A Study of Folklore in the Light of Tradition and Modernity

Shamsuzzaman Khan

Translated by Mohammad Shafiqul Islam


W e will attempt to present the definition, origin, questions about meanings, aesthetics, the necessity of utility, and humanist and cultural aspects of our Bengali folklore in relation to the structure and inner structure of the current study. In the current world, this type of subject is discussed in multifarious ways under different complex theories and methods. We will not take on the complex theories with long arguments and discourses; rather, we will seek our own model based on our society and history in order to bring forward the mode of the evolution of folklore in search of traditions to change the society. As a result, our discussion will not be in the small-setting through the synchronic analysis like the discussion of the recent western folklore experts – that is to say folklore industries, apparatuses, elements, chronological systems of productions, folk and handicraft artists’ work and lifestyle and their art will not be dependent. Since our history has a long tradition, we will emphasize on fusing western synchronic systems and diachronic systems of our ancient history. So we will be able to give a special focus on how local perspectives help build it in the perspective of rich history. Recently, it is found that contextual research is given emphasis. So folklore is analyzed contextually, or to speak more clearly, in the light of relevant context.

In synchronic research, micro study is emphasized. But the community having traditions of art that values the special meaning of folklore, its function and significance and the social taste and aesthetics, the thoughts and spirit, festivals and the world view of  the community, do not get objective and empirical reality in impartial interpretation. For a researcher, a single category of fieldwork is not enough; the researcher should keep in mind that his information giver is an active tradition bearer, and he is the passive tradition bearer. Only through continual intimate conversations, the meaning, symbol and the essence of particular folklore may become transparent. The practice of folklore is also a folk artist’s lifestyle. American anthropologist Franz Boas said much earlier, “We have to turn our attention first of all to the artist himself”. But before 1960s, in studying folklore in the West, especially in the United States of America, folklorists’ creations were not analyzed relating them to their lives.



An important branch of folklore is called Material Culture. Folklore is a powerful section of this material culture. Its other sections are: craftsmanship, folk architecture and human food. Folklore is the anthropological element enriched with qualities of manmade artwork – in academic terms, it is called Artifact. Barbara A. Babcock, a distinguished American folklore researcher and professor of English literature, said, “The word (arte + factum) literally means something made by skill or craft and may refer to any artificial product. In common usage artifact denoted an object manufactured or modified by human hands. (Folklore, Cultural Performances and Popular Entertainments – Ed. Richard Bauman. P. 204. Oxford University Press 1992).

In the western world, especially in America, the modern folklore study that had started in the 1960s was inclined to synchronic paradigm. That means research is done in the contemporary paradigm taking an industry and its adjacent places, its workers, apparatuses and elements into consideration. On the other hand, since the history of civilization is old, the paradigm of exploring our folklore should be based on history. As the last paradigm is complex and widespread, descriptive research is given emphasis in our country. In this method, fusion of nationalist and romantic emotions and nostalgia gives a message of folklore, but it becomes traditional and stereotype. In this type of research, transformation of certain folklore, a variety of structures and the picture of functional changes are not found. But society, even traditional society also changes. Our society has also been changing for a long time. The change is now faster and multidimensional. A huge middle class society has also emerged. In this process of change in society, folklore is also welcoming changes. Folklore has an unbelievable capability to adapt to the change in new taste and values in society. It is understandable if we look at the current trends of our folklore.



Gurusaday Dutt1 and Ajit Mukherjee2 think that our folklore originated in ancient times. It is said that there is a link between our folklore and five-thousand-year old Mohenjodaro or Mesopotamian folklore. Widespread research on this area is not our objective. We have taken into consideration Mahasthangarh and Gupta of 2nd BC, and Paharhpur, Maynamati of Paal era along with the materials found at Chandraketu in 24 Pargana of the West Bengal. In the ruins of those civilizations, a good number of things of terracotta associated with human life of the Bengalis were found. It is not only the work of the eighth or ninth centuries or of the earlier times, the folk materials of terracotta that were found in Mainamati Lalmai later bear the mark of common people’s lifestyle. These materials are not useful and utilitarian pottery, because pottery does not have the qualities of sculptures. So ancient clay-made things such as plates and pots may be historically valuable but insignificant as art. But human beings are not only interested about utility, but they have thirst for artistic value. Terracotta has emerged from the thirst for artistic value. The terracotta plug with aesthetic aura of Kantaji temple in Dinajpur has the highest mark of artistic excellence. It is a matter of wonder that different tales, fables and history from ancient times to middle age and pre-modern times have been presented through terracotta panels in the walls of Kantaji temple.

