he also affirms that these rhymes are essentially pre-cognate and hence – simple, primitive, eternal, and distinctively folk. He would further tell us:

Disconnected reflections on the outside world drift regularly across our minds without any conscious effort. They take on different shapes and forms, effortlessly jumping from one subject to another. ... When we concentrate our thoughts on a particular topic, however, these excess murmurs cease, these thoughts fly away, these fantasies shatter, and our mind and imagination start flowing in a single stream. That which we call the mind is so powerful that when it starts to work our inner and outer worlds come largely under its influence, so that our entire existence follows its directives. ...The thoughts, sounds, and images that cross our minds when we are in a state of repose continuously change their shape and configuration, like clouds floating in the sky. If these aimless reflections could somehow be recorded on pieces of canvas, we would find some similarity between these pictures and our rhymes. These rhymes are simply reflections of our ever-changing inner mind; they are like the fluid shadows of clouds on the clear waters of a lake. This is why I say that rhymes are born spontaneously. [47]

This may appear to be recognition of poetry’s “spontaneous overflow”. However Tagore distances himself (and by default his poetic creations) from these “simple” rhymes. He apologetically says:

... how am I, an aged, somber, and status-conscious man, to capture the soft, loving, and simple voices that are eternally associated with the telling of these rhymes? I fear that readers will have to contribute that tender essence from their own childhood memories.... [I]t may impinge on these homely, simple, and unadorned womanly rhymes to place them in the company of tight, rigorous, and sophisticated essays, somewhat like presenting a simple, naive housewife as a witness in a court of law. But there is no other choice; courts must run according to their rules, and essays must be written according to theirs. The associated pain is unavoidable. [48]

Much of the charm of Tagore’s essay derives from his explicit distancing and implicit identification with the creative process of folk literature. He goes on to say:

The rhymes above may have been written effortlessly under the impulse of carefree fancy, but such a sense of the carefree cannot be consciously captured. We have conditioned ourselves to conscious and directed effort, and thus simple and natural things have become terribly difficult. [49]

It requires the oxymoronic brilliance of Tagore’s prose to capture the irresoluteness of a generation – to effectively give voice to the bhodroloki ambivalence about the dyadic polarities and yet, sustaining the dichotomy.

So what were Lal Behari’s omissions? We can understand these effectively only by reliving one of such tales (a rare one we might add, because it survived without being compiled in written collections, until recently) – the legend about the ghost of Warren Hastings. It is collaborated by an account in the United Services Journal (published by the United Services Institute of India, vol of 1946). The initial written statement by Mr. Paul Bird was recorded on 25th July, 1884 (about the time Temple, Day, Crooke, Knowles were busy in compiling their tales):

One evening, just at dusk, I was returning home from office in my buggy, with lamps lighted. It was dusk, but under the shadow of trees that overhung the avenue approaching Hastings House, it was pretty dark. I was driving pretty fast, when I heard what appeared to be a runaway coach coming from Hastings House towards me. I immediately checked my horse and peered ahead to see how to avoid the coming danger, but as the noise did not seem to get any nearer, I cautiously proceeded, and when about a hundred yards from the house, distinctly saw the reflections of my lamps on the panels of the carriage in front of me, proceeding the same way. I kept my eyes on the panels, so as not to run into it. [50]

This legend was quite vivid in the memory of the Calcuttans and rumours about several sightings had subsequently spread among the people. It is said that one of Hastings’ “old black bureau” was accidentally misplaced while he left for London. This chest contained “some highly prized papers and miniature portraits”. It is assumed that these papers would have been of great help to Hastings in proving his innocence during his impeachment in the British Parliament. Hence, the ghost returns to his Alipur residence, riding a phantom coach to search for his lost papers every New Year’s Day. It rushes up the staircase in evident haste. Other “ghost sightings” - like that narrated by Lady Braid-Taylor (the wife of the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, who stayed in the haunted house for several years in 1930s and 1940s) – describe a permanent resident spirit who often derives a sinister pleasure by asserting his presence. As she narrates the butler’s reactions after one such chilling encounter:

My brother and I have worked here for 14 years and we have seen him for many times. In uniform he comes, and they say he is the old Warren Hastings. The chauffeur will never take the car down the drive to the garage after midnight. Yes, I expect it was the “Shaitansahib”. He has done it before. [51]

What these narratives suggest is that the legend about Hastings’ ghost was quite popular among the people and it cut across the coloniser/ colonised lines of the Calcuttan society.

