Goan folklore, a closer look

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Frederick Noronha

Walking by the friendly Varsha Book Stall, run by the brothers Bhate, Waman and Santosh, the other day led me to run into a set of colourful slender books. Knowing my interest, Santosh pointed these out to me. The books in question are a trio of folklore and folktales, penned by the former Kala Academy member secretary Dr Pandurang Phaldesai.

‘Goa: Folklore Studies. A Ready Reckonker’ is the smallest of the three, and perhaps a useful starting point too.  A tiny (5.5 x 4.5 inch) pocketbook-sized work of 66 pages, this book offers a kaleidoscopic view of the field and how it relates to Goa.

Phaldesai cites most of the work in print that is there to be cited and explains, briefly, the contributions of each work.

He notes that folklore material – tales, songs, specific narratives, etc – are “as old as human civilization”. Yet, he says, modern folklore studies began only in nineteenth-century Germany.

Phaldesai makes the point that early Christian missionaries, in the sixteenth century itself, were among “the first collectors and publishers of folklore material”. But the view of how we now see religious conflict and competition of the past seems to sometimes come in the way of developing this further argument further.

Goa is seen as the “exception to such a scholastic missionary tradition” (p.3), and a centre that “had to live with the oppressive rule for 450 years”. So, could both realities co-exist? Is one side, or alternatively the other, played up on depending on our own perspectives of the past?

Enthoven, the British colonial administrator; British books on the folklore of Bombay; colonial gazetteers; and the rare attempts to study Goa’s ethnography and folklore by Martha Warren Beckwith (published in the Journal of American Folklore in 1937) earn a mention.

Others who did work in the field are Fr George da Penha (of Indian Antiquary fame), Shenoy Goembab, Braganca Pereira (translated recently by Maria Aurora Couto), and the folk song collections are also mentioned.

There are references to the Goa Kokani Akademi, the Directorate of Art and Culture, and the Department of Information and Publicity, which all publish the occasional work on the folklore of Goa.

VS Sukhtankar (the author of Tales and Tellers of Goa, 1974, which was once a popular and easily available book here) gets credit for their work too. Professor Lucio Rodrigues, with the Dhempe College in the 1960s and 1970s, has obviously made a significant contribution.

B D Satoskar, Vinayak Khedekar, Shyam Verenkar, Anant Ramkrishna Sinai Dhume, and Phaldesai himself are the others whose work gets listed. So does the contribution of Jayanti Naik, Olivinho Gomes, Fr Antonio Pereira, among others.

Phaldessai makes the valid point that some of Goa’s folklore is scattered across various “local dailies, magazines and periodicals”. Likewise, writing for children is spread out across various periodicals and a few newspapers.  As long as it is not easily accessible, it’s going to appear kind of invisible.  Sad. 

Any reader who is keen to understand Goa could get a good introduction to the work of many writers, scholars, and folklore researchers. With this comes a hint on why their work is special -including those of scholars like sociologist-painter Bernadette Gomes to German Indologist based in Arizona Alexander Henn.

The other two books are more focused.  One is, as its title suggests, is about the ‘Typological Insights Into Folklore of Goa’, It focuses on folk music, folk dance, and folk theatre.

‘Folk Tales From New Goa, India’ has a mix of Konkani and English texts, and focuses on stories of magic, the marvellous, joyful and tales, traditions or legends.

A couple of, maybe three, questions can come up here. While those who studied and wrote about the folk culture get the credit which they deserve, how does one credit the many (mainly oral and often anonymous) creators of the folk culture itself? Some questions have already been asked about how the folk and subaltern Goa get portrayed by those literate enough to claim the right to represent them.

Another issue is how does Konkani get categorised in networks such as the cited here too Ethnologue: Languages of the World? Ethnologue is an annual reference publication that aims to provide statistics and information on the planet’s living languages. It has been published since 1951.  But there have been debates on how it chooses to define the Konkani language – as gom or knn?  Where does kok fit in? Are the definitions accurate, or just defined by a lack of Goan participation in shaping its self-identity worldwide?

Techies and Wikipedians have already discussed issues like this. As put once in a discussion: “You will find very little info on Konkani on the Net; and yes it may be outdated, contradictory, confusing or even biased….  Makes me feel that some amateur kid is sitting and updating Ethnologue right now.”

But one could go to another level and debate concepts like ‘folk’ culture. The late professor Pramod Kale, one of the first to study the tiatr in Goa in an academic manner, once said: “Folk theatre is a total misnomer. It could be commercial, like the tiatr. Somebody – at the Sangeet Natya Akademi [in post-Independence Delhi], under some sort of Russian influence – began to talk of folk art and folk theatre in the 1950s, and the name stuck. Folk is…  an 18th-century German word.  German researchers had this tremendous taste for the ‘folk’. We just took that word and applied it. In the 1960s, due to the Soviet and European traditions, we too [in India] tried to create a ‘folk tradition’.  [http://bit.ly/kale-folk]

So you decide where that leaves us…