Guest post from Traditional Artist Sunanda Sahay

In the Fall of 2016, we wrote about the Hindu festival of Diwali going mainstream. We wondered what it means when ancient holidays, grounded in ethnic identity and religious belief and celebrated by cultural insiders for centuries, are brought to mainstream, high profile venues to be shared, celebrated, and interpreted?

Two years later, we hear from Sunanda Sahay, a traditional artist who practices the North Indian art of Madhubani (also known as Mithila). She describes her 10th year of sharing her art at the Museum of Fine arts. Here is her guest blog post.

For several years now, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) has been celebrating the joyous Indian festival of Diwali in early November. I am fortunate to have taken an active role by conducting folk art workshops/exhibits. This year, the event took place on Wednesday November 7th which coincided with the day of Diwali, making me wonder if that would drop attendance.

Lo and behold! The visitors swelled as the evening rolled in. Since I have been organizing the workshops at the museum for many years, I thought I was prepared to handle the crowds. But the unprecedented crowd and long lines at the museum caught me totally off guard! While some of the visitors managed to find seats to sit down and draw,  the others looked around at the paintings or rotated through the room. Thanks to the immense support and patience of the museums staffs and volunteers, many were able to sit down and create their own artwork they could carry home.

For the first time, more than a dozen of my students ranging between 7 years to 47 years of age exhibited their art and assisted with the workshop. They reveled in the glory of being a part of one of the best museums in the world!  They excitedly helped the attendees, answered various questions, and proudly shared the stories behind their creations. It seemed that the room had turned into a village celebrating its own version of Diwali – strangers sat together and talked, encouraged each other, suggested and commented on the art pieces, and just enjoyed the atmosphere of shared creativity. Some of them sat down hesitatingly, but then quickly surprised themselves with the brightly hued wonderful forms they created with the simple motifs. This is what I love about my art!

Folk arts have this special ability to form communities. In my home town where Madhubani/Mithila art has been practiced for centuries, women get together and paint murals on their homes to depict scenes from traditional epics, festivals, and village activities. Art is essential to the living cultures. The process of creating visual stories forms social bonds not only between the women creating the art, but also between other adults and children who inevitably become part of the stories.

When I held the first MFA workshop in 2009, I could have scarcely imagined that the event would recreate social ambiance similar to the native villages. Initially, it was a personal and a creative challenge, and I endeavored to create something new and unusual each year. In addition to the Madhubani art, I also introduced other folk art forms such as Warli to the visitors. I made sure they understood the art’s historical background as well as its continued survival through cataclysmic changes and growth. And I encouraged the visitors to not only paint the traditional themes but also push the boundaries, and use their imagination to tell modern stories through an ancient medium. My students certainly heed my advice; one of my apprentices created a Disney story in Madhubani and everyone loved it.

I regularly run into people who know about this annual workshop and look forward to the event. More and more Bostonians are becoming familiar and appreciative of the folk arts of India and I am hopeful that at least this folk art will not die under the constant onslaught of digital intervention and lack of support.

Guest blog by Sunanda Sahay of Acton, Massachusetts

Saving Stuff: Exploring a Repository for our Archival Collection

Six years ago, I posted a blog  commentary about how the world of archiving folklore fieldwork was changing. I was concerned about the challenges of keeping “born digital” items safe, and I remain concerned. Since 2008, we have switched exclusively to using digital devices (cameras, audio recorders) in our field research. That means that all new field-generated audio and visual data is captured in bits and preserved on DVD discs, SD cards, and external computer hard drives.

Fuji film cannister  Box of Kodachrome slide film       arrow pointing right      archival DVD disc

Cassette and DAT magnetic tape       arrow pointing right       2 GB Sandisks

The responsibility of preserving archival collections and making them accessible was, frankly, a lot simpler in the pre-digital age. Tangible items in a collection — paper, prints, film, and  magnetic audio tape — are physical things that take kindly to acid-free file folders, chemically inert plastic sleeves, and Hollinger boxes. But our collection is comprised of both physical and born digital materials. We have manuscript materials (field notes, transcriptions of audio recorded interviews, release forms, and ephemera) analog and digital audio field recordings, color slides, black and white negatives, and digital images. From the creation of the archive in 1999, we have employed archival preservation methods for the tangible items; caring responsibly for digitally born materials is more of a challenge. We store field-generated audio (.wav files) and images (.tiff) on writable compact discs and external hard drives, rather than on redundant file storage servers, as is recommended by archivists. Like the majority of public folklore programs around the country with archival collections, we lack trained staff dedicated to audio preservation, quality analog playback and digital conversion equipment, and large-scale information technology support.