It is not difficult to understand why the work of terracotta has been specially used in Bangladesh and this artwork still persists with exceptional significance. To have manufactural and essential materials, the main elements for the Bengali artists and builders are bricks and terracotta. So bricks as materials have been used to construct our houses for years; in the same way our traditional materialistic artwork with terracotta has persisted as folk-sculpture, and it has also become the means of expression of a new mode and contemporary consciousness. The folk means of adorning ancient temples and palaces has come out of the religious bearing, and has been used as the elements of history. Kantaji temple is an example; such expansive, delightful, subtle and figurative artistic skillfulness is rare in this country. This is an instance of a unique performance of our folk artists. In modern times, it has got novelty in subject and style. Terracotta art has also held the essence of contemporary political incidents. In this context, terracotta has been used in three sides of the altar of Nazrul Mancha under banyan tree in Bangla Academy, a symbolic institution of Bengali nationalism. Its objective is to create a new trend of modernity connecting a thousand year old language institution to a thousand year old folk tradition by building a strong base of heritage and inheritance. On the other hand, its objective is also to add a distinctive and new dimension to the beauty of the altar using the ever-existent tradition of art and creativity. Bangla Academy has used this terracotta design in the walls of the seminar room of the Academy. There is a real image of 1952 Language Movement inscribed in the terracotta. As a result, the memorable history of this era’s mass struggle along with tradition is reflected in an aesthetic luster. Nowadays, we can see the use of terracotta in some hotels and houses along with Bangladesh television building. This tradition conscious modernity also carries the chronology of history. The remarkable tradition of beauty that the ancient feudal elites created by using terracotta panels in Kantaji temple has appeared distinctively in the present times through the progress of history. So, folklore is not only a static tradition – it can also become a medium of new dimensional art in continuity; it can become a potential perspective of new aesthetics expressing revolutionary inspiration.



“Turning mere earth into recognizable, integral forms, translating the natural into the cultural, the potter knows power and builds confidence through the repetitive solution of a problem complex enough to task the hands and fill the mind.” – Henry Glassie

A long time ago, Gurusaday Dutt et al had made an ethnographic and fieldwork based exploration with historical outlook and nationalistic spirit in researching pottery in this country; in the recent past, it is done by Bangladesh loving American folklore researcher Professor Henry Glassie. But in Bengali life, pottery plays a very important role. Agriculture based Bengali families used and still use clay plates, pots, pitchers, bowls, barrels, winnows, lids – and they use in their everyday life so many other varieties of clay-made things. So the relation between our actual nationalistic lifestyle and pottery is as old as it is intimate. Its demand is huge in our expansive rural and village areas. The demand of these things made by burning clay is indeed dependent on utility. In that consideration, we can call the above work a utilitarian object. Such kind of work has been part of our everyday life since ancient times. But human beings cannot be happy only by meeting everyday demands; they have feeling for religion and cultural demands; if there is resonance, they also need to fulfill the demands of hobbies and entertainment. From this feeling and demands, the Bengalis have added lovely colors and art to some materials of pottery. Some of them have received the touch of religious spirit, and in some cases, there are only different lines and colors. If we consider idols of gods and goddesses and the platter of Lakshmi to be of the first class, then the shakher harhi, the fancy pot, may be considered to be second class. These two materials are the magnificent symbols of the folklore of the Bengalis. During puja, statues or idols are made around the country, and the platter of Lakshmi is made in different parts of the country along with Dhaka, Faridpur and Manikganj. Shakher harhi was made mainly in Banra village near Rajshahi city and in Bangalparha village, Putia upazila of Naogaon. Shakher harhi has nothing with religion, but the platter image is connected to religion. In its designs and uses, there is a mark of skills and subtle craftsmanship.

