On Folk Narratives
A study of folk narratives can have many, many different directions. One could study
the problem of folk motives, or study tale types to internationally put up the narrative
into a particular socket - one should choose one direction to work. One works in
the field of folk narratives to gather interesting stories, to write and publish
them; another decides folktales are very interesting lessons in our jobs as teachers;
yet another wants to collect stories and see who tells the story, why, and for whom,
as well as the type of social significance or social message it contains. So, there
are hundred of ways in which folk narratives can be studied, there is no one fixed
way. Some people do not work with folk narratives as a distinct discipline. Rather,
they collect whatever folk narratives they find interesting and integrate them in
I believe that whatever one studies, one should try to get the whole out of the
whole and from what remains, which is also a whole. This is apparent in folk narratives
where even after studying it any number of ways, what will remain is a total whole.
There would still be things to be told about it. What I shall talk about folk narratives
here is the sum of my experiences after entering the world of folk narratives. The
first important factor for me is: who is the narrator? Who is the teller of the
tale? I shall list out people engaged in different types of folk narratives with
whom we worked in Rajasthan and collected stories. I begin with professional storytellers.
They expect some remuneration, some fee, and are professionally engaged in the job
of storytelling. Shifting from this description, we have an entire class of people
known as bhat, the genealogists. The role of these people is to keep track
of your family line, specifically the male line. There are two types of bhats - mukhavancha
bhat and pothibancha bhat. The mukhavancha bhat maintain genealogy
records orally, not in writing. The pothibancha bhat keep a bahi or record in which
they write down names.
Each family has to pay the pothibancha bhat for the writing of their names,
without which their names will not be entered into his bahi or into the bhat's
memory. The practice in Rajasthan is that the bhats visit families every
three years and record in the bahi the names of children born, if any, in
the families in the interim years. People think that this kind of record of family
history is kept only for kings and jagirdars and such, but that is not true.
Any group in Rajasthan that claims a caste status has to have a genealogist. Today,
this institution of recording genealogy is strong in the so-called low caste groups.
Most of the art forms, too, are alive today because of this system which somehow
or the other, has kept many traditions alive for us.
During their visit, the bhats stay for two or three days with a family or
in the village and go from house to house. In the evenings, they tell stories. This
is actually a full performance - they sit at a designated place, there is an audience
comprising men and women, and they use highly ornate speech. There are also various
formulae in the storytelling - for example, when they talk about a king, there is
a lot of material about the king's appearance, the way he sat on his horse, about
what happened to him, the ornaments that he wore. When they talk about a queen or
a heroine, they use many formulae to describe her beauty. There are also ornamented
descriptions of horses, camels, of drinking and of the elements.
The mukhavancha bhats are only available within the low caste groups. They
are generally nats or acrobats. All the acrobats that we see on the streets
are oral genealogists of other caste groups in Rajasthan. In their practice of genealogy,
these bhats start with stories about how the birth of the Sun, the Moon and
the Trees, how the various activities in society came into existence and how natural
phenomena occur. We have recordings of some mukhavancha bhats and one can
see a relation to the organisation of the puranas. Puranas have five
chapters and the oral genealogists follow exactly the same format while narrating
stories. As no society or group will survive without their own mythology, these
stories are about low caste people.
Our problem while working was finding the mythology of the low caste people in society.
Can their mythology be the same as classical mythology? They too survive on their
mythology. Our general reaction was that it would be difficult for them to survive
on classical mythology, so, what do they have with them? This led us to the institution
of the mukhavancha bhats. These mukhavancha bhats have hundreds of
stories to tell in the course of narrating the genealogy of people. I shall tell
you one about a tribe known as the rauts, a small group in the Mewad region.
We heard the story inadvertently while passing through the area. There was this
acrobatic group reciting the genealogy of the rauts. There was a crowd of
about five hundred men and women. The story went thus:
There was a person named Punia. At that time, nobody knew agriculture. For the first
time, Punia sowed the seeds of corn and it turned out to be a success. When he was
to harvest his crop, the Sun and the Moon came and said, Punia, you have grown something
and it has turned out well. But would you have been able to do it without us?