The issue at hand is how to ensure long term access to and preservation of this ever growing folk archival collection.

Storage containers for digital content

We are essentially ready to explore some kind of mutually beneficial partnership with a university special collections or other repository that has both trained staff and a stated mission supporting preservation and access.

For advice, I’ve reached out to individual archivists, like Steve Green of the Western Folklife Center Archive, who has been tremendously helpful, and other state folklorists who have made progress securing their own archival collections like Joey Brackner at the Alabama State Council on the Arts and Mary Allison Haynie at the Alabama Folklife Association, Wayne Jones, Karen Paty, and Julianne Carroll who are leading the effort to preserve the Georgia Folklife Program’s collection; and Cliff Murphy at Maryland Traditions who helped facilitate the Maryland’s Folklife Program archives move to UMBC.

Closer to home is Dr. Jack Warner, State Archivist and the Massachusetts State Historical Records Advisory Board who reviewed our situation. There are some promising partnerships on the horizon.  We will keep you posted on any new developments.



The Public Folklorist and the Nature of Aging: A Personal Take

Retired gandy dancers being recorded by Maggie Holtzberg, Calera, Alabama, 1988. Photo by Joey Brackner
Retired gandy dancers being recorded by Maggie Holtzberg, Calera, Alabama. Photo by Joey Brackner

There was a time in the late 1980s, when, as a newly minted folklorist, all the tradition bearers I’d seek out to interview and learn from were decades older than I was — Southern gandy dancers in their 70s and 80s, holding on to the last thread of work song culture; women quilters whose mothers had taught them to recycle old feed sacks and scraps from worn-out dresses; and Irish fiddlers whose venues had changed from crossroads dance halls in Co. Kerry to bars in New York City. These folks were the age of my own grandparents.

Nellie Kinsey holding a string of leather britches and red peppers, Kinsey Town,  White County, GA, 1989. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg
Nellie Kinsey holding a string of leather britches and red peppers, Kinsey Town, White County, GA, 1989. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

Time passed. Contract fieldwork turned into salaried positions at state art agencies. I relocated from the Deep South back home to the Northeast and dug into the folk culture of Massachusetts’ people – Italian feast days, Yankee wooden boat building, Franco-American  and Cape Breton fiddling, Polish pysanki and Cambodian dance.

Procession of St. Mary of Carmen, Nonantum. MA. 2007. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg
Procession of St. Mary of Carmen, Nonantum. MA. 2007. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

Eight or so years into the work, I began to notice that there were no longer decades of lived experience between the majority of the people I was interviewing and myself.  We were, in fact, cohorts in age.

Maggie interviewing Michelle Fernandes and Anita Peters Little about their apprenticeship in Wampanoag regalia making. West Barmstable, MA, 2005. Photo by Russell A. Call
Maggie interviewing Michelle Fernandes and Anita Peters Little about their apprenticeship in Wampanoag regalia making. West Barmstable, MA, 2005. Photo by Russell A. Call

It’s now been 15 years since I came to manage the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Folk Arts & Heritage Program.  A few months ago, I was sitting across from a Nepalese sarangi player, a Tascam DR100 recording device in my hand, listening to him talk of his experience immigrating to the US. There were photos of his young daughter on the wall. It was after I asked him the year he was born that I suddenly realized; “This man is 20 years younger than I am. In fact, so are the last three people I interviewed.”

Sushil Gautam posing with Nepalese sarangi. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg
Sushil Gautam posing with Nepalese sarangi, 2014. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

The arc of any folklorist’s work experience is grounded in time. I’ve gone from being the youngster interviewing elders, to interviewing people of my generation, to the odd sensation of realizing that I am older than many of the people with whom I work. I suppose it is the opposite experience of academic folklorists who, each fall semester, find themselves in classrooms filled with students who never seem to age.

Either way, we all grow older.

Musical worlds

One of the gratifying things about being a folklorist is being able to connect tradition bearers with potentially influential people, resources, and opportunities. When done well, the folklorist plays the role of being what Malcolm Gladwell called a ” connector” in his book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

Soon after meeting Sushil Gautam, a local Nepalese sarangi player who helped establish the Music Museum of Nepal, I had the good fortune to meet Darcy Kuronen, Curator of the Musical Instruments at the Museum of Fine Arts. It turns out that in this collection of over 1,100 musical instruments, there is no Nepalese sarangi. So it was with pleasure that I was able to introduce Sushil and Darcy to one another. Time will tell if something comes of their acquaintance.

