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  • The Story-Time of the British Empire: Colonial and Postcolonial Folkloristics
  • John Holmes McDowell (bio)
The Story-Time of the British Empire: Colonial and Postcolonial Folkloristics. By Sadhana Naithani. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. 160 pp.

We learn, on this fine book's last page, that the "story-time of the British Empire was all the time." Just as the sun never set on this global empire, the voices of the storytellers in its many realms were never silent, and these voices were perpetually gathered, in a remarkable fashion, at the empire's epicenter, in the corridors of London's Folk-Lore Society. It is the remarkable fashion of the gathering of these tales that concerns Sadhana Naithani, and she is at some pains to establish a few core realities of this process—to wit, that it reproduced the hierarchy of empire by erasing the "native" contribution to the enterprise and that it needs to be taken seriously as a distinctive practice of folkloristics that laid the foundation for subsequent folklore studies in Europe and North America.

The Story-Time of the British Empire works its way through four central themes. In Chapter 1 ("Fields"), Naithani establishes "colonial folkloristics" as a term of consequence, arguing for its inherently transnational character and [End Page 119] noting that its scope transcends the familiar pattern of nineteenth-century nation building because colonial administrators, missionaries, and amateurs—often women—performed the essential fieldwork. In Chapter 2 ("Motive"), Naithani examines the contexts of colonial folkloristics, introducing us to a lively cast of personages who found themselves in different zones of India and Africa (with a few reporting from Australia), were drawn to the stories they heard around them, and saw themselves as participating in a larger project of understanding the colonized peoples. In Chapter 3 ("Method"), Naithani tries to uncover the actual processes of collaboration underlying the published story collections from colonial settings, arguing that the partners in the making of colonial folkloristics should be recognized as a significant constituency in the folkloristic process. And in Chapter 4 ("Theory"), the last of these core chapters, Naithani seeks to locate colonial folkloristics with reference to the romantic theories originating in the context of nation building in Europe; here Naithani discusses the imposition of European genres in preference to an engagement with the diversity of genre in colonial sources, as well as the overarching goal to understand native peoples through their folklore as a component of the "civilizing" mission of the empire.

Chapter 3 is the bulkiest in the book and provides, for this reader, the most intriguing insights. Naithani argues that Richard Dorson's genealogy of British folklorists buys into the heroic narrative of collectors as intrepid cultural scouts at the fringes of the empire, but she presents a rather different story: of Europeans attracted to the tales and the people who told them, motivated in large part by self-interest and incapable of according to their native informants the credit deserved for their vital role in the project. Arguing persuasively that colonial collections of tales derived from a collaborative process that remains mostly hidden, Naithani laments the devastating impact of this asymmetry; inspect the records as we might, we can catch only an occasional glimpse of the colonial subjects who participated in the gathering of tales, and we know very little of their practical contributions, let alone their motivations and understandings of the work they were doing.

It is rare enough that we can even recover the names of these folkloristic ancestors, so it is especially gratifying to learn in Naithani's book about the few native partners whose identities have persisted: Pandit Ram Gharib Chaube, from North India, worked in association with the British civil servant and scholar William Crooke, taking down in his own handwriting Hindi tales, translating them into English, and providing contextual notes. The Sanskrit teacher Pandit Natesa Sastri of India initially collaborated with Georgiana Kingscote, then went on to publish an independent collection of tales, and at last (and almost uniquely, among these colonial partners) became a member of the Folk-Lore Society. Mallam Shaihu assisted the British anthropologist [End Page 120] Robert Sutherland Rattray with his...


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pp. 119-122
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