India is a treasure-trove of folktales born out of the customs and traditions of the country. Sometimes these tales are retold in its different regions, while imparting the imparting the local flavour to them. The mobility of the folktales can be attributed to the pilgrims and travelers journeying from one part of the country to another. They rested at night in dharamsalas or inns, often attached to temples, where they mingled among themselves and with the local people.
More often then not, folktales are passed on from grandmother to grandchildren so vividly that they are impressed in the listener’s memory forever. They are delightful and fascinating to the young as well as the old. The story even when heard repeatedly does its interest as it appeals to the fantasies, the make-beliefs and the primitiveness in us.
These beautiful folktales of India were on the verge of extinction when a project of compilation of 21 volumes consisting of folktales of different regions launched by Sterling. The Best Loved Folktales have been gleaned from the larger collection.
P.C. Roy Chaudhury during his thirty nine years of service with the Bihar government which he joined in 1927 re-wrote fifteen District Gazetteers and the story of the 1857 movement in tribal areas. He was adviser to His Majesty’s Government in Nepal, and the government of Orissa and Rajasthan an gazetteer work. His publication includes Jainism in Bihar, Folktales of Bihar, Folklore of Bihar, Inside Bihar and Temples and Legends of Bihar. He was Editor-in-Chief at Gandhi peace Foundation and his study of Gandhi is recorded in Gandhi’s First Struggle in India, Gandhi the Man, Gandhi and His Contemporaries and Gandhi and International Politics. He has written critical biographies of C.F. Das, C.F. Andrews and Edmond privat.
As General Editor, Roy Chaudhury was associated with the twenty-one volumes of the series Folktales of India. He also compiled the Folktales of Bangladesh and Folktales of Thailand published by Sterling.
India has a legacy of rich and varied folklore. While research in ancient and modem history has been directed in recent decades more to the political shifts, little notice has been paid to the culture-complex, traditions and social beliefs of the common people. The sociologists should pay a good deal of attention to the customs and beliefs of the people and to changes therein through the ages. They have rather neglected the study of folklore which gives an insight into the background of the people. There has always been an easy mobility of folklore through pilgrimages, melas and fairs. The wandering minstrels, sadhus and fakirs have also disseminated them. People of the north visiting the temples of the south and vice versa carry their folk tales, songs, riddles and proverbs with them and there is an inconspicuous integration. The dharmasalas, musafirkhanas and the chattis (places where the pilgrims rest and intermingle) worked as the clearing house for the folk tales, traditional songs and riddles. That is why. We find a somewhat common pattern in folk literature of different regions. The same type of folk tale will be found in Kashmir and in Kerala with slight regional variation. These stories were passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth before they came to be reduced to writing.
Folklorists have different approaches to the appreciation of folklore. Max Mueller has interpreted the common pattern in folk literature as evidence of nature-myths. Sir L. Gomme thought that a historical approach is best for the study of folklore. But Frazer would rather encourage a commonsense approach and to him, old and popular folk literature is mutually interdependent." and satisfies the basic curiosities and instincts of man. That folklore is a vital element in a living culture has been underlined in recent years by scholars like Malinowski and Radcliffe Brown.
It is unfortunate that the study of folklore in India is of recent origin. This is all the more regrettable because the Panchatantra stories which had their origin in Bihar had spread through various channels almost throughout the world. As late as in 1859, T. Benfey held that there is an unmistakable stamp of Indian origin in most of the fairy tales of Europe. The same stories with different twists and settings have come back to us through Grimm and Aesop and the retold stories delight our children. That India has neglected a proper study of the beautiful motifs of our folk tales is seen in the fact that the two large volumes of the Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend published by Messrs Funk and Wagnall sand Company of New York have given a very inadequate reference to India.
What is the secret of the fascination that the folk tales hold for the old, the young and the very young? The story is often repeated but does not lose its interest. This is due to the satisfaction that our basic curiosity finds in the folktales. The tales through fantasies, make-believe and credulous acceptance helped the primitive man to find an answer to the mysteries of the world and particularly the many inexplicable phenomena of nature around him. Even a scientist finds great delight in the fairy tales like the one about the moon being swallowed, causing lunar eclipse. Through folk tales man has exercised his imagination and in turn folk tales have helped arouse the curiosity of the people. In spite of the scientific explanation of why earthquakes take place, the old, the young and children are still delighted to be told that the world rests on the hood of a great snake and when the snake is tired it shakes the hood causing an earthquake. Among the Mundas, an aboriginal tribe in Bihar, there is a wonderful explanation of the constellation Orion. The sword and belt of Orion, the Mundas imagined, are an appropriate likeness to the plough and ploughshare which the supreme Sing Bonga God first shaped in the heavens and then taught people on earth the use of the plough and the ploughshare. It is further said in the Munda folk tale that while the Sing Bonga was shaping the plough and the ploughshare with a chisel and a hammer he observed a dove hatching its eggs at a little distance. The Sing Bonga threw his hammer at the dove to bag the game. He missed his mark and the hammer went over the dove's head and hung on a tree. The hammer corresponds to the Pleiads which resemble a hammer.
The Aldebaran is the dove and the other stars of the Hyades are the eggs of the dove. Any illiterate Munda boy will unmistakably point out these constellations.
There are stories linked with seasons. The wet season and the hottest month are associated with the ripening of crops or the blossoming of trees or the frequency of dust storms and stories are woven round them. But nothing is more satisfying as a folk tale than the explanation of the phases of the stars, the moon and the sun. A Munda would point out the Milky Way at the Gai Hora, i.e., the path of the cows. The Sing Bonga God leads his cows every day along this path-the dusky path on the sky is due to the dust raised by the herd. The dust raised by the cows sends down the rain. A story of this type can never fail to sustain interest in spite of all the scientific explanation of the astral bodies.
The 'why' and 'wherefore' of the primitive mind tried to seek an answer in the surrounding animal and plant kingdom. Animals are grouped into different categories according to their intelligence and other habits. The fox is always sly while the cow is gentle. The lion and the tiger have a majestic air while the horse is swift, sleek and intelligent. The slow-going elephant does not forget its attendant nor does he forget a man that teases him. Monkeys are very close to man. The peacock is gay while the crow is shrewd. The tortoise is slow-going but sure-footed. The hare is swift but apt to laze on the road. These characteristics of the common animals are acceptable even today. Similarly, a large and shady peepal tree is naturally associated with the abode of the sylvan god. The thick jungle with its trees and foliage is known to be frequented by thieves and dacoits. Any solitary hut in the heart of the forest must be associated with someone unscrupulous or uncanny. These ideas are commonly woven into stories and through them the primitive mind seeks to satisfy the eternal why and how of the mind. Folk literature is often crude and even grotesque. The stories of the witches and the ogres fall in this category. There is nothing to be surprised at that. Scientific accuracy should never be looked for in folk tales although they are a very good index of the social developments of a particular time.
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