Sociology Mind
2011. Vol.1, No.4, 173-176
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/sm.2011.14022
Folklore and Northeast Indian History
Meeta Deka
Department of History, Gauhati University, Gauhati, India.
Received May 29th, 2011; revised July 15th, 2011; accepted August 16th, 2011.
The article intends to highlight folklore as an alternative source for the writing of history, particularly of the
northeastern region of India, which is inhabited by numerous tribal communities, and where there is a dearth of
written documents, archaeological and other evidences. Folklore as a source is important to explain and under-
stand societies in the context of preserving cultural diversity and protecting minority cultures, especially those of
indigenous peoples and marginalized social groups. With the increased growth of several ethnic identity crises in
the region in recent times, the roots for their respective indigenous history are often traced to folklore.
Keywords: Cultural Heritage, Alternative Source, Traditional Knowledge
Folklore is an important source for the writing of history,
particularly of the northeastern region of India, which com-
prises of seven states namely Assam, Arunachal Pradesh,
Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, and Tripura and
inhabited by numerous tribal communities such as Adi, Apatani,
Angami, Ao, Rengma, Nyishi, Garo, Khasi, Synteng, Mizo,
Kuki, Bodo, Missing, Dimasa, Nepalese, Riang, Trippera and
Tripuri, where there has been a dearth of written documents,
archaeological and other evidences. As an alternative source,
folklore is significant to explain and understand societies in the
context of preserving cultural diversity and protecting minority
cultures, especially those of indigenous peoples and marginal-
ized social groups like the peasantry, labour, ethnic tribes, and
women. Folklore as an important element of the cultural heri-
tage of every tribe, andnation, becomes important to history as
well. Folklore of a group reinforces its sense of ethnic and so-
cial identity. It is a living and still developing tradition, rather
than just a memory of the past, particularly with the growth of
ethnic crises in recent times. It is through such an understand-
ing that folklore is considered as an important source for history.
The attainment of such importance also demands the need for
intellectual property protection of expressions of folklore that is
made necessary vis a vismodern information technologies.
Although WJ Thoms coined the term “folklore” as early as
1846, its implications changed over time to become more com-
prehensive. The amorphous term “folklore” tends to emphasize
its diverse nature, consisting of, for example, the “traditional
customs, tales, sayings, or art forms preserved among a peo-
ple.” (Webster, 1984). In this sense, the term applies not only to
ideas, or words, but also to physical objects. Archer Taylor
(Kuruk, 1999: Introduction) explains its multi-faceted implica-
tions in very clear terms:
The folklore of physical objects includes the shapes and uses
of tools, costumes, and the forms of villages and houses. The
folklore of gestures and games occupies a positioned interme-
diate between the folklore of physical objects and the folklore
of ideas. Typical ideas transmitted as folklore are manifested in
the customs associated with birth, marriage, and death, with the
lesser events of life, with remedies for illnesses and wounds,
with agriculture, the trades, and the professions, and with reli-
gious life. ... Verbal folklore includes. tales of various kinds
(marchen, jests, legends, cumulative tales, exempla, fables,
etiological tales), ballads, lyric folk song, Children’s songs,
charms, proverbs and riddles. (Taylor, Definitions)
Examples of folklore provided in the statutes include poetry,
riddles, songs, instrumental music, dances, and plays, produc-
tions of art in drawings, paintings, carvings, sculptures, pottery,
terra cotta, mosaic, woodwork, metalwork, jewelry, handicrafts,
costumes, and indigenous textiles. However, traditional knowl-
edge based on plant varieties grown by farmers, and plant ex-
tracts developed by local medicine men, also qualify as works
of folklore to the extent that “these techniques embody scien-
tific techniques passed down through generations in the com-
munity. The knowledge they embody is priceless and, once lost,
cannot be recovered”. Widespread exploitation of such types of
traditional knowledge justify their inclusion in any protective
legal regime. Apart from its entertainment value, folk music
serves as a means of recording history by preserving informa-
tion about important past events. Music also plays vital roles in
rituals and festivities, as a palliative in healing, as part of war
preparation, and as a means for criticizing or checking govern-
mental abuses. Dance and drama are also linked to rituals and
religious festivities, while designs on fabrics and art may depict
religious, social or cultural concepts. In popular usage, the term
folklore is sometimes restricted to oral literature tradition.
