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Assamese Folktales: A Structural Analysis

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Item Code: NAW209
Author: Mrinal Medhi
Publisher: Central Institute Of Indian Languages, Mysore
Language: English
Edition: 2015
ISBN: 9788173431555
Pages: 364
Other Details 9.50 X 7.00 inch
Weight 710 gm
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Book Description

The Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) was established in Mysuru, India, on the 17" July, 1969, on the recommendation of the Kher Commission of the Government of India and The Official Language Resolution of 1968, with a view to assisting and coordinating the development of Indian languages. The Institute was charged with the responsibility of serving as a nucleus to bring together all the research and literary output from the various linguistic streams to a common head and narrowing the gap between basic research and development research in the fields of languages and linguistics in India. The Institute is also to contribute towards the maintenance of multilingualism of the country through language teaching and translation and to strengthen the common bond among the Indian languages.

The work of the Institute consists of research, training and production of teaching materials. The result of these activities can be seen in its more than 300 publications and many thousand teachers trained in the Regional Language Centers. The Institute has been able to make an impact in language teaching in schools making it skill based and function oriented. It has brought audio visual and computer technology to aid the teaching of Indian languages. It has helped many tribal languages to be codified, described and used in education. The Institute’s research and training programmes in social, physiological and folkloristic aspects of language and culture have introduced new dimensions to research in Indian languages. Various International and National seminars and conferences organized by the Institute in sociolinguistics, semiotics, phonetics, folklore and other areas have helped development of the languages and also human resources in these areas. The Institute and its seven Regional Language Centers are thus engaged in research and teaching which lead to the publication of a wide ranging variety of materials, from language teaching, linguistics, folklore to translation.

The Institute has given equal importance to the study of Folklore and it is evident from the numerous publications of folklore materials in different languages of India. The present publication, Assamese Folktales: A Structural Analysis, by Dr. Mrinal Medhi, Guwahati, Assam is another addition to it. I hope this book will further contribute to the study of Folklore.


The concept of studying narrative structures of oral narratives, particularly folktales, initiated by Shklovskij, Volkov, Nikiforov, Veselovskij and many others and blossomed at the hands of Vladimir Propp in Russia, is now nearly one hundred years old. Vladimir Propp with his epoch making work Morphology of the Folktale in 1928 heralded a new era in the study of oral narratives and revolutionized the entire gamut of folktale study. He began his theory of investigation with a critique on Aarne’s taxonomy of folktales (1910) in particular and on the Historical Geographic method in general. Unfortunately, this big leap in folkloristics from historical to descriptive and from diachronic to synchronic era of analysis and study was not seriously felt even in Russia. Besides other reasons, one important reason of this was that folklore Studies in all over the world was not prepared to receive the benefits of this big leap, and had to wait for thirty years till 1958, when Propp’s ‘Morphology’ was translated. Later, the formalist mode of structural analysis has not only highly influenced folklore studies, but also literary theory and other related areas.

The narrative world of Assamese folktales is not fully explored yet except a few attempts, although collection of Assamese tales began in the beginning of the twentieth century by collectors like great nationalist Lakshminath Bezbaroa. After Prafulladatta Goswami’s typological study of Assamese tales (1960), however, no full length analytical or interpretative study of Assamese folktales has been attempted so far.

My first encounter with structural analysis was when I was introduced to it in my theory classes while pursuing M.Phil course in Folklore in Gauhati University. The wonderful and bewildering world of folktales and the approach of structural analysis to study these fascinated me so much that it resulted to my working on twenty Assamese wonder tales in the Proppian scheme of analysis and the examination of the cross-cultural validity of this scheme (1999). This was my first experiment.

This book is based on my Ph.D. thesis. It is the result of inspiration and encouragement. I have received from many persons. Firstly, I shall be failing in my duties if I do not mention that when I approached Prof. Udaya Narayana Singh, the then Director of Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, for publishing my thesis, he promptly sent me an encouraging and inspiring mail and asked me to submit the manuscript. I express my immense gratitude to him. I also take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Prof. Awadesh Kumar Mishra, present Director, CIIL, for taking initiative to publish the book. I thank all concerned officers and staff of CIIL, particularly, Dr. K.Srinivasacharya, Dr.M.Balakumar, Head of the Publication unit, Mr. R.Nandeesh, Mr. M.N -Chandrashekar, Mr.H.Manohara and Smt. J.Shobha, Smt.R.Nagamani of the Publication Unit. I also express my heartfull gratitude to the organization as a whole for co-operating and publishing my book.

I am indebted to a very distinguished scholar, Prof. A.C. Bhagabati, a noted Anthropologist and former Vice Chancellor, Arunachal University, who always insistently prodded to complete my thesis as soon as possible and my intimate relationship with him has always put me in an advantageous edge.

My supervisor, Dr. Kishore Kumar Bhattacharjee, Head, Department of Folklore Research, Gauhati University, has helped all along and contributed a lot to the successful completion of the thesis. I, therefore, dedicate this book to him.

I am also indebted to Prof. Ulo Valk, whom I met several times during his visits to Assam and discussed about my thesis, for his constant encouragements.

My sincere thanks also goes to Dr. Anil Kumar Baro, a teacher in the Department of Folklore Research, Gauhati University and a friend, who always showed keen interest in the completion and publication of the book.

I have no word to express my gratitude and thanks to my mother Mrs. Prabha Medhi, wife Mira and son Bitopan, without whose constant encouragement, co-operation and help, this work would have never been completed.


