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Folklore in South Asia: The Politics and Ethics of Digital Archives

By Carola Erika Lorea

There is something necessarily exotic about the performances recorded and shared in digital archives of South Asian folklore. As everything exotic, this implies an exaggerated representation of a romanticized Other, and an unequal divide in terms of social and economic power between the ‘representer’ and the represented. Performers are often recorded in an idyllic rural setting, in their brightest and newest costumes: they look like very old depositories of very traditional arts. It is not quite different from the pictures that people choose to display in their Tinder and Facebook profiles: impeccable, young, and attractive, looking more real than the reality out there.

As a scholar of Bengali oral traditions, I must admit that, if one were to get introduced to the performances of the Bauls of Bengal through digital archives, this discrepancy would feel rather shocking. The audiovisual material accessible online portrays a conventionally exoticized image of Bauls dressed in bright orange robes and patchwork vests against a background of red soil and uncontaminated nature.

The world out there seems rather dull in comparison, as most singers and teachers of Baul knowledge carry on a relatively normal family life deprived of extravagant clothes, and far from the uncorrupted savage nature of staged online performances, Baul gatherings can easily bamboozle the romantic spectator with astoundingly loud sound systems and dazzling lights.

When I was researching the living tradition of the songs of the 20th century saint-song-writer, Bhaba Pagla, I looked at a diversity of sources, including digital ones, and I found paradoxical and contradicting information in what emerged from online resources. A baffling amount of digital archives of Indian and Bengali folklore is accessible nowadays (“Folk Culture Archive”, “Lokgeet”, “Lok Giti”, “Baul Archive”, “Bangla Digital Folk Archive”, “Daricha Foundation”, “”, “Sahapedia”,[2] just to name a few!), but to what extent are these scattered archives really useful for literary and anthropological work? I can offer a few first-hand examples from my own research experience. The “Baul Archive” offers some 80 plus videos of Baul performances which are not divided by the songs’ content nor by their composers, but rather by the name of the performer. Only if the user knows that the name “Bhaba” would appear at the end of his songs, then she can search and find about 6 songs of Bhaba Pagla among the various performances. Clicking on “notes”, some distorted information is provided: for instance, the date of the composer’s death is given as 2006 (more than 20 years later!) and the author complains about the lack of scholarly sources (which are in fact available, at least in Bengali, from well-known publishers).[3]

The digital archive of Bengali folk-songs’ lyrics “Lok Giti” offers a vast collection of songs’ texts with a very handy search engine for scholars interested in intertextual and comparative studies of oral literature. The collectors have transcribed about 90 songs of Bhaba Pagla, diversely categorized as ‘Baul’ or as ‘Shyamasangit’. No information is provided about the source of each song’s text, leaving us wondering whether the version of the lyric that appears on the archive was collected from a performer (and in that case who, where, and when!?), or whether it has been copied from printed sources. The criteria for categorization remain unclear: neither do they follow the performers’ perspectives on songs’ taxonomies, nor do they reflect what is indicated in the composer’s handwritten manuscripts. The collectors were so kind to explain to me by email that they have divided the songs according to their vocabulary and imagery, following what they felt was to be expected from a Baul song, or from a devotional Shyamasangit song, respectively.

In the ethnomusicological adventure documented in the “Travelling Archive”, a performance of Nimai Chand is recorded and supplemented by a transcription of the lyrics, composed by Bhaba Pagla. No information is provided about the composer, and the lyrics have been transcribed directly from the performer’s voice, maintaining his pronunciation and accent. The song is clearly sang in East Bengali dialect, which is not surprising, for most of Bhaba Pagla’s devotees and disciples are originally from East Bengal.[4] What is common to all of the extremely diverse digital archives mentioned so far, oscillating between amateur folklore aficionados and professionally trained academic collectors, is that none of the archives bother about inquiring into the performers’ meanings associated to what they are singing. The digital spectator is left with a voyeuristic enjoyment of the performance per se, but the contextual life of the song inscribed in the embodied repertoire of the performer is something that is not expected to be worth documenting, protecting, and sharing. What is the performer’s oral exegesis of the song in question? What is the performer’s training that allows him/her to transmit and perform that song? How is the song used in the performer’s life? How is its content embodied in his/her everyday experience of devotion or, more mundanely, in his/her practices of negotiating sponsorship, audience demand and, more broadly, in the folk ‘show-business’?