However, in modern usage, folklore is an academic discipline,
the subject matter of which (also called folklore) comprises the
sum-total of traditionally derived or orally or imitatively trans-
mitted literature, material culture and custom of sub-cultures
within predominantly literate and technologically advanced
societies (Webster, 1984). This new definition emerged, rather
developed, through the ages to include its importance for the
reconstruction of the history of “the people”.
Collection of Indian folklore, as represented by the
Panchatantraor Indian fables, the Jatakas or stories related to
the life of Gautama Buddha, to name a few, can be traced to
very early times. In the west, the collection of folklore began
late. Inspired by the Grimm brothers, whose first collection of
fairy tales appeared in 1812, scholars all over Europe began
recording and publishing oral literature. At first they concen-
trated exclusively on rural uneducated peasants and a few other
groups, like the gypsies for example, which arerelatively un-
touched by modern ways. Their aim was to trace preserved
archaic customs and beliefs to their remote origins in order to
trace the mental history of mankind. In Germany, Jacob Grimm
used folklore to illuminate Germanic religion of the Dark Ages.
In Britain,
Sir Edward Tylor, Andrew Lang and others combined data
from anthropology and folklore to “reconstruct” the beliefs and
rituals of pre-historic man. Sir James Frazer’s The Golden
Bough (1890) is a good example of such an effort. Soon large
collections of material were amassed in the course of these
efforts and many archives and museums were founded. Folk-
lore soon acquired nationalistic overtones as it reinforced the
ethnic identity of a social group, it figured prominently in many
struggles for political independence and national unity (TNEB).
Importance of Folklore as a Source
for History-Writing
Hence as the scholarship of folklore developed, with new
aims, scope andmethodologies, its importance as a source of
history also grew. In fact the first formal association between
history and folklore is apparent in the title of a book on folklore
written by George Lawrence Gomme: Folklore as a Historical
Science published in 1908. BirenDutta, a renowned folklorist of
the region, states that although folklore is no longer accepted as
a historical science, he identifies its association with history
through the use of the term ”historical” to two schools of folk-
loristics: (Dutta, 2002: p. 25).
The first, the Historical-Geographical School was at one time
the most influential theoretical and methodological tool that
was applied to folklore data by scholars in Europe and Amer-
ica”. An important advance was the classification of material
for comparative analysis. Standards of identification were de-
vised, notably for ballads by FJ Child and for the plots and
component motifs of folktales and myths by Antti Aarne and
Stith Thompson. Using these, Finnish scholars, led by Karle
Krohn, developed the “historical-geographical” method of re-
search, in which every known variant of a particular tale, ballad,
riddle or other item were classified as to place and date of col-
lection in order to study distribution patterns and reconstruct
“original” forms. In other words it is based on the diffusionist
theory that like cultural traits, folklore items initially originate
in a particular place and are transmitted to other places through
the process of diffusion. This method, more statistical than
speculative than that of the anthropological folklorists, domi-
nated the field throughout the first half of the 20thC. The sec-
ond was the Historical-Reconstructional School which tried to
“recapture vanished historical periods for which other evidence
is scanty” (Dorson, 2002: pp. 12-13). Dutta states that both the
schools are related to the ideas of evolutionism and devolution-
ism* (Dutta, 2002, p. 24). Both the schools were attempts at the
reconstruction of prehistory and history.
From the year 1930 onwards immense developments and
changes were taking place both in Folklore Studies as well as in
History. In folklore studies, ideas related to evolution and
devolution were ejected in favor of a more scientific approach.
After the World War II new trends emerged, particularly in the
United States. Interest was no longer confined to rural commu-
nities, since it was recognized that cities too contained defin-
able groups whose characteristic arts, customs and values
marked their identity. Although some scholars continued to
regard folklore as belonging solely to the working classes, in
other circles the concept lost its restrictions of class and even of
educational level. In fact, any group that expressed its inner
cohesion by maintaining shared traditions qualified as a “folk”,
whether the linking factor be occupation, language, place of
residence, age, religion or ethnic origin. Emphasis also shifted
from the past to the present, from the search for origins to the
investigation of present meaning and function. Change and
adaptation within tradition were no longer necessarily regarded
as corruptive (TNEB).