Punia says, No, I would not have been able to. So they asked for their share
in the yield. Punia told them that the whole field was theirs. They moved through
the field and saw the beautiful flowers at the top of the corn plant. They also
had not seen agriculture; they said they shall take the upper part and the lower
part shall belong to Punia. So the sun and the moon got nothing and Punia got the
full crop as the corn grows on the middle part of the plants.
Next year, Punia sowed sorghum or jowar. Again, the Sun and the Moon came
by. They said this time they would take the middle part and Punia can take the upper
part. Punia again got all the grain and the Sun and the Moon got none.
At this part of the story, the storyteller beat his drum very vigorously and asked
if anybody could tell him who is Surya (the Sun) and Chandra (the Moon)? The audience
answered in one voice that they were Chandravanshi and Suryavanshi. These were the
rulers of that place. In the twelve hours of recording that we have (at Rupayan
Sansthan), there are many such tales, if the high caste people listen to them, they
will be angry and unhappy. So, one way or the other, a type of a big narrative lore
of very important life aspect of lot of people is available at this point. We consider
both types of bhats as professional storytellers - they prepare themselves
for the job, the particular way of storytelling is transmitted to them, they learn
it, and narrate it. So, bhats form one group of storytellers. The second
group is made up of the known professional storytellers. But we found in Rajasthan
that these people mostly work at night - they have to work for the entire night
and they have a lot of free time in between. When the people gather before them,
they tell stories to pass the time. Not everybody can tell these stories; a few
people in the village specialise in narrating them. And they are always long - the
stories last for an hour or two. Similarly, when people in the villages are sitting
and doing nothing, waiting for something or the other, they will ask the storyteller
from that place to narrate a story and he would do so. These are very compact stories.
Again, these storytellers also use heightened speech as well as theatricality, a
sort of organised performing situation.
The third situation is when we ask any person to tell a story, he says that he does
not know. Have you listened to something? He says no, I have not. But the same person,
if some occasion happens, would tell a story to establish his point. Out of many
stories that came to mind, I tell you this story.
Somebody has taken a loan from another person which he was unable to repay. In Indian
situations, when a person takes a private loan, it is repaid even in fourteen generations
or twenty generations; they do not feel totally free until they repay the loan.
The loan, indigenously given, is on exorbitant interest. I might have taken a loan
of Rs. 200 and I might have paid Rs. 2,000 or Rs. 20,000 on interest but yet another
Rs. 2,000 might be left to repay. This is the situation today, I do not know about
any other parts of India, but it is so in Rajasthan. So, people feel that if we
have taken a loan from you, we would repay by washing in the milk, and this would
be the expression they use.
So, this is the situation for the person who has taken the loan. And then, somebody
would come up with a story. The story would be: a person who took a loan died and
the person who gave the loan also died. The person who took the loan was reborn
as an elephant and the person who gave the loan was reborn as a bull. Both of them
are in the same kingdom. It so happened that one day, the elephant became mad and
started killing people and rummaging through the kingdom. So, the king offered half
of the kingdom to any person who would be able to tame this elephant. Everybody
was afraid of the mad elephant but the bull told the peasant who owned him, Let me
go. I shall go and defeat him. The peasant was sceptical but allowed the
bull to try. As soon as the elephant saw the person who had given him the loan in
the form of a bull, he ran away. A number of stories are told in this way to establish
some point or the other. But these stories will never come to us if you ask them
to tell a story. Most of our collections are from my friend who works, writes and
publishes folktales - he has published fourteen volumes of folktales collected from
various places. Most stories actually come from situations where the storytellers
try to make a point. When we were living with them in the village, such situations
would arise. We see a lot of proverbs used in similar situations. Most of the proverbs
actually have stories behind them - we call them proverbial tales. Let me tell you
a story that comes to mind: there is a proverb in Rajasthani that translates to,
I am the person who can say no, who are you to say no. This is used in a
number of situations. Proverbs, like words, don't have a single meaning, and they
are used according to the context and give meaning to that particular situation;
and the context is never the same. The story in this case is that of an old woman
who had gone to the jungle to collect firewood. As she was coming home with a heavy
load on her head, a sadhu passing that way saw her and said, you are an old
lady and you are carrying so much weight. I've me the load; I shall carry it to
your home. She appreciated his gesture and said, carry it for me, and when we
reach home, I shall give you something for it. When they reached her
place, she went inside and did not come out because then she would have to give
him something for helping her bring the wood. Meanwhile, the old woman's daughter-in-law
came out and the sadhu asked her for something. She said, No, we would not
give you anything. Then the angry mother-in-law came out and asked, what right
did you have to say no? Only I have the right to say no. Hence the above-mentioned
There is another proverb, Even when a doomani weeps, there is some melody in it.
