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The Essence of Indian Folk Tales

| by Prof. Shubha Tiwari

( July 25, 2013, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Folk tales form an important part of the collective psyche of a society. Folk tales evolve over the centuries. They are enriched by the soil. Generation after generation, people narrate these tales, relish them, interchange them and enrich them. Over the centuries, the unsaid things were said in the folktales as well as in the folk-songs. The folk literature proves that words are as important to the human race as food, clothes and shelter. Stories are born because we are alive. Stories happen to those who are capable of narrating them.

What’s life if not a bunch of tales? Folk tales are the essence of the soil.

India has been an agrarian society. The rural people formed these folk tales in order to give expression to their innermost desires. The folk-tales also maintain the fabric of the society. For example, if the girls of a village do not have a say in choosing a life partner, they have over the centuries created stories wherein the girl demands a handsome, fair and working boy. Folk-tales in India have worked as a surviving tool, especially for women.

The folk tales do not endeavor to change the society. They try to find ways and means within the social pattern and convey their voice. Strikingly enough, stories of the soil all over the world are quiet similar. For example, the Indian version of King Lear is very popular in Uttar Pradesh. Shakespeare took this story from the folk tales of his region. In India also a similar story is very popular, which tries to convey the message that, a girl’s first priority is her husband after marriage. Over indulgence and over expectations from the father are unwarranted. Similarly, there is a story of Satano who craves to meet her maternal family and brothers after marriage. Her in-laws do not allow her to meet her brothers. But the brothers manage to come to their sister on the auspicious day of Bhai Dooj. The story conveys the desire of a girl to meet her maternal family after marriage.

Folk tales do not demand revolution. They do not create tussle or fight. They just present the suppressed view. The style of narration in a folk-tale is very simple. In fact, simplicity is the soul of a folk-tale. Folk tales work towards harmony. For example, in one folk tale, a father chooses a bridegroom for his daughter. The daughter refuses to marry him, saying that she would marry the most powerful man in the village. She goes on her own journey to find the most powerful man in the village and finally comes to the same person whom her father had chosen. This is how beautifully and lovingly how folk-tales end.

Many folk tales have been created to maintain harmony in the family. Every region of India has stories of one rich sister, one poor sister, or one rich sister-in-law and one not so rich brother-in-law etc. Through a small narrative, the message of mutual cooperation within the family is beautifully conveyed. Many times the most common malady of an Indian household is discussed. The melody is miserliness. Often we have an old lady or an old man or a rich uncle, who is not ready to part even with one coin. The folk tales convey the message of the futility of such an attitude. Once a rich old woman stopped recognizing everybody in the village, because she thought they were after her money. But finally when she is in trouble, one of her nephews whom she had declined to recognize earlier helps her and she realizes the limited value of money.

A very common folk tale in North India is about Vishnu’s wedding. Vishnu invited everybody when he set off to marry Laxmi. He left Ganesha behind because he was fat and Vishnu needed somebody to guard his house. Huge trouble came his way while he was travelling. Things could not move at all. Finally, he went to Ganesha and asked for his forgiveness. Ganesha agreed to attend his marriage, but only he himself had married Riddhi and Siddhi. So, the folk tales tells that Vishnu could marry Laxmi only after Ganesha married Riddhi and Siddhi. The message is that everybody is important. Everybody should be treated with love and care, especially on the occasion of some function.

The stories of Alha and Udal, the two brave brothers, are very popular in central India. Many rhythmic and heroic songs have been woven around the story of Alha and Udal. Dhola-Maru is another popular folk-tale, somewhat similar to Romeo Juliet. Two young hearts come together despite caste and locality differences. While in the Rajasthani version of the story, Dhola and Maru live happily ever after, in the Chattishgarh version, the end is not so pleasant. These stories are also performed in the folk theatre of the region.

Folk-tales of India present a very authentic mirror of the aborigine, tribal, traditional and rural mindset. These beliefs, customs, manners and festivals have not changed much from the very early times. This wealth of literature was excluded by definition. Now, there is a revival of interest in the folk-tales of India. It is a body of very expressive stories which include all the aspects of oral history. Legends, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs find expression here. The study of folk-lore is sometimes called ‘Folkloristic.’ William Thomas, an English antiquarian first used the term folk-lore in his letter published in 1846 in the London Journal “Athenaeum”.

Folk-tales are an important part of the folk-lore. Folk-tales in fact dominate all other parts of the folk-lore. Sometimes real incidents and real people over the centuries get adapted into the folk-lore.

Raja Bhoj founded a city Bhojpur, about 30 km away from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh on the banks of the river Betwa. He also established Bhojshala at Dhar to promote Sanskrit studies and also established the famous Saraswati temple there. Raja Bhoj was a historical figure by all means. But then, Raja Bhoj and his Gangu Teli (masseur) have become part of the folk-lore of the central India.

Similarly, Birbal came from Rewa and entered the court of Akbar to become his most precious jewel, out of his nine famous jewels. Similarly Tenali Ram in the south who was an intelligent courtier of Krishna Dev Rai was also a historical figure. But both Birbal and Tenali Ram have been well adapted into the folk-lore of India. So many incidents of showing wit are attributed to Birbal and Tenaliram that we know that it is humanly impossible for a person to ‘actually’ do all that in one life time.