Dutta has identified the various stages of development of
modern folkloristics in India and that the introduction of De-
partments of Folklore in universities is a post-independence
phenomenon. One of the earliest established departments in
India was that of Gauhati University, by Birinchi Kumar Barua
in 1955. He stated that after the 1980s folkloristics have be-
come much more extensive with new perspectives and spe-
cialization (Dutta, 2002, pp. 18-20). Richard Dorson has iden-
tified four broad sectors in folkloristics, viz., Oral literature,
Material Culture, Social Folk Custom and Performing Folk Arts
(Handoo, 1985: pp. 7-14), which have great significance for the
reconstruction of history.
In history also, great changes and new trends made headway.
It was in the 1930s that the term “history from below” was
coined by the French historian, Georges Lefebvre. However it
gained importance only in the 1960s through the writings of
British Marxist historians like EP Thompson. “History from
below” also had exponents like Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie of
the Annales School through what is called “cultural history” or
the “history of the mentalites”. “History from below” is an
attempt to understand “real” people, to expand the frontiers of
social history in accordance with what Marx called the need to
understand the “masses”. It promoted the evaluation of the lives
and thoughts of pre-modern peasants, the development of the
working class, the activities and actions of women and men,
which were regarded as unimportant by scholars.
Thus the focus of history has moved away from the political
history of kings, rulers and white-collared officials to the writ-
ing of “New” social, economic and cultural histories wherein
the ordinary women is put back into historical narratives, and
wherein historians have turned their investigations to the de-
velopment of group identities, particularly workers, peasants,
racial and ethnic types. The emphasis of gender in history too
began particularly since the 1960s, when the feminist move-
ment and feminist thought made an extraordinary impact in the
social sciences and humanities; Gender in history has since then
been the central concern and focus of recent research.
Most written documents were silent on such aspects and
hence such a shift of focus perforce has led to the necessity of
using folklore as an important alternative to fill up the so called
gaps or blanks of history. Thus while history itself has ex-
panded its horizon of study, it has also diversified its sources by
moving away from conventional sources to unconventional
ones. The importance of folklore as a source for the writing of
history is to be found in the insight of a particular story, song,
drama or custom which may reflect the social and economic
conditions of that particular time in which it was formulated.
Hence each phenomenon constitutes more than a mere instance
to be recorded and compared with others of the same category;
it should be regarded and understood within its total context, as
arising from the interaction between individuals and their social
*The evolutionary theory represented a framework of a unilinear cultural
evolutionary sequence moving from savagery through barbarism to civiliza-
tion. The peasantry represented the ‘barbarian’ or ‘uncivilized ‘section
within a civilization, the ‘non-
rogressive class in a progressive people’ and
the ‘non-literate in a literate society’. Exponents of this theory are Max
Muller, the German Orientalist, EB Tylor, the British Anthropologist and
Lewis Henry Morgan, the American Anthropologist. ‘Devolutionism’ im-
plied that as society progresses in an evolutionary way towards more ad-
vanced sta
es of civilization, folklore devolves or deca
s at an e
ual rate.
M. DEKA 175
groups, and between man and environment as well.
However, there are pertinent dangers in the usage of folklore
as a source of history as well. Herein lies the responsibility of the
historian. JB Bhattacharjee summarizes its place in history thus:
“…historians will not use fol klore as a source with out examining
the acceptability of the information according to the standard
methods of verification of sources and elimination of the possible
impact of ignorance or motive or compulsion in each narration.
The use of folklore material is recommended when the standard
sources are either scanty or absent, or the folklore is able to pro-
vide additional information or to supple- ment the conventional
sources” (Bhattacharjee, 2003: p. 29). In the application of folk-
lore contents and implications to history, of discerning the “his-
torical sense” in folklore, the historian will have to be aware of
the thin line that exists between history and myth, tradition and
folk tales , that between oral history and oral tradition, as also
between history, oral history and oral tradition. This calls for a
combination of methodol ogie s of hist ory and folkl ore. In t his, the
works of Jan Vansina (Oral Tradition as History” (1985), Rich-
ard Dorson (Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction (1972)) and
David Bynum (Oral Evidence and the Historian: Problems and
Methods (1973), would be extremely helpful in providing such
methodologies. (Dutta, 2002: pp. 67-69).
While the importance of folklore as a source increased, the
question of protection of traditional knowledge and folklore
became increasingly important with the emergence of a “global
information society” in recent years, characterized by the rise of
modern information technology. Traditional knowledge and
folklore are thus receiving increased attention in numerous
policy fora and debates, ranging from food and agriculture, the
environment, health, human rights, and cultural policy, to trade
and economic development. The concept of “traditional know-
ledge” emerged independently in several contexts such as en-
vironment conservation, agriculture and food security, tradi-
tional medicine as a source of primary health care, indigenous
knowledge, in the context of preserving cultural diversity and
protecting minority cultures, especially those of indigenous
peoples. It is the last mentioned context with which the writing
of history is concerned.
