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Storytelling in India

          When we remember our childhood, we remember the stories, we were listening in the darkness of night in the corner of a room, especially in villages. Those stories are very entertaining. India is famous for storytelling. Tales of Ramayana and Mahabharata were being told to children by grandparents.

Many great men of India have been told such stories – those were the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Shivaji, Rana Pratap, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subash Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, and others. Those stories shaped their personalities and became great men of India.

          Indian stories are well known for ingenuity and originality. Many story books are famous – Pancha Tantra, VetalaPancha-vimsati, Katha saritsagar, Dasa Kumara charita. Being impressed with the Indian art of storytelling, the Arabian people borrowed the idea of storytelling, the Arabian people borrowed the idea of storytelling and that culminated in the stories of Arabian Nights. Those were also marvelous stories, but less interesting than Indian tales.

          The ‘Panchantantra’ is an ancient collection stories of animal fables in Sanskrit. It is believed to be a legacy of an earlier oral tradition. The date of the work is roughly between 200 BC to 300 BC. The author is Vishnu Sharma. This work has been translated into fifty languages around the world. It entered Europe in the eleventh century.

          The framework of the stories is that Vishnu Sharma, a brahmin, was teaching the art of good governance to three princes of the King Amarashakti. Panchatantra contains five parts – each part contains a main story, which in turn contains several stories.

          The Panchatantra stories are pragmatic stories. It would help in practical life. The language is simple and written in both prose and poetry. When the reader is bored with prose; he will be pleased with a verse (sloka) and then prose and then poetry. In this was the writer of the stories captivate the mind of the readers. The Panchatantra is a pride possession of India. It is called a Nitishastra. One verse may be quoted here –

                What is learning whose attaining,

                   Sees no passion wane, no reigning

                             Love and self-control?

          Does not make the mind a menial,

                    Finds in virtue no congenial

Path and final goal?

Whose attaining is but straining

For a name and never gaining

Fame or peace of soul?

(Panchatantra – Book-I Mitrabheda)

The Kathasarit Sagara is a famous eleventh century collection of Indian legends, fairy tales and folktales in Sanskrit. The author is Somadeva. It contains multiple layers of stories within a story.

The author Somadeva was the son of Rama, a Shaiva Brahmin of Kashmir. The stories were written for the amusement of Rani Suryamati of King Ananta of Kashmir. Somadeva was the court poet.

The style of Kathasarit Sagara is simple. The characters are taken from everyday life. The narration fascinates the reader’s mind. So, it becomes amusing which is the real purpose of storytelling. The author has also sense of humor. The reader gets a good taste from the reading or listening of these stories.

Vetala Panchavimsati is a collection of twenty-five tales with a frame story. The frame story is about a King Vikramaditya and a Vetaal. On the way to the burial ground Vetaal tells an interesting story each night to the king and at the end of the story, Vetaal asks a question to the king. If the king does not answer knowingly, then he will die after his head bursts.

In this way, every night, the king answers the question; so, the Vetaal slips away from the shoulder of king and returns to the tree, in which it was living. But during the 25th night, Vetaal tells such a story that the king could not reply the question. It was so intriguing. This indicates the cleverness of the writer.

Singhasana Dvatrimsika is a collection of thirty-two stories. The 11th century king Bhoja discovered the throne of the legendary king Vikramaditya. The throne has 32 statues, who are actually apsaras, who have been turned into stories due to curse. Each of the apsaras tells one story of Vikramaditya in order to warn him that he does not deserve Vikramaditya’s throne.

With this framework, the story teller tells 32 fantastic stories, which are worth listening. At the end, King Bhoja realizes that he is not fit to sit on the throne because he does not possess the qualities of Vikramaditya. Some of these qualities are selflessness, honesty, lack of bias and to a true urge to give justice.

Thus, the art of story telling in India is unique in the world. Intuition and imagination play a major role in these stories. Although fantastic elements are there the tales are from human society itself. Morality is taught through these stories. Above all these tales are of much intrinsic merit of which India is proud.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own.)

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Radhakanta Seth is an Income tax officer in Sambalpur.  He is a freelance writer and his articles have been published in some Oriya dailies like Sambad, Samaj, Dharitri, and English dailies like The Telegraph and in a sociological journal ‘Folklore’ published from Kolkata.

He can be reached at [email protected]

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