It can be equally considered to be a folktale (although not a fairy-tale) as any of the narratives recorded in the collections of Lal Behari Day, Upendrakishore Roy Chowdhury, Kasindranath Banerji, Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar, Dineshchandra Sen and several other folklorists/ethnologists compiling in other parts of the sub-continent. Nor was Hastings an isolated case. For example, let us read one of Fanny Parkes’ journal entries, during her stay in Calcutta in the summer of 1826:

... My Italian master praises me for application: he says, the heat is killing him, and complains greatly of the want of rain. When I told him we had had a little during the last two days, he replied, “You are the favoured of God in Chowringhee, we have had none in Calcutta.” The natives suffer dreadfully. Cholera and the heat are carrying off three and sometimes five hundred a day.

An eclipse has produced a change in the weather, and the sickness has ceased the bazaars. [52]

This bit of journal entry is in some ways quite mundane, but shows distinct folkloristic motifs from another perspective. The Italian’s grudge about the unfair malevolence of God, the belief that eclipses had an effect on the weather and the disease can be seen in the context of the breakout of the Second Cholera Pandemic in Bengal – the most devastating Cholera pandemic ever that would eventually spread all across India and Afghanistan and would reach Britain and the USA. It shows that the colonial encounter had necessitated the creation and reshaping of folkloristic motifs. A narrative about the effects of the Contagious Magic triggered by the eclipse had been necessitated to counteract the spread of the contagion. Let us glance into the entry of December 2nd of the same year:

En route were several parties of fakīrs, who said they were going to Jaganāth. These rascals had some capital tattoos with them. Several of these men had one withered arm raised straight, with the long nails growing through the back of the hand. These people are said to be great thieves; and when any of them were encamped near us on the march, we directed the chaukidārs (watchmen) to keep a good look out, on our horses as well as our chattels. The adage says of the fakīr, “Externally he is a saint, but internally a devil”. [53]

The excerpt brings out the colonial involvement in this folk belief. It seems to be a collective collaboration – the lady and the chaukidārs both participate in the creation of the adage. The tattoos, the devil within, the long nails would have appealed especially to Parkes’ eyes. The affirmation to this active recreation, this strategic symbiosis, this vital exchange of stories - seems to be missing from the late nineteenth century compilations of Bangla (and Indian) folklore.

Other narratives seem to be more problematic, placed as they are in the written texts and embedded in a dominant discourse that explicitly preserves the limits. Upendrakishore’s Golpomala abounds in such unconscious recognitions. In most of the narratives in this book, Upendrakishore actively separates the native from the outsider’s tales. Hence we have instalments like ‘Norway Desher puran’, ‘Japani Debota’ and ‘Gilfroy Saheber Atbhut Somudro Jatra’. However, we also have stories in which these categories are transgressed. In ‘Khunt Dhora Chele’, the narrator starts a tale about four brothers who lived in England (“Bilate charti bhai ekdin ek jaigay boshiya kothabarta kohitechilo...”). However, when these brothers visit heaven after being dead, they encounter the huge gate built by Biswokorma. Darowan-debota (the Guardian-lord) interrogates them, much like Yama would have done in South Asian traditions. The Debota even starts singing a song in Oriya. [54] There is another snippet within a medley, ‘Golpo-solpo’, which tells us about the Saheb who found learning of the Bangla conjuncts to be immensely troublesome. [55] Even Dinabandhu Mitra’s Nil-darpan (1860) hints at a mythic transformation of the indigo-planter I. I. Wood’s whip into a dreaded oppressor which even has a human name – Shyamchand. The indigo-planter’s exploitation of the farmers seems to have given birth to this dreaded legend, quite enthusiastically perpetuated and encouraged by Wood himself. He threatens the “bloody nigars” of an encounter (“molakat”) with Shyamchand. [56]

Nil-darpan focuses on the exploitation of the Bengal farmers by the indigo planters (Michael Madhushudan Dutt translated the play in English which Rev. James Long, a missionary of the Church Missionary Society, published). The play was hugely successful as a consciousness-awakener and urged the people to revolt against this exploitative practice (The indigo revolt happened in 1859-60).