(A doomani is a woman from the musician community). But the proverb is not
restricted to women and musicians. For example, somebody meets me and I immediately
start talking about folklore, and even if he or she talks about something else,
I bring the conversation back to folklore. The person might recount that whenever
you meet Komal, he talks about one thing only. And then the person might quote this
proverb. Then there are the jokes that are prevalent in hundreds of ways in the
villages. Some are honourable; some can't be talked about freely. These again fall
into the category of narrative.
And then we have the women's narratives of stories. The women tell stories to their
children. In this way, we work a little more in detail. Again the problem that comes
up is about who is the bearer of the tradition, as was discussed in our first lecture
by Henry Glassie. In my childhood, too, I heard stories - if I stress my memory,
I might be able to remember a few, may be in a skeletal form. Every child hears
stories. As far as rural Rajasthan is concerned, no child grows up without stories.
It is as important as mother's milk. But a child who never retells these stories
is not the bearer of the tale. The other important thing to remember is that when
women tell stories to their children, it is an adult addressing a child. The format
of the story is adult format, not children's format. Therefore, the child would
never be able to express himself or herself through that story. Up to the age of
seven, we found that children never tell stories to other children or to anybody
else, so they never become the bearers of the stories.
What I tell you now is absolutely personal. Whenever I try to work in any particular
field, whether it is folk narratives, or songs or gods and goddesses, the first
thing I do is to do it in my family and try to see the situation there and try to
ascertain because I can ask them hundreds of questions in hundreds of ways and I
would get some kind of reply or no reply at all. I started trying to remember stories
I'd heard in my childhood. I was brought up in my maternal family. I mostly grew
there and it was in the Mewad and Udaipur region.
Only one story comes to mind, and my maternal aunt told me that one. I remember
we were a lot of boys of the same age in my group and we would ask her to tell the
story again and again and therefore it might have remained in my memory. The story
was simple and short. There was a pair of birds. They decided to put up a swing
on a well. The birds used to swing on it. But it was made of very thin thread and
the thin thread broke. She never said anything more than that. But we always felt
sorry for this pair of birds. After a very long time, when I was working on folktales,
this story came back to me. By this time I was about fifty-five years old. When
I retold the story to myself, I realised that the birds did not fall in the well
but they flew away. As soon as I realised that the birds flew, it was as if a great
burden had been taken off my heart.
I enquired why people who tell the story do not immediately tell the moral of the
story. This puts up a very different attitude to the women's storytelling. They
would never, never tell the moral of story to the child ¬they will leave it to the
child to grow and understand not only one moral but different shades of meaning
out of a story. This is what was happening in the traditional society. But when
we tried to bring these stories to the schools, we found that we begin with the
moral of the story, and then tell the story. Or after telling the story, we try
to explain the moral. Not only that, the children never retold the stories they
had been told. The format was such that it was not possible for the child to come
out with the story; like the lullaby that is sung to the child by an adult and cannot
be sung by a child to another child. Nowadays, we tell a child a story in the night
before sleeping and in the morning, at breakfast, we ask the child what the lion
did and what the fox did. If the child is able to answer, we feel very happy that
the child has learnt the story. But this was not the purpose in traditional society
- to examine whether the child knows the story or not. Now, we learned that no child
under the age of eight or nine ever gets a story that has to do with religion. It
may appear in some families - may be in Brahmin families. But, in general, only
after the child is seven does religion appear in stories. The child never retells
the story. So, again, who is the bearer of the tale? In the case of the professional
and other storytellers, they have a particular type of recruitment for particular
types of tradition. They learn the stories from those sources. But these stories
that women narrate, how do they move on?
