In this special edition of Journal of Bhutan Studies, we are publishing some selected papers presented at the first national story telling conference held from 21 to 23 June 2009 at the Centre for Bhutan Studies, Thimphu.
Originally planned to be a small gathering of foreign and Bhutanese folklorists and storytellers, the scope of the conference had to be changed even before it began. The Centre was overwhelmed by interests and responses from a broad section of the Bhutanese society – children, students, teachers, ministers, MPs, parents, farmers, civil servants, expatriates, and monks. The interest was in no small measure generated by a person no other than Her Royal Highness Ashi Sonam Dechan Wangchuck who opened the conference and gave the keynote address.
Her Royal Highness’s short but powerful keynote address commended the initiative of “recognizing, reviving, and promoting our rich oral traditions,” that has found its place even in the palace as she shared how she would sit with her brothers and sisters in a circle “as our grandmother would tell us exciting stories … undoubtedly intended to mould our moral values.” Her Royal Highness continued, “I look forward to passing those stories to my children and grandchildren someday.” At a time when the mass media is taking over the traditional storytelling, one of the oldest and most powerful expressions of individual and cultural creativity, Her Royal Highness urged for individual action by making “an effort to re-tell those stories we heard in our childhood as a first step towards helping revive our precious oral traditions.” After those words, the Bhutanese folklore landscape changed forever. The Centre for Bhutan Studies and International Center for Ethnographic Studies, US, would like to thank Her Royal Highness for words of wisdom.
Bhutan may have been an oral society in the 1960s, but recycling the same image today is painting a false picture, unaware of the speed at which this rich tradition is disappearing. Bhutanese folklorists would be disappointed by number of narrators and folktales surviving in villages. But not much is done to either to preserve the oral culture, document them before they are forever lost or integrate storytelling in the curriculum. The first National Survey on Gross National Happiness, 2007-2008 revealed that 96.3 percent of respondents considered folktales as important. The first national storytelling conference is one of the initiatives the Centre has organized to recognize, revive, and promote folktales.
Besides presentations of academic papers by participants from US and the Bhutan, the other activities included performance of Bhutanese and American folk music and folksongs; telling of jokes; recitation of lozey; narration of folktales and stories by students and foreign participants; reading of folktales by Bhutanese writers and folklorists; narration of folktales in different Bhutanese languages by storytellers invited from villages of eastern, central and western Bhutan. English translations of the Bhutanese tales narrated in Dzongkha and local dialects were also made available to foreign participants.
The Centre for Bhutan Studies would like thank the International Center for Ethnographic Studies, Atlanta, US for financing the conference. It is hoped that the second national storytelling conference will be as fruitful as the first.
1. Keynote Address by Her Royal Highness Ashi Sonam Dechan Wangchuck
This paper will look at the correlation between the values expressed by Bhutan’s citizens of themselves and their nation and the traditional folklore of Bhutan, seeking to discover the similarities and differences between the values of the people and those found in their folktales.
This paper is based on a premise that (a) folktales reflect the social and political milieu of particular times and places, and (b) Bhutanese folktales originated from the common people (‘small people’). It first explores the social context which led small people to express their dissent through folktales, and then examines an exemplary Bhutanese folktale for elements of dissent, to show how themes, plots and characters satirize the existing social and political order to the extent of overturning the status quo.
Although the technological innovations in industry and the military is most visible factor at first glance, the author argues that it was a new kind of social mobilization that was the deeper, more powerful force, both in the early process of extending European control, and in the later success of the non-European reaction to end that control.
5. Ritualizing Story: A Way to Heal Malady by Tandin Dorji
This paper studies a ritual called Gyalpo choedni (Rgyal po ched ni) (Expelling the Gyalpo) as a case to illustrate storytelling as an antidote to propitiate malicious spirits to heal maladies thereby ushering in happiness.
6. Preserving Tradition and Enhancing Learning Through Youth Storytelling by Ann M. Scroggie
By examining what storytelling is, how it controls cultural behavior and promotes identity, this paper will have definitive reasons for preserving storytelling. Next we will observe how storytelling can enhance learning and finally will suggest strategies that have been implemented to change the contemporary storytelling landscape.
7. Preserving our Folktales, Myths and Legends in the Digital Era by Tshering Cigay Dorji
With the help of examples, this paper provides a brief analysis of the traditional values transmitted by our folktales and the functions served by local legends and myths in Bhutanese society. Finally, it offers some practical recommendations for collecting our folktales, myths and legends in the form of text, audio and video using the currently available digital technology to create the first comprehensive and dynamic ‘Bhutanese Folktales Online Database’.
8. Oracy in the New Millennium: Storytelling Revival in America and Bhutan by Dr. Joseph Sobol
This paper explores the hegemonic and homogenizing forces at work in the American storytelling movement, and reflect on their implications for emergent storytelling work in the context of the Kingdom of Bhutan.