The name of the planter is meant to be sarcastic; the other planter in the play is similarly named P. P. Rogue (the abbreviated names perhaps hint at their decadent pomposity; Rogue is evidently derisive, "I. I." suggests egotism). In the play, Wood uses a whip to punish those who don't obey him. The whip is feared by the peasants as a dreaded menace - and it acquires a symbolic connotation in the play (it represents colonial oppression, subjugation, tyranny and the rest). The peasants even give it a name - Shyamchand (one among the numerous names of Krishna). Wood encourages such a personification of his dreaded whip and threatens the peasants to arrange "encounters [molakat] with Shyamchand" if they disobey him (molakat is an euphemism for the whipping sessions; it also sustains the personification).

Another tale refers to technological devices – “half plate Sanderson camera with a Ross lens and a Thornton Picard behind lens shutter.” [57] The Jones of the narrative (“let us call him Jones”) is a photographer who ventures to take a photograph of Mr. Smith, his wife and Smith’s sister-in-law. When the photograph was developed, however, another young woman stood between the two ladies. She was Mr. Smith’s first wife - whose desire to be photographed was left unfulfilled by her sudden illness and demise. There are scores of other narratives popular in different regions of India – of New Year’s Eve ghost in Lucknow, of the ghosts of the Indian Mutiny, of the British Ghosts in the hill stations of Simla and Ooty, of Hasan Khan Djinni who materialised mangosteens for Mr. Cogan in Calcutta. There were stories about a ghost-ridden trees in Indian forests, from which “long, nude, grey bod[ies] shaped like that of a man” look on the observers “with an expression of malicious glee.” [58] There was the British Governor of Bombay, who returned as a cat after his death, and sentries saluted all cats in the vicinity to show respect to the transmigrated Lat Sahib. [59]

William Crooke, our famed “administrator-scholar”, had himself recorded the tale of ‘Momiai wala Sahib’ and categorised it as “belief in ghosts and spirits”:

In India the popular idea about Momiai is that a boy, the fatter and blacker the better, is caught, a small hole is bored in the top of his head, and he is hung up by the heels over a slow fire. The juice or essence of his body is in this way distilled into seven drops of the potent medicine known as Momiai ... It is further believed that a European gentleman, known as the Momiai-wala-Sahib, has a contract from Government of the right of enticing away suitable boys for this purpose. He makes them smell a stick or wand, which obliges them to follow him, and he then packs them off to some hill station where he carries on this nefarious manufacture. A very black servant of a friend of mine states that he had a very narrow escape from this Sahib at Nauchandi fair at Meerut, where Government allows him to walk about for one day and make as many suitable victims as he can by means of his stick... [59]

There was also the lore about Dinapurwala Sahib, who “has a contract from Government for procuring heads for some of the museums.” [60] There were also legends about George A. Grierson – whose authoritative account about Bihar peasantry is considered as one of the cornerstones of Imperial ethnography. As Grierson was collecting data for his magnum opus, it was rumoured among the peasantry:

Grierson Sahib was counting boats and cattle in order to take them away for the Government's war in Egypt. He was counting the wells because he was aware of an imminent famine when these would be set aside for the British families. Children were being counted to be buried in the foundation of the bridge that the government was constructing over the Gandak river. Adults were being counted for use in war. [61]

Temple also found himself to be the subject of “rumours” at the Ambala Cantonment [62]. We had earlier witnessed the doubts created by ethnographic projects like the one of Colin Mackenzie. We now come across the lore that such doubts often gave birth to. These tales were evidently suppressed, both by the British ethnographers as well as by the liberal-nationalist folklorists.

Why were these tales suppressed? To reason that these reflected the darker side of the colonial game and hence were suppressed, would be simplistic. There were other tales too – which, though upholding the glory of the Imperialist regime, were never collected in folktale collections. Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, a veteran nationalist poet, would tell us about one such oft-repeated tale:

My mother used to talk about Queen Victoria as the mother of the country. I remember her sixteen servants used to sit around her every evening in the courtyard, and she used to talk about Queen Victoria and praise her and say she is doing so much for the poor.” [63]

To compile such a tale would not have demeaned the Raj, it would have brutally exposed its mechanism of control. This was the subject being reflected in the mirror – the frame being exposed, the illusion being subverted by a strategy of reverse mythopoeia. It also defies the stereotyping of Indian folklore as a corpus of stagnant, fossilised ore that could be conveniently mined by the miner-ethnographer. On the contrary, the narratives were vital – a fact that violated the normative constraints of the subject-object dichotomy that both colonial ethnology and nationalist folkloristics constructed and sustained.