We found that mothers in rural areas are never storytellers. We also found that
the grandmother does not tell stories if the grandfather is alive. Then we looked
into the way of life in which the mother is engaged for the evening prepare food,
wash things, ready the beds, do the things necessary for the next morning and so
on. This is the time when children would sleep and she had no time to attend to
the child. So, she never told stories. Most adults, when asked to remember bedtime
stories they'd heard in their childhood, would say, who will tell us stories? Mother
would give us a good slap and ask us to go to sleep. But this is not true.
They were told stories. They need to be goaded again and again to remember something.
In such a situation in rural areas, we found that if there was a widow in the family,
she is the one who tells the stories. She is usually the one who looks after the
children in the family after the husband's death. She is in contact with the children
all the time. Any family we visit, we learn about the family members. If there is
a widow, we ask her to tell us stories. She is able to tell us many, many tales.
So, here is the bearer of a very different generic type of a story. We ask these
widows the source of these stories. They say they heard the stories from their families.
But they had also collected stories later on. When asked if she told the stories
when her husband was alive, the answer is no. Another thing becomes important: when
a professional storyteller talks to other people, he is professionally prepared
and tells the story to many people. But it is different in stories narrated in houses.
For example, if a mother tells a story to her five children ¬say, three daughters
and two sons- all five may not come and listen to the story. They may be of different
ages. And even if all of them are present, only one or two might be listening. And
it is a personal, conversational mode of storytelling. A different type of language
is used - the theme, the way of talking, how the story begins and ends. This is
the type of stories children hear from women in the family.
Then there is another genre of stories narrated by women. These are the vrat kathas.
There are certain fasting days in a year, certain time cycles, in which they eat
only once a day or not eat throughout the day. They have to observe certain rituals,
such as they'd eat only after the moon rises. The vrat stories are told on
these occasions. The same story is narrated every year for that particular vrat,
but there are variations according to the region. This type of storytelling led
us to another type of problem. How is time divided in a given society or group?
My wife and I use different calendars. In her calendar, it does not hold that one
has to get the salary on the first day of the month or that Sundays or second Saturdays
are holidays. She is always working and there are no holidays for her. She lives
according to the Indian calendar, which is the tithi. She has to have a calendar
of her own in which she sees the eighth, ninth days of the fortnight or that the
eleventh is cut off, only twelfth day is there and on these calculations, the vrat
day is determined.
The format of 'vrat stories' is that a situation arises in which a family
gets into difficulty because somebody in the family was not observing this vrat.
They have to face a lot of tragedies, but finally the gods would come when this
particular vrat is observed, and everything would be alright. So the vrat
is something to please the deity. The factor that became important for us in the
study of the vrats is the time divided among the women's groups of Indian
society? They might have a weekly vrat, a Monday vrat or a Saturday
vrat - it will appear every week. Some vrats are done, say, on the
eleventh of every fortnight, so there would be two vrats in a month. Others
are observed on amavasya or the night of no moon. Then, the vrat would
be once a month. Then we have vrats that move in two-monthly, three-monthly,
four-monthly, six-monthly or yearly cycle. Finally, we found that the vrat
is the absolute clue to the working time-frame for the women. It is this that keeps
them aware of what we call date. Most of the time when I am in my village,
I do not wear a watch; I do not even know the date or the day. It is not needed
there. But when I come to Jodhpur, date does matter. So, the vrat stories are to
be looked into in conjunction with the tithis. There are also many folktales
that refer to this type of time division in people's lives.
So far, the narratives I have been talking about are the prose narratives and normal
speech. There are sung narratives, as well. There are ballads. Unfortunately, in
Indian folklore studies, we do not see the proper understanding of the ballad type.
People only talk about the epic type where there is a long narration and the canvas
is bigger. But, ballads receive the least possible cognizance. Among the women's
songs are hundreds of ballads. In one of the studies we are conducting now about
women's songs, we came across a particular ceremony called night-wake (ratijaga)
done in families at childbirth, marriage and death, in which these songs are sung.
Some of the songs are lyrical, but some are total narratives. These songs contain
a story line, but there is no mention of the name of the place, or names of characters
and there is no time prescribed in the story.
One of the most popular songs is the panihari. Anywhere in Rajasthan, if
you request, he or she would sing this song. Panihari is a narrative song.