The MFA’s Musical Instruments Gallery is a little gem. The intimate sized gallery is filled with musical instruments and sound samples from around the world. For the past dozen years, Darcy has programmed regular gallery talks and demonstrations, engaging in conversation with visiting musicians who bow, pluck, finger, or breathe life into the featured instruments.


On Monday, October 6th, that musician was Joey Abarta, who, coincidentally, was one of the six master artists who was recently awarded a Massachusetts Cultural Council Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant. Joey had brought two of his own Irish uilleann pipes to perform on, since the museum’s set is not in working order. And uilleann pipes are finicky instruments.

The gathered audience was treated to some beautiful playing — an air, a set of jigs, a set of reels — plus some really interesting conversation about the history of the uilleann pipes, renowned makers both historical and living, and the technical challenges of playing, which include manipulating a chanter, drones, and regulators, in addition to the bellows, which are filled by pumping one’s elbow. (Uilleann is the Irish Gaelic word for elbow.)

Darcy asked Joey to let the audience know where they might be able to hear him playing locally. Every Thursday evening, at 7:15, Joey leads an Irish music session at the Canadian American Club in Watertown. Everyone is welcome.

What do you hold on to?

Come join us for a film, a hands-on weaving experience, and a faciliated conversation about the complex meanings of cultural heritage for refugees.

Mone Saenphmmachak is a master weaver. She is also a Lao refugee, tormented by survivor guilt. Resettled in St. Louis during the 1980s, she finds factory seamstress work sewing gun holsters.  In her precious spare time, she weaves traditional Lao skirts and teaches the next generation of Laotian children. Winning a National Heritage Award in 1993, Mone ultimately chooses to give up her looms.

Weaving Bitter with the Sweet is a moving documentary film that explores the refugee experience and its impact of sustaining cultural heritage.  The film invites viewers to “unpack” assumptions about the meaning of cultural heritage for refugees — a topic with the potential to resonate with many re-settled communities here in Lowell.

7:00 p.m.         Welcome & introduction

7:15 p.m.         Hands-on weaving experience

7:45 p.m.         Film screening

8:15 p.m.         Facilitated conversation

This Lowell Folklife Series event is co-sponsored by Lowell National Historical Park, Lowell Film Collaborative, Tsongas Industrial History Center, & Massachusetts Cultural Council.

For more info, call 978-275-1719.

For information about Teacher Professional Development Points, contact the Tsongas Industrial History Center:

Veronica Robles & her Mariachi

To help celebrate International Women’s Month, the Lowell Folklife Series is pleased to present Veronica Robles with her Mariachi. Known affectionately by fans as La Mera, Mera, Robles is widely recognized as the most authentic representative of Mexican music and culture in New England. 

This free concert takes place on March 23, 2013 at 7:30 pm in the Visitor Center Theater of  Lowell National Historical Park  (246 Market Street, Lowell, Massachusetts). 

Veronica Robles has Mexican music in her blood. She first learned to sing corridos and rancheros from her grandmother as she prepared traditional dishes in the family kitchen. It was in Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi, the cradle of mariachi music, where Veronica was introduced to the mariachi group led by El Chiquis.  She began working with his group at age 15, learning hundreds of songs and musical styles from these elder musicians. In 1992, Robles left her home country for New York City to pursue her life as a professional mariachi musician. 

Robles has made Massachusetts home since 2000, where she specializes in performing for young audiences through school assembles, residencies and dance workshops. Her television show, Orale con Verónica has been on the air since 2002. She was named an  Artist Fellowship Finalist by the Massachusetts Cultural Council in 2012.



Gateway Cities: When Neighborhoods Change

Many of Massachusetts’ de-industrialized mill and manufacturing towns are known as “gateway cities.”  Home to close-knit communities of immigrants who initially came seeking work in the state’s once thriving mill and manufacturing sectors, gateway cities have been hit hard by job loss and poverty. Average household incomes remain below the state average as do educational attainment rates.

Gateway cities are often the starting place for new immigrants, who are drawn by the affordable housing and competitive business opportunities. In cities like Lawrence, Lowell, Springfield, and Brockton, and Fall River, it is not uncommon for aging Irish, French-Canadian, Greek, and Polish populations to live alongside a new generation of newcomers, emigrating from places like Nigeria, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

When it comes to the practice of faith, this globalization means that once mono-cultural parishes are now multi-cultural, with multi-lingual masses. The 2009 documentary film Scenes from a Parishis a window into this world.