This is particularly unfortunate when we deal with Bengali ‘songs of sādhanā‘, linked to an esoteric traditional knowledge and meant to be understood and often interpreted differently by different members of the local community: the enigmatic and metaphorical lyrics of Baul songs have different layers of meaning that can address outsiders, insiders, and practitioners at different stages of their sādhanā (namely sthūla, pravarta, sādhaka, and siddha). Whereas digital archives aim to provide free access to oral traditions for any user, the local understanding of openness and disclosure is much more complex. Songs’ contents are not supposed to be openly accessible to anybody: some songs are for men, while others transmit teachings for women; some are for ‘beginner’ practitioners, while others should only be decoded by experienced disciples. If digital archives do not take into account the emic discourse on ‘open’ or ‘restricted’ accessibility, this bears consequences on the representation of the tradition that they claim to ‘protect’. If what is archived on online platforms is only the repertoire of songs that can be performed publicly – to non-initiate audiences – then that would become emblematic for the entire tradition in its totality, with a flattening and reductive effect. On the other hand, if songs that the holders of this tradition would not disclose to any random listener are made publicly accessible, this violates fundamental ethical principles of sustainable and responsible ethnography. How can digital archives still be valuable instruments for educators, researchers, internet users as well as for the local communities of performers, while coping with this apparently lose-lose situation?

There is an urgent need for digital archives of Indian folklore to develop in a constant dialogue with the communities of creators and holders of the traditional knowledge that they seek to represent, so that the ways in which the content is made accessible can respectfully reflect the local communities’ ideas on what is appropriate to share and what is not, to which degree and for whom. A very clever example of a successful negotiation between the academic creators of a digital archive and the owners of oral traditions is “Digital Dynamics Across Cultures”, an interactive project on the cultural protocols of the Warumungu people of Central Australia which questions the absolute representational authority of digital archives. The website displays parameters of accessibility that reflect the local knowledge system and the indigenous perspectives on ‘access’: for instance, “a video clip may stop halfway through because the material is restricted by gender, or audio of a song may fade in and out because elements are restricted to only those who have been ritually initiated, or a photo may be only half visible because someone in the photo has died.”[5] This innovative approach encourages me to think that online accessibility can be much more than a digital human safari across distant cultures and their performative traditions: it liberates from the disturbing sensation that digital archives end up being paternalistic projects of protection and preservation of intangible cultural heritage, as if the local creators and performers of that heritage were not rightfully entitled and intellectually able to protect it by themselves.

The same disturbing sensation pervades me when I visit the numerous well-known museums of ethnology and archeology in the quaint Dutch town where I currently live. As a visible legacy of a powerful colonialist past, these collections of antiquities and material culture from all over the world are finely preserved, but they remain largely inaccessible to the people whose ancestors produced them. In a very similar manner, digital archives of folklore in South Asia endorse themselves with the obligation to preserve and protect oral literature, while the cultural products that they openly display remain inaccessible to their creators, because the performers of local folklore are not likely to have an internet café near their hut or a free WiFi at the chai stall. The digital divide poses a serious ethical question concerning the inequities of the computer infrastructure, access, and quality. Scholars involved in digital archives of oral literature should ask themselves how they can make their material accessible back in their field-work region and among their informants in a usable, accessible, and interactive form for future generations.[6] South Asian artists, singers and story-tellers represented on the online repositories of folklore come from a rural milieu, many of them may be illiterate, and many may not have a smart phone with data plans, nor the skills needed in order to use one to access digital material on folklore. According to the 2011 Census, only 3% of Indian households have (at least one) internet connection on their computers. TRAI data[7] reports that while urban India has 61.9 Internet subscriptions per 100 people, rural India gets by with just 13.7, a drastic digital divide which has important gender connotations too: men dominate internet usage in India with 71 percent to women’s 29 percent. This automatically means that digital archives of folklore are catering mainly for male urban users. The composition of the digital audience of folklore dictates the content that is selected and shared online: women’s folklore is hardly represented (a brilliant exception being the Grindmill Songs Project on PARI, the open ‘People Archive of Rural India’), while genres that have been popularized and commodified for the appreciation of urban intellectuals and upper-middle classes have a very big chance of being over-represented on digital archives: for example, Baul and Fakir songs, which entered the aesthetics of urban intellectuals even before being widely popularized by Rabindranath Tagore in the early 1900s; Patua scrolls’ painters and story-tellers, brought to the limelight by the nationalist  folklorist Gurusaday Dutta since the 1930s; and Chhau dance, a tradition revived and rehabilitated by the famous Bengali folklorist Ashutosh Bhattacharya in the 1960s.