The story line is something like this: A man riding a camel came to a water hole,
nadi as we call it, where anyone could come and drink water. A girl is also
drinking water there, and the camel rider asks her some questions and praises her
beauty. The girl gets angry that a stranger should talk to her in this manner and
goes home ruffled. The man follows her. Reaching home, she complains to her mother
that the man has been harassing her. Her mother comes out, sees the man and finally
says that this is the man to whom the girl has been betrothed. This is the story
- no place is mentioned, no names of the persons.
We asked the people what other songs they sing about in the night-wake (ratijaga)
ceremony, and they said they sing about gods and goddesses. We came across sixteen
songs about gods and goddesses. We didn't get into these gods and goddesses, but
we went into the details of the whole ¬night sessions. We found that right up to
midnight, people would sing songs related to gods and goddesses. After that, they
would sing singaru songs, or songs of romance. One story comes in here: A
girl is being married off. Her father wants to give her dahej (dowry). He
tells her to take gold, take cattle, take buffaloes, take ornaments or take money.
All the time, the girl says she would not take any of these, that she wants only
one thing. When the father asks her what it is, she asks for her beautiful maidservant
who works for the family, with whom the father had got involved. So, to save her
mother and to give her mother a good life, the girl asks for the maidservant. The
father says okay but warns her that she has to be careful. The girl insists, and
so she takes the maidservant along with her. The new bride prescribed a lot of rules
for the maidservant; the maid was not allowed to take a bath everyday, she could
not wear good clothes or ornaments nor could she wear any makeup. And she kept a
strict watch on the maid to see that the maid followed all this. But one day she
was invited to attend a night-wake (ratijaga) ceremony that she could not
avoid. Before going, she again instructed the maid not to do anything that would
make her look beautiful. At the ceremony at around midnight when she looked at her
palace she saw lights in the part of the palace where she slept. She rushed back
immediately and found her husband involved with the maidservant.
These types of stories come in the nature of a ballad. Why are they sung? What is
their message? This is difficult for me to discuss now.
In another situation, another story is about a girl who gets married and goes to
her in-laws' house. The next morning she goes to a small lake near her house to
fetch water and she sees a peacock. When she tries to fill her pot, the peacock
comes and puts its feathers at that spot and does not allow her to fill water, and
says, you are a beautiful bride. Why don't you come with me? I, too, am beautiful.
The bride decides to elope with the peacock. But her younger sister-in-law, who
has come with the bride, goes back and tells everyone that the bride has eloped
with the peacock. The people pursue her, kill the peacock, and bring the new bride
back home. In the evening, she is served food. After she finishes eating, they inform
her that she has eaten the peacock's meat. This is another night-wake (ratijaga)
song. We now have more than forty songs in our archive. As far as the narrative
part is concerned, these ballad types have not been studied generically in any part
We have hundreds and hundreds of ballads. In our collection, we would have five
hundred. Otherwise, most of the time, these stories rarely get into folk songs and
they fall into categories other than merely folk songs. The narrative element starts
guiding them in a different way.
Let's come to oral epics, again narrative. There are different types of oral epics.
We have oral epics where there is a long scroll, nearly two hundred episodes of
the epic painted on it - a man and woman sing before the particular scroll and tell
the story of Pabu. The musical instrument played along with it is the Ravanhatha.
Then there is another scroll that goes by the name of Bagdawat or Dev Narayan, and
the instrument played with it is the jantar. These stories are very long.
In our recordings, we have about five, six versions of the Pabu story. None
of them moves for less than twenty to thirty two hours: The Bagdawat moves from
thirty to forty eight hours.
There is this particular epic of Heer and Ranjha, sung in the eastern parts of Rajasthan
like Alwar and Bharatpur. It is also found in Haryana, in Agra and in Manipur. As
soon as I say Heer-Ranjha, everybody thinks of a romantic tale. A Sufi poet Wajid
Ali Shah took this story and wrote it in the Sufi mould. That is the Heer-Ranjha
story that became famous from Punjab. It is sung to prevent the cattle epidemic
from spreading. There is a particular disease that affects cattle, buffaloes and
horses, in which the foot splits into two. It is contagious and moves quickly like
an epidemic and affects thousands of animals. In this region, the people would say
that when such an epidemic occurs, we do the patha of Heer-Ranjha. Now this
patha is very peculiar.