Because of social progress, migration of Hindu community from the country and since alternative items are found cheap, we notice different kinds of changes in the field of folklore. As I said before, once pottery was mainly utilitarian object, and there was no alternative to its use in villages. Now plastic and aluminum things have replaced pottery items. The reason behind is that these items do not cost much – these are not breakable and can be purchased in exchange of old clothes, rice or other things if not with cash. In some cases, melamine items are being used. But amid this change, pottery has not completely vanished; on the other hand, an alternative source of clay-made things has emerged. The deep understanding, philosophy and aesthetic beauty that were present in such work having religious images are now missing; but in conformity with interest and necessity, different kinds of ornamented pottery items are being produced. The use of a variety of pots, pitchers etc. in different programs and festivals in both cities and villages has increased. To decorate city houses, offices and to add a different dimension to wedding programs, creative and beautiful pottery items like pot, pitcher, elephant, horse, lid, ashtray, pen-box and flower-vase are used, and they have indeed put tradition and modernity together by bringing in the materials of new social taste. Perhaps many people will not want to consider these varied items as part of folklore. But since some of the items have artistic value, they can be counted as work of folklore. Manasa Chali at Bankura of West Bengal, for example, is now an excellent work of folk art.

Taking luxury-loving city people’s taste into consideration, the potters are making new items, and also creating markets in the city areas inhabited by high and middle class people as well as in famous public places along with the areas of cultural and educational institutions. Pottery artists and traders of this field have loaded huge items of this sort for sale in Savar’s National Martyrs’ Monument complex, Dhaka Shishu Academy and Dhanmandi area of Mirpur Road. As far as this scenario is concerned, it is well understood that neo-modern high and middle class people also patronize these items; this shows that they are conscious of their nation, and they have desire to look for rich traditions. This matter attests to the fact that folklore has the power of change, and people incline to have national identity.

But it is noticed in the field level that the people of this profession are not happy with their profession at all. Master artists are working with new enthusiasm as per the taste of the educated middle class people in order to sustain their love for traditions in dresses. To meet the demands of the educated middle class, the deep exploration into their old work, especially in creating images was very necessary, but it is decreasing now. New generations are opting for other professions because they do not have confidence about the future of this profession. The market of pottery was huge, but the market for artistic items is small. Pottery may widen again if any organized steps are taken for them through more investment, patronization and by stopping broker. In Rayerbazar of Dhaka, and in some areas of Savar and Dhamrai such as the villages Kakran, Kagajipara, Shimulia, this profession has declined. The picture in other areas of the country is not different too. The potters can widen and improve the condition and position of the art if they are provided relevant opportunities.



The matter of doll comes into our mind along with pottery. And dolls are very important for any nations. I can remember that Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay also said this. The substance of his words was that to understand a nation, one should study dolls of the nation.

Art experts, sociologists and anthropologists think that doll was first made by the aborigines of the pre-Aryan era. Gurusaday Dutt thinks that there is a similarity between dolls of Bengal and those of Mahenjodaro and Haroppa of c. 4500 B.C. Making dolls has a connection to belief in magic, fulfillment of wishes and destruction of enemies. It is found in one stream of magic that a human figure is acting to kill a crop-destroying animal. They believe that it is the way of getting rid of the damage caused by enemies. This belief still persists as a symbol in the modern and important field like politics. We burnt effigies of Pakistani military autocrat Yahya in 1971. Effigies of the head of war criminals Gulam Azam were burnt in Gano Adalot, People’s Court, created to try the anti-liberation forces, the ones who opposed the freedom struggle of Bangladesh. The symbolic significance of ancient people’s belief is employed in a new way. It is a significant contribution of folk art.

Sandip Bandyopadhyay said in his book Pot Putuler Bangla (Kolkata 1979), “If estimated through signs and characteristics, clay dolls of Bengal can be divided into two: symbolic and naturalistic.” Almost all dolls found in archaeological materials are symbolic. These dolls do not need any casting matrix – they are known as hand-pressed dolls. Dolls are made in Bangladesh’s Faridpur, Barisal, Comilla, Madaripur, Jamalpur, Ramdia of Rajbari and Bolashpur near Mymensingh. Clay dolls are also taken as important to fulfill wishes or make a vow. A heap of horse dolls to make a vow in Ghorhapeerer Majar in Savar are remarkable.

Besides clay dolls, fascinating dolls were made with wood in Sonargaon. Clay dolls are mostly in human figures, then horses – other animals are also designed. Only elephants and horses are designed in wooden dolls in Sonargaon. These dolls were very famous. Artist Kamrul Hasan has given a new life to dolls made of cloth designing them anew and adding aesthetic aura to them. That which was once a plaything for children is now a wonderful thing to adorn houses. Images of Nazrul’s boyhood and youth through Sakina Khatun’s dolls in our National Museum are not only exceptionally beautiful, but they also display a new emergence of ancient artwork.