These stories told by the early people are handed down from generation to generation and are sometimes carried by migrating tribes and businessmen. Myth, legend and popular tales are the three major components of this genre. Folk-tales have been an integral part of the Indian culture since time immemorial. Our country with diverse religions, languages and cultures, presents a very wide horizon of folk-tales. The range is remarkable. Panchtantra, Hitopadesh, Jatak Kathas, Akabar Birbal stories and Tenali Ram stories are some of the known examples. Our great epics are also full of small didactic stories which present a moral. These stories are very valuable, especially for children in order to inculcate values in then. There are prose tales, poetic tales, myths, fairy tales, legends, romantic tales and fables etc.

Myths have a sacred tone to them. They give a lesson. We may take one example. Once a woman had three children - sun, moon and Tara (Star). While Sun and Moon were boys, Tara was a girl. The three children were invited to a feast. The sun brought no food for his mother and therefore his house is dry and hot and nobody can see him. The moon brought little food and therefore his house is partially clouded and he cannot be seen all the time. But Tara brought enough food for her mother and therefore she can be seen permanently all the time. The message is simple. We should take care of the needs of every member of the family.

Fairy tales on the other hand have a tinge of magic in them. Miracles and strange things happen easily in fairy tales. For example once an old woman raised a she-rat with lots of love and care. Then she arranged her marriage with a man. Although, the man married the she-rat, he was very ashamed of her. He ordered his bride to live in the upper storey of the house only. The bride performed all her duties in a very nice manner during nights. This went on for a long time. Finally Lord Shiva and Parvati were happy with her and blessed her with the female form.

Legends also form an important part of folk tales. Legends usually have their origin in history. Legends are based on true happenings and actual persons. These stories are highly exaggerated and embellished. While fairy tales are completely a matter of fantasy; legends are realistic and have historical base. Legends remind the people of the potential human effort. Alha-Udal, Birbal and Tainaliram are all legends. The story of Savitri, a pure woman who brought her husband back from the brink of death is also cited as an example of legend.

There are romantic tales spread all over India. Heer and Ranjha, Dhola and Maru and Shiri and Farhad are popular folk tales of romantic nature. The undying love of the couple is exemplary.

A fable is a tale which involves animals. All cartoons and animations of today are actually an extension of this genre. Animals are personified. Animals have both animal and human traits. The rabbit and the tortoise race is a classic example of a fable where the slow and the steady win the race.

Apart from the above categories, there are humorous folk tales. Wit and humor are part of these tales. We all know and love the story of the thirsty crow that put pebbles in the water pot, the water level came up and the crow quenched his thirst.

Jatak tales are there to give an important life lesson to us. Once a saint was crossing a village, the villagers told him that a snake was troubling them. He bit so many people and nobody could sleep in peace because of the snake. The saint spoke to the snake and changed his heart. After a week, when the saint returned he saw the snake in an extremely wounded condition. He asked as to what had happened. The snake said that he had stopped biting and so the people wounded him. The saint said, ‘I had asked you not to bite. But I had not asked you whiff and pose anger.’ So we may not actually hurt someone, but we must keep a brave front.

Another Jatak tale tells that a saint was bathing in a river. A scorpion was helplessly flowing in the flow. The saint helped the scorpion by pulling him out. But as he was pulling the insect out, it bit him. This happened again and again. Somebody asked the saint as to why he was helping a thankless, biting scorpion. The saint said, ‘When the scorpion cannot leave his bad temperament of biting others, why should I leave my good temperament of helping others’.

Many Jatak kathas beautifully and effectively stress on the importance of thinking and mental processes. You are what you think most of the time. Once, a prostitute and a priest lived opposite to each other. The prostitute always thought of the prayers of the priest while he always thought of her business. The prostitute attained nirvana while the priest went to hell after death.

Another Jatak katha with the same message is that once disciples of Gautam Buddha were going somewhere. They saw a woman drowning. They said that they would not save her because touching a woman was prohibited to them. But one of them decided to help her. He brought her out of the water, carrying her in his arms. The group kept the odd disciple criticizing severely for about five hours. They met Buddha by the evening and told him how one disciple had violated the ideal code of conduct. Buddha said that while the odd one did a humanitarian job, the rest of them were obsessed with the thought of the woman for hours; they were the sinners.

These are gems in the form of folk tales. Overall, folk tales are very interesting with lots of simplicity, humor, magic and wit in them. Folk tales enrich life. They make the experience of life entertaining. Usually folk tales are happy ending. Things are amicably resolved. Folk tales represent all classes of the society. Folk lore is an inbuilt pressure reliever of the society. Many unsaid things are said.

There’s some place, some solace for everyone. Folk tales create balance in the society. They help us in understanding life and also help us in dealing with life.

This lecture was delivered on 13, July, 2013 by the author at a refresher course for Asst. Professors at Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla University, Raipur, Chhatisgarh, India.