Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Folktales from India, by A.K.Ramanujam, reviewed by Kamala Balachandran

How many folktales have you heard, which you can recall and narrate to your children? If you have lived in a Metro all your life (like I have) chances are that your answer is, ‘none’. But as the compiler of this book points out in his introduction, even urban folks have a few stories buried somewhere in our memories. But because we have lost the tradition of narrating them and passing them on to someone, they have remained lost to even us.

I too realised this while reading the book. Apart from those that are familiar to most of us as a Panchatantra/ Akbar-Birbal/ Tenali Raman story I was surprised that I was also familiar with a few others. Perhaps it was my grandmother or mother who had narrated them to me sometime in the past. And I wondered why I had always picked either Western fairy tales or Indian Mythology as bedtime stories for the children. And if I carried a handful of stories within me, I can imagine what a repository of folktales, those from the rural background must have.

Thanks to the printing press, Penguin and efforts of folktale enthusiast, A.K.Ramanujam, it has been made possible for all to access the collective memories of all these carriers of folktales, in a language that is now the ‘knowledge mother tongue’ for most urban Indians.

Folktales from India is a selection of oral tales translated from stories in twenty two different, Indian languages! Selected and edited by A.K.Ramanujam this four hundred page paperback contains within its covers, as many as 108 folktales! Delicate floral motifs and small sketches appear scattered through the pages thus breaking the monotony of the printed words.

To break the monotony of reading the same kind of stories, the tales themselves are arranged in eleven cyclic, sessions, with each consisting of eight to eleven tales. Each session has one or more seven kinds of tales that Ramanujam collected. Thus by rotation one gets to read a men/women centred tale, tales of two families at the two ends of the good-bad spectrum, tales about fate, death, gods, demons, ghosts etc., clever-person tales, tales where animals speak, and finally stories about stories!

Ramanujam has mentioned that he had gathered over one thousand stories and selected a tenth for publishing.. But even one hundred odd stories is lot of tales and as such the collection has some good stories, some average and some that don’t appeal to the modern day child/adult. The many, mother-in- law, daughter-in-law tales and most women centric tales are examples of this category of tales. Again there are a few, like the Bengali story, ‘A Plague Story’, the Santali story “one, two, three” which carry profound ideas and leave the adult reader in deep thoughts.

Reading/listening to these simple stories is not just entertainment. Psychologists hold that folktales have an important place in the education of children. They are a potent source of psychoanalytic insights as they concentrate on close family ties and childhood fantasies.
An additional take home for the Indian reader is the awareness that a commonality of traditions and culture connects the different language-regions in the country.

I would recommend a copy of this book in every home. When the children demand a story to be told or when you are in mood for something short and light, reach for the book, pick a title at random and lose yourselves in the simple, timeless tales.

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