Who are the folk out there? Why were not the narratives of khemta and sangs, jhumurwalis and jatras considered as authentic folk? Why do Lal Behari’s tales never breathe a word about Gonjila Guin, Bhola Moira, Keshta Muchi, Gopal Urey or Kukur-mukho Gora? Why does the common man of the nineteenth century Calcutta, with his kathputli and Charak, social lampoons and patua-communities fail to intrude in the narratives of Dakshinaranjan or Lal Behari Day? Susmanta Banerjee states, “Unsurprisingly, the Bengali bhodrolok and their English patrons could not recognize the importance of these entertainments for the poor, which were at times even invisible to them.” [64] Yet, paradoxically, these fringes revealed the ambivalence of the bhadraloki culture most viciously, often satirising the hypocrisy of the intellectuals and the bourgeoisie. Hence these margins were consciously evaded – yet, such acts of evasion paradoxically encrypted the limits of the bhadraloki discourse. Lal Behari’s omissions could also include elements from these vital traditions of the urban populace.

Stith Thompson and Jonas Balys had published the Motif Index for Indian Folktales way back in 1958. [65] A couple of years later, a study of the Types of Indic oral tales was also published. [66] Subsequently an outline of the Type-Motif Index for Bangla folklore has also been prepared. [67] However, the perception of the folk as representing cultural past, rural simplicity and unadorned childlike innocence is still pervasive. This opinion still dominates the academia and more importantly, sustains the illusion of stereotypical cultural identities. The situation in the rest of the sub-continent reflects identical tendencies. National folklore festivals, upholding the cause of national unity, “extricate performances from lived contexts” [68] and suppress hybrid syncretism as inauthentic. As Kirin Narayan explicates:

...the bearers of folklore continue to be conceptualized as "them" - villagers or at least a lower social class - who will perform for metropolitan audiences. Such cultural productions are clearly marked by a vested interest in maintaining the exotic for cross-regional domestic as well as foreign consumption. Here then, "the folk" is a restricted category for whom lived experience at the crossroads of regional and global cultural currents is denied. They are muffled and frozen in a pristine past that becomes increasingly commodified. [69]

Lal Behari would not let us listen to those “spurious additions” to his tales. His limits have been revisited and reaffirmed for more than a century. Today, we would rather ask him to recount for us the “spurious additions” that he had censored. But we would not look into our pasts for it; – rendering them inflexible by our objectifying gaze. We would rather initiate a conversation with the hic et nunc, we would rather engross ourselves in the game of this vital, throbbing moment. For herein are the “spurious additions” – they are this lore itself.


1) The word Bangla, in this context, would refer to the political territory – the subah Bongo and the Presidency of Bengal, as well as to the language of the Eastern (Magadhan) Branch of the Indo-Aryan Language family. The folktales collected by Day were popular in the Presidency of Bengal, and they were mostly transmitted orally among “native” Bangla speakers.
2) Day, Lal Behari, Folktales of Bengal, (London: Macmillan and Co., 1883), p.ix
3) Day, Lal Behari, ibid., p.vii
4) Temple, Richard Carnac, Legends of the Panjab. Vol. 1, (Bombay: Education Society’s Press, 1884). The subsequent volumes were published in 1885 and 1900.
5) Steel, Flora Anne, and Temple, Richard Carnac, Wide Awake Stories, (London: Trübner & Co, 1884)
6) Frere, Mary, Old Deccan Days, or Hindoo Fairy Legends current in southern India, (London, 1868, 3rd Edition – 1881), p.xi. The online edition of the book can be accessed at
7) For an overview of the issues involved see Dorson, Richard M., The British Folklorists: A History, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968)
8) Damant, G. H., Bengali Folklore from Dinajpur, (Indian Antiquary: 1872), pp. 115- 120
9) We might remind ourselves about Matthew Arnold’s sarcasm in the The Study of Celtic Literature (1867) when he states:

when Mr. Whitley Stokes, one of the very ablest scholars formed in Zeuss’s school, a born philologist, - he now occupies, alas! a post under the Government of India, instead of a chair of philology at home, and makes one think mournfully of Montesquieu’s saying, that had he been an Englishman he should never have produced his great work, but have caught the contagion of practical life, and devoted himself to what is called ‘rising in the world,’ when Mr. Whitley Stokes, in his edition of Cormac’s Glossary, holds up the Irish word traith, the sea, and makes us remark that, though the names Triton, Amphitrite, and those of corresponding Indian and Zend divinities, point to the meaning sea, yet it is only Irish which actually supplies the vocable, how delightfully that brings Ireland into the Indo-European concert! What a wholesome buffet it gives to Lord Lyndhurst’s alienation doctrines!

