How The Art Of Traditional Oral Storytelling Is Dying, As We Witness Loss Of Personal Histories

Posted on October 30, 2014 in Culture-Vulture

By Amrita Garg:

Jagjit Singh, in one of his most famous songs, evoked a sense of nostalgia:

“Muhalle Ki Sabse Purani Nishani,
Wo Budhia Jise Bache Kehte The Naani,
Wo Naani Ki Baaton Me Pariyon Ka Dera,
Wo Chehre Ki Jhurrion Me Sadiyon Ka ghera,
Bhulaye Nahin Bhul Sakta Hai Koi,
Wo Chhoti Si Raaten, Wo Lambi Kahani”

Ritu Verma at Beyond the Border 1995 Picture Credits
Ritu Verma at Beyond the Border 1995

Every time I hear these lines, I am struck by a fierce longing for the lost art of storytelling. Enid Blyton may have regaled generations of young readers with adventures of the Secret Seven or the Naughtiest Girl in School, but the wonder in a child’s eyes as they listen to their grandparents recounting legends and tales from closer home is unmatched. Even though I was brought up on a rich diet of both foreign as well as Indian writing for children, yet the stories I remember best are the ones my grandmother or my father told me, of things that were and things that could have been. These days, however, children are left to their own devices by busy parents who provide them the best that money can buy but forget to take time out to acquaint them with their own backyard, so to speak. A whole generation of children in Punjab, for instance, has grown up without ever hearing of legends like Dulha Bhatti or Heer Ranjha.

To my mind, this is the principal fallout of the decline of the oral storytelling tradition. It has dealt a severe blow to the legacy of regional literature and culture, most of which was passed down the ages in the form of stories swapped around a fire on cold winter nights or performed to the accompaniment of song and dance for a mesmerised audience.

Every year, around the day of the Lohri festival in January, towns and villages in northern India reverberate with the sounds of young children singing “Sundar Mundriye ho! Tera Kaun Vichara Ho! Dulha Bhatti Wala Ho!” in praise of Dulha Bhatti, considered a hero in Punjab, a veritable Robin Hood. However, as the years go by, the voices have begun to fade and the words do not fall as easily from the lips.

The plains of Punjab abound with such stories of romance and valour, laughter and tragedy. The love story of Heer Ranjha, that became part of Punjabi folklore, has given birth to some of the best writing in the language and is one of the most famous examples of the Qissa tradition of Punjab. It also found its way into Punjabi poetry and music with the poet Bulleh Shah writing these lines:

Ranjha Ranjha kardi ni main aape ranjha hoyi
Sado ni mainu deedho ranjha, heer na aakho koyi.”

It strikes me at times that we are the last generation who have heard first hand accounts of the freedom struggle and the ensuing horrors of the partition. Nothing illustrates better the two sides of the coin than remembrance. On the one hand, the freedom struggle is something we can and must be proud of, something I carry like a talisman inside my heart to remind me of what our forefathers gave up to ensure the life we have today. On the other, looms the darkness of partition, the terrible culmination of a glorious struggle, which tore apart the fabric of our nation and cannot be forgotten. Though the magnitude of available literature on these two events is immense, yet many of us have our own personal histories which we inherited from our parents and grandparents and which we will carry to our graves, untold and unwritten. A heavy burden to carry indeed.

In neighbouring Rajasthan, year after year, the Kaavadiya Bhats, or local storytellers, travel to far-flung areas to the houses of their patrons or jajmaans to recount ancient legends and folklore. This tradition still survives, but barely. It is fast becoming redundant in a world that has moved on to more immediate sources of entertainment. The bond between the storyteller and the listener hangs by the fragile thread of habit.

One of the best and most vibrant examples of the oral traditions of India are the Baul singers of Bengal, followers of Lalon Fakir and a community of mystic minstrels who perform music inspired by the Bhakti and Sufi traditions. They form part of the masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, as declared by UNESCO. Their influence can be seen today in many aspects of Bengali culture, but the art itself is dying as successive generations move to alternative careers.

Whether it is the Burra Katha tradition of Andhra Pradesh or the Pandavani singers of Madhya Pradesh, the Dhadi Jathas of Punjab or the Villu Paatu form prevalent in Kerala, storytellers have long served as their community’s historians, founts of life’s wisdom, preservers of our ancient culture and the voice of a people. They are also the most important source of the diverse regional literature that characterises our country.

However, the path to so-called modernity lies littered with the corpses of many such rich traditions with little money and lesser support to help preserve them. As we embrace more and more of the other, we have forgotten to take along what is essentially our own. We have watched silently as Boa Sr, the last speaker of the Andamanese language Aka Bo, died in 2010, taking with him all the stories of his people, as if they never were. We have cocked a snook at family traditions of storytelling in search of greener pastures. We have made ourselves and others believe that storytelling is not a noble enough profession and have joined the assembly line system that churns out the same products. We have taught ourselves to forget before we even begin to remember.