Once upon a time

(A Chapter from my dissertation on “Power of Orality in Indian Culture”)

 “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

(Guin, 1980)

One of the oldest forms of word of mouth communication, storytelling is a process where one person tells others about something, a made up or a real event. The cultural material and traditions transmitted by word of mouth constitute of oral traditions. Oral history, another form of word of mouth, is the recording, preservation and interpretation of historical information based either on the opinion of the speaker or on personal experience. Stories permeate the world we live in, as a creation through which we seek to understand and explore our world. Once told, stories take a life of their own and travel, gathering more stories around themselves. They are journeys in themselves, their focus moving from one character to another, moving effortlessly between lives and time and space. This is especially true of oral story telling traditions like those of India, and of literary traditions that develop from them. There is a certain fluidity that such tales have when they are told and retold to suit and be accessible to audience varying in social, religious and political beliefs.

Folklore is an essential part of our oral tradition. It pervades childhoods, families and communities as the symbolic language of the non literate parts of the people and the culture. Even in large modern cities like Chennai, Mumbai or Kolkata, folklore – proverbs, lullabies, folk medicine, folktales – is only a suburb away, a cousin or a grandmother away. It would be inaccurate to state that the metros or urban areas do not have folklore to pass down. We have all grown up with folk tales and sayings. Authentic folk theatre flourishes in the back streets of a city like Chennai; festivals with all their attendant folk performances, like that for the elephant faced god Ganapathi in Mumbai, are major events.

Wherever people live, folklore grows; new jokes, proverbs, rhymes, tales and songs circulate in the oral tradition. Chain letters and Murphy’s laws circulate on paper and graffiti on latrine walls. Verbal folklore in the sense of a largely oral tradition with specific genres (such as proverb, riddle, lullaby, tale, prose narrative, song), non verbal modes (such as dances, games, floor or wall designs), and composite performing arts (such as street magic and street theatre which combine prose, verse, song, dance, various local objects) – all of these expressive folk forms weave in and out of every aspect of city, village and small town life.

Every kind of Indian cultural practice, every Indian cultural performance, whether it is the classical epic and theatre or modern film and political rhetoric, is indebted to oral traditions and folk forms. The aesthetics, ethos and worldview of a person are shaped in childhood and throughout early life and reinforced later by these verbal and nonverbal environments.

Folktales have everywhere and always found eager listeners, whether they are mere reports of happenings, legends of long ago or elaborately contrived fictions, men and women have hung upon them and satisfied their yearnings for information of amusement, for incitement to heroic deed, for religious edification, or for release from the overpowering monotony of their lives. In almost every corner of the country, the priest and the scholar, the peasant and the artisan, come together in their love of a good story. The greatest literary work may be accessed by the intelligentsia, but folktales are accessible to the common man. At a time when there were no books or novels, folktales had a huge appeal. They were means of instructing the younger generations and also a mode of entertainment. Even today, they have a charm of their own. Tales like those of Akbar-Birbal, Raja Vikramaditya, Jataka Tales, Tenali Raman and so on gave been an essential part of growing years for most of us. They have helped us broaden our horizon regarding various cultures as they function as mouthpieces for the cultures.

As small children, the stories that we grew up with were usually folktales and fairytales. Those were the tales our parents and their parent had heard growing up and had passed down through generations. Folktales are stories of good triumphing over evil, or morals, of principles, of dreams and hopes, of giants and wicked witches and also of kind fairies and gods in mortal forms. Those stories taught us how to differentiate good from evil, kindness from cruelty and gave us our first experience of life’s changing patterns. The reason behind these tales being passed on by word of mouth is the absence of literary tools at the time of their creation. As a result, they were never the same twice in the telling. Each storyteller placed his emphasis in the areas he felt would create the best response or deliver the important message.

Stories also have helped in establishing myths, systems and certain stereotypes in place. Epics like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata or the Vedas have been passed down by our grandparents in the form of bed time stories and have been an integral part of our lives by shaping our lives, principles and also biases. The caste system has been described in the Rig Veda, the treatment towards the lower castes have been established in the story of Eklavya and similarly the idea of virginity has been moulded by the stories in the Bible. The fairy tales that we have grown up with have set stereo types of step-mothers as cunning, of docile housewives like Sita, of damsels who’re always in distress and have to be helped by their ‘prince charming’ and also of the gender roles, which are very prevalent in our society today. Although these stories are not real, they have a power to entertain and also to engage one in thought. It is the told through which parents tell children that it is good to be compassionate or to stay away from strangers. And with the number of times these stories are told and retold, they have the potential of settling deep down in an individual’s mind and creating basic stereotypes.

Tales are told in different context and function in a variety of ways. To contextualise a tale fully, we need to know the teller, when, where, and to whom he or she told the tale, what he or she and the listeners thought of the tale, how the listener responded when they heard it, and other such details. “There is also a need to bring to this kind of ethnography of narrative, a sense of where the tale fits in other texts and performances of culture, what is considered significant, how it makes meanings, what’s taboo and what’s not and the place of tellers in the community – not merely the facts of the telling but the feelings, the meanings and the meaning making.” (Ramanujam, 1994)

            There are professionals and nonprofessional tellers. In South India and Bengal, for instance, singers and tellers travel from place to place, their performances being engaged by families or organizations. Mostly these tellers tell epic stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, or of stories of gods from the Puranas. In villages, there are bardic troupes that perform epics about caste heroes, or local gods and saints. (Blackburn S. , 1989) The bard will intersperse his recitation, which may be performed serially for hours for several nights, with shorter tales and anecdotes as well as poems and songs, just as he will introduce references to current politics. Thus ancient tales and epics are given contemporary relevance.