The need for intellectual property protection of expressions
of folklore emerged in developing countries like India. Al-
though improper exploitation of folklore was present in the past,
the spectacular development of technology, the newer ways of
using both literary and artistic works and expressions of folk-
lore, like audiovisual productions, phonograms, their mass re-
production, broadcasting, cable distribution, and so on, have
multiplied abuses. Folklore is commercialized without due
respect for the cultural and economic interests of the communi-
ties in which it originates. And, in order to better adapt it to the
needs of the market, it is often distorted. At the same time, the
communities who have developed and maintained it, are de-
prived of any profit derived from such ventures. In 1982 a joint
venture of WIPO and UNESCO undertook activities to address
the intellectual property aspects of traditional knowledge and
folklore and it resulted in the “Model Provisions for National
Laws on the Protection of Expressions of Folklore Against
Illicit Exploitation and other Prejudicial Actions” (WIPO, pp.
56-57). National Laws were framed by developing countries
like Africa Sri Lanka (1979); Indonesia (1987); China (1990)
etc., to regulate the use of folklore creations and to provide
protection in the framework of their copyright laws .Some of
these national laws however, do not provide a substantive defi-
nition; at most, they mention that what is involved is common
national heritage. However, the definitions in the laws of Benin
and Rwanda are much broader and also extend to other aspects
of folklore, as for example, to scientific and technological
“folklore” such as, acquired theoretical and practical knowledge
in the fields of natural science, physics, mathematics and as-
tronomy; the “know-how” of producing medicines, textiles,
metallurgical and other products; agricultural techniques.
The protection of such elements of folklore is obviously alien
to the purposes and structure of copyright. It follows from the
fact that folklore is part of traditional heritage that it would not
be appropriate to leave its protection to some individual “own-
ers of rights.” In principle, it could be a solution to entrust the
communities concerned with exercising—through their repre-
sentatives—the rights granted for the protection of the folklore
developed by them. However, all the national laws providing
for “copyright” protection of folklore rather authorize various
national bodies to exercise such rights. In certain countries,
those bodies are the competent ministries or similar national
authorities, while in some other countries, they are the national
(state) bureaus for the protection of authors’ rights.
As the laws varied from country to country, the 1967 Stock-
holm Diplomatic Conference for revision of the Berne Conven-
tion made an attempt to introduce copyright protection for
folklore also at the international level. However, copyright law
may not be the right, or certainly the only, means for protecting
expressions of folklore. This is because, whereas an expression
of folklore is the result of an impersonal, continuous and slow
process of creative activity exercised in a given community by
consecutive imitation, works protected by copyright must, tra-
ditionally, bear a mark of individual originality. Traditional
creations of a community, such as the so-called folk tales, folk
songs, folk music, folk dances, folk designs or patterns, may
often not fit into the notion of literary and artistic works. Copy-
right is author-centric and, in the case of folklore, an author—at
least in the way in which the notion of “author” is conceived in
the field of copyright—is absent (WIPO, pp. 58-64).
The Model Provisions were regarded as the first step in es-
tablishing a sui generis system of intellectual-property-type
protection for expressions of folklore. They were designed for a
proper guidance for national legislation so as to maintain a
proper balance between protection against abuses of expres-
sions of folklore, on the one hand, and of the freedom and en-
couragement of further development and dissemination of
folklore, on the other. The Model Provisions did not necessarily
have to form a separate law; they might constitute, for example,
a chapter of an intellectual property code or of a law dealing
with all aspects of the preservation and promotion of national
folklore. The Model Provisions defines the term “expressions
of folklore” as productions consisting of characteristic elements
of the traditional artistic heritage developed and maintained by
a community in the country or by individuals reflecting the
traditional artistic works (WIPO, pp. 58-64).
