Story-telling is an ancient tradition of India. Countless primeval stories are narrated by the country’s adept raconteurs known far and wide as kahanikars or accomplished story tellers that seamlessly involve us into the imaginary world of tales. Telling & also retelling provincial or nationwide popular mythical, historical and folk stories in varied languages across diverse regions and adding innovation in every narration, these kahanikars are the delegates of the oral art; one among the many spontaneously created indigenous cultures of world. However, Indian tradition of story-telling is unique in its own respect since it is primarily rooted in the religion that promulgates divine worship through the means of varied stories of gods and goddesses.
The major distributors of these spiritual legends are the elders in the Indian homes. They principally tell these stories to preach moralistic values to the posterity. Narratives of lord Rama and Krishna from the Indian mythological epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata describing the feats of the gods Rama and Krishna slaying the demons like Ravana and Kansa are chosen to teach a lesson that “goodness has the prowess to annihilate evil”. Many mythical legends of devotees like Dhruva and Prahalada’s indomitable faith in lord Vishnu that enabled them attain beatitude serve the purpose of providing the message that “unshakable devotion in god is bound to bring fruitful results”. Another such example is the story of Vamana Avatara or the legend of Lord Vishnu appearing as Vamana in front of King Baliraja testing the monarch’s generosity that was unanimously applauded by one and all. This legendary narrative is told in almost every Indian household while lauding the important humanitarian attribute of altruism reflected in King Bali’s decision to submit all his valuable material possession to the Vaman sage’s demands. Such illustrations indeed boost the famous belief that Indian cultural tradition is principally founded on the concept of didactic story-telling for human enlightenment. The elders are indeed the basic tellers of the narratives but going one step higher than this, professional disseminators of these stories known as “Kathakars” are also invited in many Indian homes. These tellers of Ramayana and Mahabharata stories are the delegates of the “Kathavachana” tradition in India that sprung from the primeval folk art of musical story-telling by the nomadic bards that wandered across regions of India while telling the mythological tales of Rama and Krishna in every region of the country. Jatra, Yakshagana, bhavai, pandvani etc., are the yet surviving paradigms of this mode of peripatetic story-telling in the country.
A Bhagvatam/Ramayana Kathakar narrates the entire Srimad Bhagvatam (the holy book of the Hindus narrating the expedition of lord Krishna) or Ramayan so adroitly that the recipients relish the experience of being transported to the spiritual world of Ramabhakti and Krishnabhakti or devotion towards Rama and Krishna. Attentive listening brings miraculous outcomes. Scholar Ramanujan (in the book Folk Tales of India) recollects one incident wherein listening to the Bhagvat kathakar, the listener became an active participant of the entire narration that was actually a dramatized enactment of the story.
Dramatic story-telling is one among the many ways in which the kathakar may add attraction for one’s audience. Quite similar to the genre of Natak or drama in particular, such story-telling makes it easy for the people to relish the presentation with the characters in front of them playing their vivid roles. Episodes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana for instance Sita’s abduction in Ramayana and Draupadi’s insult in the Mahabharata when enacted instead of merely being told create an indelible impression for the people as they not only listen but also become eye witnesses of the incidents presented in front of them. In such cases the spectators believe whatever presented is true. The documentary film Chena Kintu Ajana by Debojit Majumder (2014) is a clear evidence of the unforgettable impression that effective dramatization of stories (folk, mythological/historical/fiction) by talented actors on the stage could bring about in the audience. The people that saw men in feminine array (in the 1940s and 50s) did not hesitate to believe they were watching women in various roles. This is because the actors had the ability to make their roles credible through their acting which was a combination of facial expressions, body language and above all their impressive dialogue delivery that accompanied adept voice modulations which made them impressive story-tellers.