In my family, tales accompany every instance of our lives. Tales would be told to us while we ate, got ready to sleep and even while our domestic helps would get our baths water ready. The lady who brought our daily supply of coal and the man who’d come to massage my grandfather had their own tales. What is amazing is that they never repeated a single tale, year after year, and they still had a fresh collection of tales.

Folktales are not only told to make children eat more or put them to sleep. They are often told to keep adults awake: when farmers gather to watch crops all night or graze cows or sheep all day, or when workers slice areca nuts (which have to be processed within a short time after they are harvested) or roll bidis in a factory (Ramanujam, 1994). Like work songs, these tales beguile the time and ease the monotony of long labour by engaging fantasy. While doing so, they also carry subliminal, often subversive meanings.        Tales, like proverbs, are also enlisted to make a point, to find precedent and authority – in political speeches, religious discourses, and legal discussions. Stories are often metaphors in search of a context, waiting to be told and given new relevance. There are many such stories which are told as a metaphor indicating the situation in real life.

Special ritual tales are told as part of calendrical ritual and their telling in that context has ritual efficacy. It is believed that both tellers and listeners receive benefits. For instance the ‘Karva Chauth Vrat Katha’ is told every ‘Karva Chauth’ between the ladies who gather for the fasting ritual or the Vrata katha that is passed between ladies as they believe it has gives magical powers to the teller and the receiver. It is also possible that an ordinary tale may acquire this status by being told in a special context, like the stories of brother’s love and sacrifice which are told during Rakshabandhan or Bhai Duuj.

A. K Ramanujam, in his book ‘Folktales from India’, explains certain instances which indicate that the stories we read today were known much before they were recorded. “ When I told the story of ‘The Monkey and the Crocodile’ to an archaeologist friend of mine, John Carswell, his face lit up –  he was carrying in his briefcase a potsherd from his recent dig in Mantai in Sri Lanka and the potsherd pictured a monkey sitting on the back of a crocodile. The story was also a Buddhist story and the first mention is in the Panchatantra.”


Further, Ramanujam explains how the various corroborations inspires trust in the many recordings of the tales that have been around for ages, “The eleventh century Kathasaritsagara contains stories that are to be found in the Arabian Nights, in Boccaccio, and in Shakespeare and also in the current repertoire of village women in Karnataka. My grandmother, who was in her sixties when I was a boy fifty years ago, told me stories that she had heard from her grandmother S.M. Natesa Sastri, who came from the same part of Tamil Nadu, heard the same tales in his childhood and published them in Tamil and in English in the 1870s”. (A.K Ramanujam, 1986)


            In the male centric tales, feature the hero very prominently. The tale usually starts with him moving out of the parental family in search of adventure. He rescues and wins princesses over and fights all adversaries to win kingdoms and other games. The story usually ends with a marriage. The women centred tales on the other hand usually begin with a marriage. These are told by women about women and often to young women, and tend to have a certain pattern: they start with a marriage, they explain her duties as a wife, daughter or a sister. In cases where the male counterpart is the lesser being in terms of intelligence, the woman is expected to solve the riddles for her man. These women are like the cousins of the feisty heroines in Shakespeare’s comedies. The women in some of these tales contrast sharply with a woman like Sita in the epics, who represent the ideal of the chaste, unquestioning wife who follows her husband like a shadow and suffers all the way. They are the analogues of the Dark Goddess in the Hindu myth.

The tales about families highlight relations and emotions of every kind. Ramanujam notes how psychologists such as Freud and Jung have attended mostly to myths; but folktales are a potent source of psychoanalytic insights, for they concentrate on close family ties and childhood fantasies. Certain tales contain forbidden feelings of incest on the part of fathers and mothers towards their children and these feelings are faced and unpacked with all their implications. As these tales are usually told to children in the context of the family, they are part of a child’s psychological education in facing forbidden feelings and finding a narrative that will articulate and contain if not resolve them – for tellers as well as their young listeners.

Even the representations of gods are different from Hindu mythology; the gods in the folk tales have bodies, smell, pee and even menstruate unlike in the mythological stories where even their feet do not touch the feet. The most famous ones are usually the humorous or the witty tales like those of Birbal, Tenaliraman, GopalBhar or Mullah Nasiruddin.

Stories and words not only have weight but they also have wills and rages, they can take different shapes and exact revenge against a person who doesn’t tell them and release then into the world. They have an existence of their own, a secondary objectivity like any other cultural artefact. Cultural forms make people what they are as much as people make culture. They are there before any particular teller tells them, they hate it when they are not passed on to others, for they can come into being again and again only in that act of translation. If you know a tale, you owe it not only to others but to the tale itself to tell it; otherwise it suffocates. Traditions have to be kept in good repair, transmitted, or else, as such tales seem to say, things will happen to you.

Folklore, contrary to romantic notions of its spontaneity or naturalness, is formal. It makes visible its forms. Identification and dis-identification (of the listeners with their characters) have their triggers in tales and happen at different stages of a tale or a performance. They bring people together, improve communication and inspires a sense of belonging. Although with the onslaught of technology, the oral tradition of story telling is fading away, but the stories themselves will never be outdated. Like Scheherazade, the vizier’s daughter in Arabian nights, we will continue to tell tales within tales within tales, till the very end of time.


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