The folktale is one of the genres of folklore, which is also popular in printed forms, and some oral versions exist as active tradition in many areas of the world. This genre has been appearing in the printed form since the 18" century (Stein 2000: 167). Publication of collections of oral folktales in printed forms is drawing a large number of readers. Blackburn (2003) argues that in India printing helped in the popularization of folktale. Scores of animation films are being made on popular old folktale plots. Folktale plots are also a favorite subject of children plays. Weighty statements on the importance of folktales to the development of children’s mind are being made by the social scientists, psychologists and child psychiatrists (Apo 1995: 13).

Folkloristic research of folktale has shown just how important folktales were in the old folk-culture based on oral tradition.

"The need for a form of entertainment set apart from everyday life is no doubt as old as human culture in general, likewise, the ability to invent stories, to create fiction, to unleash the imagination by means of speech, pictures or writing. Inventing, performing and listening to imaginary tales have many functions: to provide aesthetic experiences, joy at the commanding and varying of form, to express and concretize the problems and conflicts arising in a culture and to suggest imaginary solutions; to crystallize the prevailing concepts of the fundamental phenomena of life and to pass them on to future generations; to break the daily monotony and to transport the narrators and listeners to a different reality, a world of narrative. Sometimes, the telling of folktales also acquired magic overtones" (idem).

Apart from these functions, scholars have suggested some other functions folktales seem to have performed in the primitive folk-culture. According to Dimitri Zelenin, hunters in the hunting cultures of Eurasia used suggestive narration in order to transfix game animals or their spirits (Lauri Honko 1986, cited by Apo 1995: 255). Leea Virtanen says that narrator’s comments have been recorded in Russian Karelia indicating that the telling of folktales was believed to protect the house and its inhabitants from evil (Virtanen 1978, cited by Apo 1995: 255).

Traditionally, folktale is the domain of the tellers or narrators. A good narrator or teller has a place in the society.

"Whether among the peasants of Western Ireland or among the natives of Lapland, India or Alaska, folktales are much more than a casual part of the life of those who tell them and hear them. Even where the reciting of tales is to be expected of everyone, there is every effort to make a story interesting and pleasing to the audience. And where tale-telling is the function of a chosen few, professional or semi professional, it is cultivated as a serious art. Voice, gesture and narrative effects are carefully studied and practiced. The man, who excels, is rewarded with the esteem of his fellows and with much coveted prestige" (Thompson 1977: 449).

The narrative techniques of folktales of different people can be studied. Thompson writes, ‘It is possible with considerable success to make comparative studies not only of the themes of folktales, but also of the narrative techniques among people of very diverse cultures, from the simple Australian Bushman to the peasant of Modern Europe and even the professional story tellers of the bazaars of Cairo’ (Thompson 1949: 409).

Folktale is a universal phenomenon. Although according to some research into folktale narrators, the need for folktale is particularly felt in communities, where life was harder and burdened with numerous restrictions, mental and physical pressures. Juha Pentikainen says that Marina Takalo of Russian Karelia found her most rewarding audiences among the men at a winter logging camp in Russia (Pentikainen 1978: 266-67). But folktale telling has not always been accompanied only with the harsher side of the life. Its chief attractions--the chance it provides of breaking free from the everyday reality and certain universal problems in a positive way, has drawn all groups of people, and not only the lowest strata of the society, as its listeners. Folktale is also able to bridge the boundaries between social classes and eras as it strives as a form of entertainment among the children of different classes (Apo 1995: 14). Thompson says, "All people, irrespective of age, sex, colour and religion, like to listen tale and a good teller of stories has everywhere and always found eager listeners. His tale may be a mere report of a recent happening, a legend of long ago, or an elaborately devised fiction, people hung to his words and satisfy their yearnings for information or amusement to heroic deeds or religious education, or release from the overpowering monotony of their daily lives" (Thompson 1977: 3). He adds, "In villages of Central Africa, in outrigger boats on the Pacific, in the Australian bush and within the shadow of Hawaiian volcanoes, tales of the present and of the mysterious past, of animals and gods and heroes, and of men and women like themselves, hold listeners in their spell or enrich the conversation of daily life. So it is also in Eskimo igloos under the light of seal oil lamps, in the tropical jungles of Brazil, and by the totem poles of the British Columbian coast. In Japan too, and China and India, the priest and the scholar, the peasant and the artisan, all join in their love of a good story and their honour for the man who tell it well’’ (idem).

The study of folktale as a subject of folklore began at the beginning of the 19" century. Of the three main oral prose genres, myth, legend and folktale, folktale has received the most critical attention in folklore scholarship. Although orality is the forte of folktale, however, for the purpose of study, scholars have always depended on printed or literary sources of folktales. Folktales are mainly collected from oral sources, then rewritten and edited by the collector. Folktales, like legends and myths, have been noted down at a period of cultural history, when oral narration was complemented by written communication in the form of newspapers and journals, popular books and magazines. Oral folktales blossom out into rich lively narrative when collected or recorded in an oral performance, or when written down by a writer editor, as was the case with the creative editing of the Grimm Brothers and Eero Salmelainen (Apo 1995: 15). Stein writes, "‘From the beginning, fairy tale research was text-centered: oral tradition was rendered as text, preserved in archives and published in collections for general as well as academic reading audience. Only towards the middle of the 20" century did the paradigm, with the aid of modern recording technologies, yield to more context-sensitive and performance centered aspects of story-telling" (Stein 2000: 168).

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