Story-telling is a demanding art. An effective rendition accompanies erudite accompaniments like intonation, appropriate accent and dialect befitting the setting of the tale and the characters’ temperament and finally the voice throw that intelligently mixes with the mood of the story that is to be told. Simply by the clever combination of these primary elements a dexterous kahanikar approaches an audience that becomes helplessly driven to his irrepressibly enticing narration. We are engrossed listening to Pandavani artist Tejan bai’s solo narration of stories comprising Indian myths, history and legends not only because she is a skillful manipulator of the technical amenities available to aid her rendition but also because she knows how to engross her listeners even without these. Almost every recital by this artist evinces the manner in which she is capable of arresting our attention even without any other theatrical device like lights, camera etc., Many folk story-tellers in India continue to enthrall with their simplicity for instance the prabhat Pherias or the musical bards that begin their day with the first light of the dawn musically telling varied ancient stories that belong to the soil of the Indian land and those that are already known to us but become new with every narration. They just have one small ektara or ravanhattha (traditional musical instruments) dholak, cymbals, tamburine etc., by which they tell a story and regale us so beautifully that we forget we do not have a sophisticated auditorium with complex technical devices to facilitate our entertainment. This retention of simplicity is actually preserving the ethnic Indian culture of narration that began in the domestic households with our forefathers that of course perhaps did not take any sort of formal training in the craft of telling tales i.e. the one that’s available today through the mass media communication sector.
Indeed, today, we have trained story-tellers, those that are adept in manipulating voice, accent, pronunciation and mastering the art of articulating tales with gripping notes of emotions that capture the gamut of moods like love (sringara), laughter (hasya), sadness(karuna), anger(raudra), valour (Veera), fear(bhayanaka) etc. However, these varied feelings created through the means of instrumental techniques on radio/Television or the modern stage were not available when we heard the stories from our elders and even nowadays when we hear the tales often through word of mouth publicity by our family members, relatives and friends. I appreciate dissemination of stories simply through this mode since its “artless” narration overthrows every bit of scrupulous technical complexity and wins our hearts through merely honest representation meant with a purpose i.e. to educate the society and this is appreciable since it takes the huge onus of “Transforming lives”. In Panchatantra, the famous collection of Indian folktales, Pandit Vishnu Sharma is to execute the responsibility to educate the moron princes of the King. With this aim begins the series of interesting stories meant simply to preach the lessons of life that can make us “wise”. This indicates that Indian tradition exalts the story-teller’s responsibility of bringing about a “change” for the betterment of humanity. Since this is one among the many noble causes in the world, a Kathakar or kahanikar for that matter, needs to be selfless. Indian tradition offers example of the self-effacing figure of sage Narada who begins engaging his listeners attributing the credit for his art to his deity Vishnu preaching samarpana or total submission to Lord. The legendary narrative of Mahakavikalidas recounts the tale of this famous artist Kalidas’ surrender in front of goddess Kali to expiate his ignorance. Kali appeared and granted the boon of wisdom to the poet and he became the creator of great epics like Raghuvansham. The tale of Telegu Poet Tenaliraman gives us a similar account of the dumb-witted Tenaliraman having blessed with sagaciousness by goddess Kali. Unless the so-called “Modern” Story tellers comprehend the significance of peremptory submission of ego while telling a tale, I feel no tale would be a “tale selflessly told” but every story told would be full of “selfish interest” i.e. to be praised by the public and attain “Grand stature” as a “Celebrity Raconteur” which brings name fame and money for the teller but not blissful state of redemption which should be the ultimate goal of every artist.
Liberation from the pangs of life by transcending the materialistic existence enables our escalation towards Moksha or salvation. This is possible only when Abhimana/ worldly vanity is annihilated and self realization comes as natural as the “Story from the mouth of a genuine teller” of moralistic stories… Even today, the genuine Kathakars or Kahanikars are driven by the urge of initiating people into the values of righteous living. However, are these kahanikars in the modern auditoriums with technical amenities? Or they are amongst us day in and day out? We need to decide ourselves.
Dr. Payal Trivedi