Usually it is the patha of Ramayan or the patha of Mahabharat or the
patha of Geeta - only religious treatises are known as paths. But
here, they talk about the patha of Heer-Ranjha. This story is sung for this
purpose by professional musicians of a particular caste of that region as well as
by peasants. An important group of this kind is the jogi. This leads to another
problem. The area that I am talking about is Mathura, Brindavan, Bharatpur and Alwar.
This is the area of the cows, the area of Krishna. But for curing the cows today,
Krishna is not the effective god. So, who can cure a cow or a buffalo today? It
is Ranjha. Ranjha was Mahiwal, which means mahish paal, the buffalo-keeper.
He became the saviour of cows and buffaloes. He is also a flute player like Krishna.
Then there is another situation. Which are the societies that consume the milk of
buffaloes. If you go to Manipur, Meghalaya, China or Tibet, the people there do
not consume buffalo milk. Here, the buffalo is mainly a sacrificial animal. Gradually,
we found that we can divide even the peasant groups depending on whether they rear
cows or buffaloes. Now, we have started talking about buffalo culture and cow culture.
So, this Heer-Ranjha is sung in a particular way and this version is not well known.
It is very different from the Wajid Ali Shah's version.
In the same category comes the tradition of Dewal or Pandav or Mahabharat stories.
But except for the names and characters, the stories have nothing to do with the
Mahabharat. All stories of Dewal or Garath or Pandav actually begin after the narrative
of Mahabharat ends. A new situation turns up; a new story unfolds, while the characters
remain the same. These type of stories are called Pandavon ki Katha, Pandavon ki
Phaliyan and Pandun ke Kade. They run absolutely parallel to Mahabharat
One story is known as the Draupad Puran. The Great War is over. The Pandavas
are in one camp and the Kauravas in the other, and everything is fine. In the Pandava
camp, Draupadi arrives. As soon as she enters, Yudhistra gets up and touches her
feet. Bheema gets angry and says that whatever Draupadi is, Yudhistra is her husband.
Why does he touch her feet? Yudhistra tries to calm him down but Bheema wants an
explanation. Knowing Bheema's anger, Yudhistra does not want to get into an argument.
Instead, he asks Bheema if he has heard that in a particular forest there is a demon
that comes every night and destroys the people there. Bheema immediately gets interested
and wants to know where the demon is. Yudhistra tells him where the forest is and
tells him that the demon would come at midnight and that Bheema was to destroy it.
Bheema goes to the forest, climbs a tall, thick tree and waits for the demon. But
at midnight, he sees a big group of people who clean a spot, spread beautiful, costly
carpets and arrange chairs made of gold, silver and precious stones. All the gods
and goddesses start coming and they take their respective places. Bheema, who is
watching from the tree, sees that a lady arrives and occupies the main chair. The
lady is none other than Draupadi.
As soon as Draupadi takes her seat, the gods start complaining that she had taken
birth in the world to destroy the Pandavas. But the Mahabharat is over and the Pandavas
are still alive. She had taken a vow in Vaikunt to eliminate the Pandavas. Draupadi
admits this fact and says that she could not do it because whenever she said anything,
the five brothers accepted it like a law. So, she did not get a chance to be angry
with them or do anything to them. But she asks the gods and goddesses not to worry
and says that only that morning, Bheema tried to question Yudhistra for the first
time. Now the time has come for her to destroy them. The story goes on - it's a
long story. But it adds a whole frame of such a story to the Pandava tale that moves
on a very different line. The narratives that I describe are what I could remember
at this moment. There are many other ways in which narratives are told. Most of
the time, I feel that what is our world but a narrative. Can we survive without
To conclude, let me tell you a story. There was a king and he wanted to be told
a story that would tire him of saying yes, what we call the hoonkara.
He promised half of his kingdom to any storyteller who could do this to him. One
storyteller approached. He started by saying that a peasant had a big house and
grain was stored in one part. The king said yes. Then a bird came and took one seed
and went off. The king said yes. Then he said the bird came and took another seed,
and then another. The king said alright the bird came and took away all the seeds.
The storyteller said the bird came and took away all the grain in the granary and
I shall proceed with the story. So, I end here - the story would never end.