Lecture Series "Unraveling Tales: Exploring Intersections between Folkloristics and Literature" - 8th July to 26th August 2021
Medieval Bengali literature presents us with some accurate historical glimpses into the so-called “folk” culture of the period. “Maṅgalkābyas” form the bulk of Middle Bengali poetic prose. It has therefore been an area of much interdisciplinary inquiry, especially by scholars of Indian history, literature, religion, and folklore. These texts differ considerably from Sanskrit “kāvyams” because they are less formalized than the classical texts that go by the same generic term. If any comparison can be drawn between a body of Sanskrit literature and “maṅgalkābya”, it would have to be the “purāṇas”. These two genres share many things thematically and structurally. For example, both emphasize accounts of creation (“sṛṣṭi”), the mythology of the primary deity after whom the text is named and to whom it is dedicated, length, and narrative style. The authors of the Bengali texts seem to have consciously borrowed the classical model and utilized many motifs and stories from the Sanskrit texts in their attempts to indigenize the form by presenting and praising autochthonous deities, which is why “maṅgalkābyas” are sometimes referred to as vernacular “purāṇas”. This does not suggest, however, that the Bengali texts imitate or mimic their classical Sanskrit counterparts. In fact, the vernacular texts are the antithesis of their Sanskrit counterparts. “Maṅgalkābyas” thus present a unique and interesting view of Bengali religion and culture that often takes very specific theological turns not found elsewhere in India. At the same time, however, they are a regional aspect of transregional and national concerns. They are therefore similar but not the same as their classical counterparts, since they share many family resemblances but remain locally unique. My lecture will begin by providing the necessary historical and cultural background to embed “maṅgalkābyas” within the broader Indian context, then move to analyze them from a comparative, global perspective to see what light they might shed on the dynamics of the oral/literary interface, which is central to the ongoing production of folklore in the modern world.