Digital archives of South Asian folklore are rarely transparent in answering these crucial questions: Who catalogues? Who archives, and for whom? The politics of selection and omission have a great impact on both popular ideas on folklore as well as on the communities that produce it. We can be pretty sure that marginalized rural performers do not create digital archives of their oral traditions themselves: more likely, amateur as well as academically trained collectors, possibly with a degree from a big city, are digitizing folkloric traditions. While doing this operation, they are acting by what they mean by ‘folklore’, and this is what they will be representing in their online archives. Some traditions will be selected, others will not. Impoverished and marginal performers that are not recognized as “folk” and yet preserve and transmit a rich and varied repertoire of songs, rhythms, dances, and rituals, will remain underground and subaltern both in the socio-economic reality, as well as in the digital realm, which ends up reproducing the discrimination at play in the dominant culture. Tribal drummers, women repertoires of folk arts – ālpanā, ritual cooking, henna patterns, and what not – Matua singers, Kabigan artists from so-called Scheduled Castes and many others, are nowhere to be found on these newly emerged digital trunks of Bengali traditions, and yet, as some of the archives mentioned above clearly state in their ‘Mission’, reminiscent of 19th century discourse on extinguishing folklore, their priority is to preserve and protect rural artists’ traditions threatened by “modernization and westernization” and to immortalize folklore before it is lost forever. Some of these online platforms look like smart ideas for their curators to build an academic career or to make a lucrative tourism business out of folk traditions: little is known on the supposedly beneficial effects that these archives are offering to the cultural owners of folklore.

The myth of protection through digitization often forgets about the amount of technological exclusivity generated by digital media, constantly requiring updates, training, new infrastructures, experts’ maintenance, and all the associated costs (a painful operation which senior anthropologists having to deal with their interviews on audio-tape cassettes and field-work notes on floppy disks will perfectly understand). Once oral traditions are recorded and portrayed on a new medium, such as a digital archive, they will necessarily enter a new system of hierarchies. Digitization of folk performances has a very high chance to impact the field by becoming ‘more true’ than the real context of performance, for what exists online is accepted to be more authoritative and credible than what is not: “In the age of Google, nondigital content does not exist, and digital content with no impact is unlikely to survive.”[8] Oral traditions may thus become reified in one version, and the performers that are able to abide by that version will find the financial and social benefits derived from cultural tourism, staged urban performances and public recognition, while marginalized performers will have a better chance to remain at the margins, excluded from the representational authority of digitized folklore.

The rather dark scenario of the politics and ethics of the digital archives of folklore depicted so far does not mean to devalue the enormous potential of documenting oral traditions through digital media; rather it wishes to serve as a warning to work towards an ethical and sustainable approach. Information, especially if produced by vulnerable classes of South Asian society, should not simply be free, open, and accessible: it should be responsible. If developed in a permanent dialogue with the communities involved, allowing local artists and performers to contribute with their material and with the ways in which it should be appropriately represented and shared, digital archives can become windows on different knowledge systems for the global community of web users, while local actors can find in them an alternative reservoir of their past, a representation of their present, and a resource for future generations.

[1] Hans Harder has observed how in a new media such as audiovisual recordings on VCDs Maijbhandari performances became more traditional than their traditional performative contexts, restoring and bringing back to life the cross-dressing of the male singer. See here.

[2] Links: here; here; here; here; here; here; here; here; here

[3] See for instance Gopika Ranjan Chakrabarty (1995)  Bhabāpāglār Jīban O Gān, Dhaka: Bangla Academy.

[4] See Carola Lorea (2016) Folklore, Religion and the Songs of a Bengali Madman: A Journey Between Performance and the Politics of Cultural Representation. Leiden: Brill.

[5] More on this project in Kimberly Christen, “Access and Accountability: The Ecology of Information Sharing in the Digital Age”. Anthropology News, 2009: 4-5.

[6] More on this point in Jan Bender Shetler 2017, “The Mara Cultural Heritage Digital Library: The Implications of the DigitalReturn of Oral Tradition”, in Searching for Sharing: heritage and Multimedia in Africa, edited by Daniela Merolla and Mark Turin.

[7]  Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s quarterly Performance Indicators Report.

[8] Paul Conway (2010) “Preservation in the Age of Google: Digitization, Digital Preservation and Dilemmas.” Library Quarterly 80, no. 1: 61-79.

Carola Erika Lorea
is a research fellow at the South Asian Institute of the University of Heidelberg. She was a research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (Leiden) and she has been conferred a doctoral degree in Asian Studies from the University of Rome in 2015. Her research areas are mainly West Bengal, Bangladesh, and the Andaman Islands. She has published several books and academic articles on her main research topics, revolving around Bengali literature, oral traditions, popular religions, and performance. Email:


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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