Images in canvas are a wonderful evidence of Bengalis’ folk art. This old art once made a huge impact in the whole of Bengal. It is known that canvas images were in vogue not only in Bengal but also in this whole regions of India, China and Tibet. Canvas images were used by our tribal communities including Buddhists and Jains. Visiting China with Rabindranath, the master artist Nandalal Basu could see that Buddhist images were just like Bengal’s canvas images.

The non-Aryans have produced canvas images. This art has made its way into many religions. We have said that the Bengali canvas images of Buddhists and Hindus originated in ancient times. The canvas images of Harshabardhan and Chandragupta’s period of rule actually originated much earlier. Drawing pictures in cotton clothes, people used to tell stories, sometimes going to different houses, sometimes to the crowds in a village, and sometimes in markets. A picture drawn with hands on a long and folded piece of cloth is the canvas picture. There were tales of gods and goddesses, mythological stories, and religious and moral directions in the pictures. The canvas pictures both served religious purposes and provided folk education. There were religious and cultural impacts on canvas pictures, but later they also terribly criticized social incongruities. Bengali Muslims did not remain detached from this artwork. Gazi canvas art is the proof. Actually, Bengali Muslims have created, in many respects, parallels of Hindu festivals and programs – Gazi canvas art is an example. Potualtuli Road of Dhaka proves that canvas art once permeated cities. Kolkata’s Kalighat canvas art during British rule reflect extraordinary skills of the artists, and they earned universal fame for the criticism of social injustice. It also cast impacts on Bengali art. Canvas art also made an impact on scroll art. The huge scroll artwork ‘Monpura’ by Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin is also created in the technique of canvas art. Recently artist Ruhul Amin Kajol from Bangladesh has been able to enter the Guinness Book of world records by drawing the biggest street art. The form of this art is as long as canvas art, but the basic difference is that canvas art is rolled up, and street art is wide. In one, there remain words and songs with art, and in the other, there are expressive designs. Kajol created this art in 2000 in National Museum on the eve of International Mother Language Day. The methods and structures of wall art are also like those of canvas art. The use of this art is outside of walls. New technique and subject matter appeared in wall art. To insinuate symbolically and to search tradition, the citizens arrange street processions. Wall art in Fine Arts Institute of Dhaka University is exceptionally beautiful, and it generates new meanings. Masks, big elephants, tigers, snakes reflect the art forms of folktales – above all the huge arrangement on the Bengali New Year captivates the hearts of the people.



Embroidered quilt has become one of the important symbols of traditions for Bangladesh. It has also modern and meaningful uses. Bangabandhu also used Shilpacharya’s work in our constitution to connect history of tradition and the next generations. It is not necessary to go to details here. Renewal is serving the taste of new citizens. But the symbol, motif and depth of the old quilts are missing in the new ones. Luxuriousness has increased but it has lost sacredness. In ancient quilts, there were many elements of mythical world, symbolic images of the world in the circle of its creation and destruction, the sun, lotus, trees etc, inspiration of new creation through used things, desire to keep the family ties strong, desire to keep the distant relatives in memory, and above all there was the desire to show respects to gods and goddesses and to have their blessings. The quilts are rich with the symbolic and deep meaning of the philosophy, ascetic practice, belief in magic, worshipping to fulfill wishes of the Bengalis, and various elements of the universe. This folk art having depth is the outcome of the amazing artistic skills of illiterate village women.

A powerful area of folk art in Bengal is motif. Like quilt, this art is created by poor village women of our country. This folk art has an intense connection to various festivals, programs and solemn vows. Actually the art of belief in magic and wish-fulfillment has now been given a secular outlook. This art has got into city lifestyle recently. A lot of motif art is done in wedding ceremonies, bridal chambers, Shahid Minars on the previous night of glorious Ekushey, and in university areas – this practice connects our Martyrs’ Day to the celebrated traditions. It is an instance that a tradition creates new traditions.



1          Folk Arts and Crafts of Bengal: The Collected Papers: Gurusaday Dutt – Calcutta 1990.

2          Folk Arts of Bengal: Ajit Mukherjee, University of Calcutta 1964 New and Revised edition.


Translated by Mohammad Shafiqul Islam

teaches English at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet, Bangladesh.

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