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Echoes of ancient Indian tales

Issue 06, 2020

Echoes of ancient Indian tales

Nalini Ramachandran |author

Issue 06, 2020

India’s storytelling traditions are as diverse as the culture of the country. Nalini Ramachandran explores a few of India’s traditional storytelling methods that not only have immense social relevance but are ways of preserving the nation’s heritage and passing them down to the next generation

Tanaji (Tanhaji) Malusare, the commander of the Maratha army under Shivaji’s rule, was determined to win back Kondhana Fort. From inside an enclosure, he brought out a ghorpad (monitor lizard) named Yeshwant. As Tanhaji tied a rope around its torso and placed it against the wall, Yeshwant clambered up. A ghorpad’s grip was said to be so strong that after it latched on to the ramparts, the entire army could climb up using the rope tied to its torso. But that day, sensing Tanhaji’s life was in danger, Yeshwant turned back halfway. Tanhaji realised that Yeshwant had had a premonition, and said, “I’ve won 27 forts. Not once has the monitor lizard turned back! But I’m a true Maratha, and I’m not afraid of death!” And so, led by Yeshwant, he scaled the wall. This episode may or may not appear in official records, but it does in a centuries-old Powada, a form of Marathi folk poetry-cum-ballad that thrived during Shivaji’s reign.  Powada is one of the several Indian storytelling methods that chronicle historical events. But often, they present lesser-known accounts, thereby highlighting that history, like storytelling itself, is diverse.  So, just as Powada uses verse, prose and music to narrate tales of valour, the glorious lives of the Rajputs, the Mughals and the Deccan sultanates are, respectively, presented through Rajasthani, Mughal and Deccani miniature paintings. These artworks also depicted scenes from mythology, especially from epics such as the Ramayana. Similarly, Pattachitra painting, practised widely in Raghurajpur (a heritage village in Odisha’s Puri district), is also known for its mythological renditions. Intricate and vibrant, this art often comprises the ‘frame within a frame’ layout, with each section presenting iconic episodes. Pattachitra artists also practise Tala pattachitra, a storytelling method where tales are engraved on dried palm leaves. Odisha is popular for Chhau too. A dance form that is also performed in parts of West Bengal and Jharkhand, Chhau originated from ancient warrior camps. Using energetic dance, superfast spins, high jumps and swordplay, it presents stories of legendary and divine warriors.

A Bahurupiya (impersonator) artiste dressed as Hindu deity Lord Hanumana. This image was taken on October 07, 2018, at the Behrupiya festival held in New Delhi

Preserver of language

Tales of brave heroes have also been the mainstay of Dastangoi, a popular form of storytelling during the Mughal era that was traditionally rendered in Urdu. But these characters lived in fantastical worlds alongside djinns (spirits) and dragons. When listeners of the time began preferring realistic tales, Dastangoi faded from the storytelling horizon. Decades later, modern storytellers revived the tradition and today, one can enjoy a Dastangoi performance at art festivals. Preservation of languages and dialects has been at the centre of Indian storytelling. Several traditions have never had written texts, and yet, they have lived on for hundreds of years.

Storehouse of knowledge

Apart from language, storytelling has also turned the spotlight on traditional knowledge — be it scientific concepts or ways of living. Kolam (sacred floor design) from Tamil Nadu is based on mathematical calculations and geometrical concepts. Agricultural folk songs of Arunachal Pradesh narrate tales about the origin of grain, the process of jhum cultivation (slash-and-burn) and more. Wooden and clay dolls and figurines from Channapatna (Karnataka), Krishnanagar (West Bengal) and Kondapalli (Andhra Pradesh) beautifully portray people from all walks of life and depict, to the minutest detail, their dressing styles and professions.

Former Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh (extreme right) presents a Chamba rumal to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (second from right) on October 18, 2016, during an event at the state’s Mandi district

Vehicle of Faith

For ages, storytelling has helped people learn about shared beliefs and religious teachings. Sculptures and engravings in temples, stained-glass paintings in churches and Jain manuscript paintings are a few examples. Such visual depictions have been one of the best ways to explain religious teachings to those who were unable to read the sacred texts. Take for instance, the vibrant thangka art. It is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that is popular in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, and depicts teachings and tales from the lives of Shakyamuni Buddha and other gurus like Padmasambhava, Marpa, and Milarepa through painting or appliqué work.

Social relevance

Not just religious beliefs, but stories have also helped impart socially-relevant messages. Bahurupiyas (Behrupiyas) from Rajasthan, who take on the personas of mythological, historical and everyday characters, use cosplay and wit for this very purpose. A great tool for mass communication, storytelling traditions are also an effective way to raise awareness on various subjects like gender equality, girls’ education, hygiene and healthcare, and environment conservation. The identity of communities, especially of storytellers, comes from the storytelling traditions they follow, which, in turn, is closely associated with their primary occupation. Telangana’s Cheriyal scroll painting epitomises this point. Cheriyal scrolls, which look like traditional, hand-painted, narrative comics, are created by the Nakash community of artists. However, nine different communities narrate nine different sets of mythological stories that are depicted in these paintings. Often, these are tales about the origin of certain communities. For example, the Koonapuli (Kunapuli) community of storytellers uses specific Cheriyal scrolls to narrate tales to the Padmashali people (a weaving community) about legends related to the weaver community.

(Clockwise from top left): The traditional Kolam, an art form popular in Tamil Nadu, is believed to represent the Hindu concept of infinity; stories of deities of the Hindu pantheon are intricately depicted in Pattachitra, a storytelling tradition from Odisha’s Raghurajpur village; Kerala’s masked dance Kummattikali is believed to be the dance of Lord Shiva’s bhuthas (spirits); a vibrant thangka painting depicting the Buddhist Wheel of Life or Bhavachakra. Also called the Wheel of Becoming, it is a complex mandala (picture) representing the Buddhist view of the universe

Protector of Nature

Theyyam, a ritualistic performance held inside Kerala’s sacred groves, is deeply rooted in nature worship. There are about 400 types of Theyyam and in each, the performers appear as manifestations of a tree or forest spirit, a tiger or serpent god, or some other local deity. Considered to be one of India’s oldest art forms, Theyyam performances present tales of ancient tribal gods and heroes. Nature forms the basis of most traditions. Which is why, conservation of the environment guarantees, to a large extent, the continuation of these rich and indigenous traditions too.

The Guiding Light

In his monthly radio address to the nation (Mann ki Baat) in September 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had pointed out, “The traditions created by our ancestors are significant even today. When they cease to exist, there is a void. One such tradition is storytelling.” All these methods not only connect people to the past, but guide us towards the future too. Understanding their significance, culture enthusiasts, heritage conservators and NGOs are innovating and finding modern mediums to keep them alive. Also, with the Prime Minister’s encouragement and the initiatives of various government agencies, stories are set to find newer audiences. Meanwhile, the traditional storytellers continue to look ahead and scale barriers with determination, just as Tanhaji had done at Kondhana.

Nalini Ramachandran

Nalini Ramachandran is an author with multiple books to her name. She takes a keen interest in Indian traditions, especially in the art and craft of storytelling. She has worked as a writer and an editor across various media — film and television, newspapers and magazines, and children’s books and graphic novels.
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