10) Francis Hindes Groome, the eminent British folklorist, noted this story’s similarity to a gypsy legend in the Gypsy Folk Tales (1899). Dakshinaranjan’s rendition would appear in Thakumar Jhuli (1907) as ‘Saat Bhai Champa’.
11) Naithani, Sadhana (ed.), Folktales from Northern India, (Gurgaon: Shubhi Publications, 2005)
12) Temple, Richard Carnac, Legends of the Panjab. Vol. 1, (Bombay: Education Society’s Press, 1884), p. x
13) Temple, Richard Carnac, ibid., p. viii
14) Temple, Richard Carnac, ibid., p. xi
15) Temple, Richard Carnac, ibid., p. vii
16) See Asad, Talak (ed.), Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter, (NJ and London: Ithaca Press, 1973)
17) Dirks, Nicolas B., ‘Colonial Histories and Narrative Informants: Biography of an Archive’, in Carol, A. Breckenbridge and Van der Veer, Peter (eds.), Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994), p.297
18) See for an analysis of the Saidian myopia in Rosane, Rocher, ‘British Orientalism in the Eighteenth Century: The Dialectics of Knowledge and Government’, in Carol, A. Breckenbridge and Van der Veer, Peter (eds.), Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 215- 249
19) Naithani, Sadhana. "The Colonizer Folklorist." in Journal of Folklore Research 34, (1997), pp. 1-14
20) Jobson, Richard (ed.), History of British Folklore, (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 332
21) Quoted in Morrison, Charles, ‘Three Systems of Colonial Ethnography: British Officials and Anthropologists in India’, in Kuklick, Heinrika, and Long, Elizabeth (eds.), Knowledge and Society: Studied in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, Vol. 5, (New York: JAI Press, 1984), p.150
22) Information about the early activities of the Free Church of Scotland in Bengal has been obtained from the online article, ‘From Krishna Pal to Lal Behari Dey: Indian Builders of the Church in India or Native Agency in Bengal 1800-1880’ by Eleanor Jackson. This article can be accessed at :
23) Sinha, N., Freedom Movement in Bengal, 1818-1904. Who's Who (Calcutta, 1968), p.172
24) Sinha, N., ibid., p.173
25) Dasgupta, Ashin, ‘The “Asiatick Society” and the Beginnings of Oriental Studies’, in Pal, Pratapaditya (ed.), Changing Visions, Lasting Images: Calcutta through 300 years, (Bombay: Marg Publications, 1990), p. 87
26) Dasgupta, Ashin, ibid., p.89
27) Kopf, David, British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance: The Dynamics of Indian Modernization 1773- 1835, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), p.22
28) Quoted in Kopf, David, ibid., p.280
29) See Nandy, Ashis, ‘Sati: A Nineteenth Century Tale of Women, Violence and Protest’, in At the Edge of Psychology: Essays in Politics and Culture, pp.11- 20, in the omnibus edition Exiled at Home, (New Delhi: Oxford India, 2005)
30) Sarkar, Sumit, ‘Calcutta and the “Bengal Renaissance”’, in Chowdhury, Sukanta (ed.), Calcutta: The Living City, Vol I: The Past, (OUP: New Delhi, 1990), pp.96-97
31) Sinha, N., ibid., p. 175
32) Jackson, Eleanor, ibid.
33) See Majumdar, Manosh, Lokoaitihyer Dorpone, (Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing, 1993), p. 63
34) Nandy, Ashis, ‘The Psychology of Colonialism: Sex, Age and Ideology in 'British India’, pp.1-63, in The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, in the omnibus edition Exiled at Home, (New Delhi: Oxford India, 2005)
35) Nandy, Ashis, ibid., pp. 17-18
