What’s your first memory of a story? Was it Cinderella, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves? Or was it Panch Tantra or Bikram-Betal? Whichever one it may have been, I’m sure apart from the story itself what appealed to you was the storytelling; the voice, the expressions of your mother or father or grandparent bringing the imaginary characters to life. Their narration and their expressions were the tools but your imagination was the pliable playground.
My first story, the one that I recall that is, and still hold dear, was a product of my Mother’s imagination. She claims she took a folktale and added bits of her imagination to it. I have no idea if the folktale she talks of exists or not, perhaps one of you may enlighten me on the topic, but the effect of that mash-up was that as soon as she would begin narrating the story, I’d be transported to this mystical world where magical trees and witches resided and where folks were still simple enough to be characterised as either good or evil. My mother’s inventive invective added earthy humour and novelty into an otherwise oft-repeated tale. And as soon as she would finish we would exhort her to repeat it. I confess I have been guilty of using the very dialogues, the very tone, often the very gestures as well, while I retold the story to my younger kin. It was like an oral legacy… still is.
If you’d like to read the story my mother told me, click on this link and it will lead you to my Indian versions of Baba Yaga and Ivan Tsarevich. In a nutshell, the story is about an orphan boy who lives on a golden tree. He ends up killing the evil witch of the woods who kidnaps him. Of course, my Mother told us the story in Hindi, I’ve written it in English so those who may not be well versed in the language may be able to enjoy it. For the sake of brevity, I’ve excluded some incidents therefrom, or else it would have been a rather long post (it’s long enough as it is) and then there are some words, which are typical to my native tongue, Garhwali (I’ve written about some of them here), that I just couldn’t translate without losing the real intent thereof. However, I daresay, the poem is an almost faithful translation of my Mother’s famous fable.
I’m sure many of you have similar memories – a special person narrating a special story to you. A book with your favourite pictures, where the pictures sprang to life the moment the stories were retold. The wonder of childhood is that repetition only makes the heart grow fonder of these stories, it makes them more special, more vivid, never pallid.
In the days of yore, there were bards, professional storytellers who often doubled up as musicians and poets. They were much famed for their way of stringing words together into tempting verses. Later some of these bards took to writing plays or enacting their stories on the stage, generally using village fairs as their platforms. It was all serious business though!
I don’t know how many of you have walked into a village fair in India, during Dusshera festivities and saw the Ramayana being enacted. I did. And it was a thing to behold, never mind that I’d heard the story from the cradle up. The actors did not have beautiful, botoxed faces. Their physiques boasted no six-pack abs, their clothes weren’t designed by Neeta Lulla or Manish Malhotra. The acting, the patched-up costumes, the rustic music and the cheap make-up added its own charm to it, but what held you was the force of acting itself, and the art of storytelling. Those plays and those fairs weren’t just a commercial manoeuvre to milk the festive crowd. It was a tradition, a communal affair that served the greater purpose of allowing communities to mingle. Really, I think festivals are only an attempt to bring the community together. Of course, back then there were no TV’s, no radio, no real form of entertainment, but these fairs and those rustic actors, and those bards. They were entertainment unto themselves.
O, bard! Where art thou now?
Today we have stories being told and retold via media like movies, songs, television, books, blogs and what have you, but the gift of the gab is getting swamped somewhere. Our own voices and imagination are mute, waylaid by a bombardment of borrowed artistry. Don’t get me wrong, I love some of these retellings, Rapunzel being my favourite. But do we have to enslave our minds to the words and enactments of others, all the time? I’m not asking you to ditch your collections of Asterix & Obelix, or your analogue copies of Beauty & the Beast, they’re legacies as well, but why can we not, for instance, pick up a mundane topic like a kite and create a story out of its first journey into the sky? Why do we need someone else to tell us how the princess looked, or how the dragon was slain, or how the pumpkin turned into a fine carriage? We don’t need those crutches. Each one of us is a storyteller and at the same time, capable of imagining things for ourselves. That’s what storytellers did and that’s what we’re losing out on today – the power of telling a tale and using our own fantasies to colour the story. The point is, use your own imagination and live the story.
Today, when I’m a mother to an overactive and overimaginative toddler, I eagerly look forward to the times when my daughter wants me to enact some story or make up one when we’re playing with her toys. It’s a joy to see her immerse herself in the story along with me and even make up her own stories to add to my narrative. She loves her books too, but I hope I won’t always have to use the crutch of a book, or the TV, or the radio to help nurture her imagination. I hope she uses her own words, punctuates it with her own vocalisations and invective and then create her own palimpsest of the story.
O, bard, where art thou was first published on this blog on Sep 2, 2016, and modified on Dec 27, 2017.
In response to the Daily Prompt Word: Confess
Copyright ©2017 Pradita Kapahi.
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Picture Source: Anker Grossvater