The   Lowell Folklife Series invites you to a screening of this powerful  film, with special guest  James Rutenbeck, the film’s director. Shot over four years in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the film sensitively captures the ethnic working class tensions of a multi-cultural Catholic parish in a hard-pressed former mill town.

Come see this award-winning documentary and join the discussion about how communities adjust as neighborhoods change. Free and open to the public.

Date: April 11, 2012 at 7:30

Place: Visitor Center Theater, Lowell National Historical Park, 246 Market Street, Lowell, MA







Help sculpt MCC’s strategic plan

By now you may have seen an email announcing an  Massachusetts Cultural Council  survey to help us in strategic planning. I want to reach out especially to you as members of the traditional arts community and to ask you to respond to questions specific to our field.

You can share your ideas at four public forums we’ve scheduled for early December. MCC staff will join attendees to create a shared vision for expanding support for the arts, humanities, and sciences in Massachusetts, and how to translate that vision into reality. Register for a public forum.

Please consider filling out a short and simple planning survey (which should take 15 minutes or less; please complete by Friday, December 16, 2011). All responses will be confidential (unless you request otherwise).

In addition to the questions that are posed in the survey, feel free to comment on issues that directly affect our field:

1. How important is it for the MCC to continue funding traditional arts apprenticeships and artist fellowships?

2. How else do you think we can support the work of traditional artists?

3. Are there people or traditions you think we should know about? If so, let us know.

Thank you. Your input will be invaluable in shaping the strategic plan and charting MCC’s future course.

Getting your fabulous folk content to an online audience

You know you have great content – it’s the folklorist’s stock in trade. But getting your folklore content to an online audience and engaging repeat visitors can be a challenge. Do you have questions about the technical, geeky side of things? Want ideas for how to design, structure, and then market your folk web site/exhibit/etc.?

If so, consider registering for the South Arts webinar on June 16, 2011 covering best practices for getting your folk content to an online audience. Folklorist Maggie Holtzberg and MCC Technology Project Manager Dawn Heinen will present. Topics will include: Leveraging a physical exhibition into an online presence, designing and implementing the user experience, and bringing it all to market.

This South Arts project is supported by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Tables turned: Whose traditions need explaining now?

Often, in our work as folklorists, we meet immigrants from various parts of the world who have resettled in the United States. Our impulse is to focus on their cultural traditions — the music, dance, crafts, and annual celebrations they left behind and how they are managing to hold onto them while making their home in a new and foreign land.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that new immigrants would also wish to fit in, to understand what holdiays are celebrated here in America, what foods are typically served, or why certain decorations perennially appear.  Why is everybody roasting turkeys? What’s up with all the lights?  Who is the bearded guy in the big red suit? And why is everyone fixated with buying gifts?

And I suppose it’s also not surprising to learn that here in Lowell, within the Cambodian community, some believe that part of becoming “American” is learning to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. With the blurring of religious beliefs and commercialism, one can hardly blame them.

Along these lines, we were asked to address a group of Cambodian elders that were gathering at the  Coalition for a Better Acre for a holiday program. Everyone seemed to enjoy the lunch, which was a fitting mix of American and Asian dishes: roast turkey, sweet potatoes, corn, pickled mustard with pig ears, pad thai, and rice.

We had hosted some of these same Cambodian elders for a tour of Lowell National Historical Park in September. This time, we were meeting on their territory. CBA invited us to lunch and requested that we briefly explain the history and customs of Thanksgiving and Christmas to the mostly non-English speaking audience. David Blackburn did the honors, seen below holding a plate of turkey and sweet potatoes.

Turns out that hardly anyone in the audience was familiar with the Thanksgiving holiday. Christmas, on the other hand, many were aware of — and it would be difficult not to be, given how pervasive the marketing of the holiday is and the fact that schools and businesses are closed on December 25th. One man asked in Khmai, “What is the purpose of Christmas?” David offered this answer, “It depends on who you are.  For Christians, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of the savior, Jesus Christ.” Despite its Christian origins, the secular celebration of Christmas is ubiquitous in America. David spoke of the German origins of the Christmas tree and the custom of bringing evergreens into our homes at the darkest time of the year.

I wonder how many immigrants think all Americans celebrate Christmas regardless of their religious beliefs, cultural heritage, or family traditions. Hanukkah, Eid, and Kwanzaa fly just under the radar of mainstream American popular culture. Perhaps it is the immigrant’s remove from certain holidays, and their struggle to understand them, that is quintessentially the American experience. After all, it is the complexity of American diversity that makes this country what it is.