36) Day, Lal Behari, ibid.,p. vii
37) Day, Lal Behari, ibid.,p. viii
38) Roy Choudhury, Upendrakishore, ‘Sahaje ki bodolok howa jay?’, in Upendrakishore Rochonasamogro, Dwitio Khondo, (Kolkata:Reflect Publication, 1987), pg. 108 [my translation]
39) Information about Dakshinaranjan’s life has been collected from the online Banglapedia that can be accessed at
40) Mitra Majumdar, Dakshinaranjan, Thakumar Jhuli, (Kolkta: Mitra and Ghosh, 1976), p.15 [I have translated the excerpt from Bangla. I have maintained Dakshinaranjan’s punctuations, as they are vital in getting a taste of his fluid, consciously tonal prose]
41) Day, Lal Behari, ibid.,p. ix
42) This refers to the Bangla conception of a yuga as twelve years but also allusively refering to the colossal Pauranic time-cycles.
43) Mitra Majumdar, Dakshinaranjan, ibid., p.16
44) Chakraborty, Barun Kumar, and Majumdar, Dibyojyoti (eds.), Banglar Lokosanskriti, (Kolkata: Aparna Book Distributors, 1996), p.XI
45) I have quoted from the translation by Suchismita Sen in ‘Tagore's “Lokashahitya”: the oral tradition in Bengali children's rhymes’, published in Asian Folklore Studies. Volume: 55. Issue: 1 (1996)
46) Suchismita Sen (trans.), ibid.
47) Suchismita Sen (trans.), ibid.
48) Suchismita Sen (trans.), ibid.
49) Suchismita Sen (trans.), ibid.
50) Quoted in Swamy, K.R.N., and Ravi, Meera, British Ghosts and Occult India, (Kolkata: Writer’s Workshop, 2004), p. 14
51) Quoted in Swamy, K.R.N., and Ravi, Meera, ibid., p. 16
52) Parkes, Fanny, Begums, Thugs, and Englishmen: The journals of Fanny Parks (selected and introduced by William Dalrymple), (New Delhi: Penguin India, 2002), p.36
53) Parkes, Fanny, ibid., pp.38- 39
54) Roy Choudhury, Upendrakishore, ibid., pp. 252- 255
55) Roy Choudhury, Upendrakishore, ibid., p. 243
56) Mitra, Dinabandhu, Nil-Darpan , ed. by Ashutosh Bhattacharya, (Kolkata:Dey’s Publishing, 2001 [1972]), p.87
57) Mukherji, S., ‘His Dead Wife’s Photograph’, in Indian Ghost Stories, (Allahabad: A.H. Wheeler and Co., 1914), pg. 1-10. The online edition of the book (2nd Edition, Allahabad: A.H. Wheeler and Co., 1917) can be accessed at
58) Swamy, K.R.N., and Ravi, Meera, ibid., p. 102- 103
59) Quoted in Naithani, Sadhana, ‘An Axis Jump: British Colonialism in the Oral Folk Narratives of Nineteenth-Century India’, in Folklore, Vol.112 (2001)
60) Quoted in Naithani, Sadhana, ibid.
61) Grierson, George A., A Bihar Peasant Life, (Calcutta: The Bengal Secretariat Press, 1885), p. 4
62) Naithani, Sadhana, ibid
63) Quoted in Masani, Zareer, Indian Tales of the Raj, (London: BBC Books, 1987), p.82
64) Banerjee, Susmanta, ‘The World of Ramjan Ostagar: The Common Man of Old Calcutta’, in Chowdhury, Sukanta (ed.), Calcutta: The Living City, Vol I: The Past, (OUP: New Delhi, 1990), p. 81
65) Thompson, Stith, and Balys, Jonas, The Oral Tales of India, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958)
66) Thompson, Stith, and Roberts, Warren E., Types of Indic Oral Tales: India, Pakistan and Ceylon, (Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1960)
67) Majumdar, Dibyajyoti, Bangla Lok-kothar Type O Motif Index, (Kolkata: Loksanskriti-O-Adivasi Sanskriti Kendra, 2005 [1993])
68) Narayan, Kirin, ‘Banana Republics and V.I. Degrees: Rethinking Indian Folklore in a Postcolonial World’, in Asian Folklore Studies, Volume: 52, Issue: 1, (1993)
69) Narayan, Kirin, ibid.

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