Extending statutory rights and remedies to folklore would
significantly improve the protection available under customary
law. It would mean that rights to folkloric works could be en-
forced within national boundaries instead of under the limited
jurisdictional confines of the local community. The national
court system would also complement the authority of elders and
other group leaders and strengthen prohibitions and conven-
tions regarding the use of folklore. Traditional communities
would have greater control over the use of their works. Like
any subject of copyright, (scientific, literary and artistic works),
folklore is the result of a creative process. Folklore takes the
same form as any subject of copyright, that is, the form of a
work. Strictly speaking, folk songs can be regarded as a varia-
tion on the kind of song that is protected by copyright, while
folk art productions can be assimilated to decorative art, etc. So
with regard to their form of expression, works of folklore are
comparable to the works protected by copyright. With respect
to their content, of course, folk productions do differ from au-
thors’ works, but the distinction has no bearing on the provision
of legal protection. Advocates for the expansion of intellectual
property law to folklore also believe that clothing designs, so-
phisticated marks on agricultural implements, and carvings
could be protected as trademarks while the technology proc-
esses in cloth-weaving, metal-working, constructing musical
instruments, and the practice of herbal medicine could be pat-
ented. As a practical matter, however, it may be difficult to
protect these rights under the general provisions of statutory
law. There are inherent difficulties in fitting folklore into cer-
tain accepted notions of intellectual property relating to owner-
ship, originality, duration, fixation, inventiveness and unique-
ness (Kuruk, 1999: pp. 841-848).
It is difficult to classify indigenous knowledge innovations
and practices into categories of intellectual property developed
for use by commercial firms in an industrial and secular context
because different concepts of ownership rights apply in tradi-
tional schemes, and folklore may not fall within the purview of
intellectual property law. In traditional societies, ownership
refers to the rights of all members of the community in subject
matter originally acquired by ancestors which cannot be trans-
ferred unilaterally by any member of the group, including the
head leader. For example, there may be a problem identifying
an individual who could claim authorship given the passage of
folklore through generations of people in the community. It is
obvious that while an individual may have indeed created a
particular work of folklore, it would eventually have been ac-
quired and used by the society at large and gradually, with the
passage of time, have lost its individualistic traits. It would be
difficult to establish a framework for determining an appropri-
ate protection period because the slow and evolving nature of
folklore makes it impossible to determine precisely when a
work of folklore was first created. Hence significant problems
with protecting folklore under customary law, national legisla-
tion, regional and international laws are discerned. Scholars
urge the recognition of moral rights in folklore as the solution
to problems of distortion, misrepresentation, and authenticity
that frequently accompany the unauthorized use of folklore.
The argument for adopting a separate instrument for folklore
rests on the fact that folklore is sui generis; despite similarities
with intellectual property rights, folklore is created, owned and
utilized differently (Kuruk, 1999).
The very cultural heritage that gives indigenous peoples their
identity, now far more than in the past, is under threat of ex-
tinction. This is particularly true of Northeast India, which is
inhabited by over 200 of the 635 tribal groups in the country,
and what is more striking is the fact that this region, plains and
hills people included, geographically secluded as it is from the
mainland shares greater affinity, besides the geographical, in
terms of race, culture, and tradition to its eastern neighbours,
viz. China, Tibet and Myanmar than with the mainland. Identity
crises have grown exponentially in the last the six decades and
more in post-Independence India , allowing a flourish of cul-
tural diversity in the region as elsewhere, adding vibrancy to
national identity on one hand, while the ever-widening contours
of the economic world under the process of globalization, tak-
ing the shape of the Look-East Policy and other economic de-
velopments in Northeast India, have converted this region into
one of South Asia’s hottest trouble spots, steeped in insurgency
and secessionist movements. Ethnic identity crises have per-
force drawn the attention of the various tribes to look for roots
and invent a history, wherein folklore plays a remarkable role.
Hence if folklore cannot be brought under modern intellect-
tual property laws, then it is imperative to consider new legal
protection to the traditional community’s fundamental right to
protect its heritage from undue exploitation. What is needed
then, as suggested by Paul Kuruk, is the creation of new and
indigenous agencies that would improve the existing frame-
work of protection and regulate the use of folklore within the
parameters of the state government. This would guarantee the
right of the various ethnic groups and national communities to
their own folklore and set up appropriate organizations such as
Arts Councils, which would be open to various interest groups.
As regards its importance as an alternative source to fill up gaps
in history, it may be stated that the historian must first of all be
aware of the basic difference between history and folklore,
myths and legends; second, that the historian be trained in the
finer details of methodology of both history and folklore as
well, so as to generate a holistic and a meaningful reconstruct-
tion of the past, corroborated by other evidences.
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