Monday, October 13, 2008

Story telling in India

Story telling started in India from the Vedic times. Though most of the Vedas are either emphasis on spirituality or rituals or philosophy, many of these are illustrated by stories. Possibly this was done with a view to make these hard core thought processes, reach the common people. While the stories about the role of nature (symbolized by the five aspects of Fire, earth, water, wind and air) are found in the main textual portion of the Vedas, large number of stories illustrating the principles of philosophy are found in the Upanishads.
In spite of all that, these did not reach the common man and the next great development in Indian thought process started immediately after the Vedic period. These were the 18 mega epics which are essentially collection of intricately woven stories mainly of Gods, their incarnations, their devotees, the enemies of their devotees etc. Unless some body reads the mega tome called Maha Bharatha (loosely translated as “Great India”) and read the thousands of stories contained there, people may not believe the story telling culture of India. All these epics were spread by a group of sages called “Sootha Puranikar” by word of mouth. Naturally they underwent many changes. Alterations, deletions and additions are very much expected in this story telling process. Each of the epics is told by a sage to another sage or a king or to a representative of the common man,
This tradition took deep roots in India. You may wonder whether they were fairy tales. Fairies did not exist in the Indian lore. There were Gods, demi gods, Ogres , Yakshas (minstrel divine singers) , ghosts, spirits etc. Many of the stories of that time had these characters. Even at that time , in spite of religious back ground, it was not always good winning over bad. There were stories to illustrate the path to succeed in life , either by fair or slightly unfair means. In the past two to three thousand years, these stories were spread to the breadth and length of the country by word of mouth or by musical discourses, dance dramas etc.
The next great collection of stories was the “Brihat Katha Manjari” (The giant bouquet of stories) written in a language called Paisachi (loosely translated devilish) which was the forerunner of Sanskrit (refined). Here intricate love stories, stories about Heroes etc are found in plenty. The story within another story (some times seven to eight tiers deep) were found in this book.
It was possibly at this time that the religion of Buddhism was born in India. This religion depended a lot on story telling to propagate its principles. The stories of Bodhi sathwas were an integral part of this religion. These characters were incarnations of Budha . Many times the Bodhi Sathwa was not necessarily human but animal or bird or even tree which did charitable and noble deeds. Apart from moral these tried to teach the common man the philosophy of Budhism. These were written in a language called Pali, which originated from the spoken language of the Vedic and Puranic period, which was called Prakrit(Meaning “Very natural”). This pali is believed to be the fore runner of the present day national language of India –Hindi.
Side by side with these developments was the Golden period of the Gupthas. Among them was a great king called Chandra Guptha II otherwise known as Vikramadithya(The valorous Sun). Many very interesting tales sprung round this great king. In the beginning due to some accidents in life, he decided to rule the country for six months and live in the forest for six months. Every trip to the forest gave rise to an adventure. These stories of Vikramadithya which included the stories of Vikramadithya and his Vampaire are hot favourites of many generations of Indians. This dynasty was later followed by the Mauryas. And one of the greatest common man scholar of that period was Kautiliya also known as Chanakya and also known as Vishnu Sharman. He is credited to have composes the Pancha Thantra (Five tricks) which is a compilation of five stories. Most of the characters in these were animals. Again the idea was not to propagate ethics but teach people the method of living.
These stories descended to the common man and story telling became the art of the common man. The same story was told to a toddler to the young boy/girl , to the lad /lass and to man/woman. But the style and content of the story was altered by the story teller depending on the age group of the audience he is addressing, Story telling became an integral part of the common man’s lingua to drive home , the points that he was talking about.
Along with the religion of Islam came a moderate group who took to the Indian tradition of story telling. They were called Sufis. They illustrated their talks by peppery stories. Storied of Khalil Gibran and Naseruddin Hodja caught the imagination of the common man in India. When the British came , they came with Grimms fairy tales, Aespos fables, Andersons fairy tales and large number of stories frm the bible. Some how these were rarely Indianised.
Every village in India had a temple , a hero a great devotee of god and great women. The very imaginative Indians wove stories round them. Many of them illustrate why a temple is considered as particularly holy,hw a devotee got salvation, what a great hero did to the village and how by sacrificing her life along with her husband a woman became great etc.
The modern education spearheaded by the British laid emphasis on the fairy tales of Europe but the fairy tales of India did not vanish. They were preserved word of mouth. A great story teller during the modern period is Saint Ramakrishna. He illustrated his preaching with lots and lots of stories.

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