This article is a first in a series of articles where we introduce the importance of stories in the Indian culture; the traditional modes of storytelling, prominent storytellers, obscure folktales and their impact on the Indian civilizational identity.
Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes.― Plato, The Republic
Stories. The word evokes a sense of joy and wonderment in us. It takes us into a never been, yet ever so familiar, territory in our minds. The fantasy itself will elicit emotions that we may have long forgotten in our mundane existence. Bards, fables and tales have the power not only in kindling emotions within people but also help in persuading them. While it’s true that not everyone responds to the same story, it’s also true there is not one that doesn’t respond to any story. Research  shows that stories do have cognitive effects on people and the power of its persuasion definitely depends on several factors like the storyteller, storytelling, genre, language and many other things. Child development psychology and linguistics observe that stories positively affect the development of a child’s cognitive ability. Children show curiosity, inquisitiveness, retain information better and for a longer time when storytelling is mixed with traditional teaching methods .
Humans feel the need to listen to and tell stories, as though it’s our fundamental need, just like Khalil Gibran says, “It has been said that next to hunger and thirst, our most basic human need is for storytelling.” In the days of yore, shamans, village elders and learned men of the tribe used stories, bards and songs to convey information that needed to be passed down to the next generation. The early renditions not only conveyed information essential for survival but also formed the lores that enabled bonding in the community. These renditions slowly grew into tales of the wars, events, heroes and Gods forming the basis of common culture. These oral renditions shouldn’t be simply dismissed as folklore because they contain the most unadulterated form of history recorded, if one knows how to decipher them. Jan Vansina in his pioneering work ‘Oral Tradition as History’ emphasizes the same countering the prevalent belief “when writing fails, tradition comes on stage.” He further asserts, Oral tradition wherever it’s extant, serves as an indispensable tool for reconstruction of history, correcting other perspectives as much as other perspectives correct them .
While the effect of story and storytelling is prevalent even in the modern era, no one seems to pay attention to the bigger question of “Who is telling the story?” Modern peoples seem to be glad to get rid of the burden of passing down stories to the younger generation and this vacuum has been graciously filled by the ‘Humanities’ in the schools and Universities. The branch of modern education that deals with ‘storytelling’ falls under Humanities. Typically, the Professors (storytellers) of this field, in academia itself, have been known to be ‘liberal’, or ‘left-leaning’ as observed by Langbert et. al . They engage in subtly forming the opinions of the young generation and somehow claim themselves as the sole authenticators of the stories in the ‘correct’ perspective of history, which usually conform to the current socio-cultural sensitivities supported by them. The absurdity has escalated to such an extent that ‘they’ tell ‘you’ how ‘your’ stories are to be told. The case surrounding the controversy of Huckleberry Finn in the US immediately comes to a Westerner’s mind . It seems as though they engage in propaganda and narrative building than capturing the cultural knowledge and passing it down to the younger generation. Educating children and passing down cultural knowledge should be devoid of agenda or propaganda in an ideal world, but the current paradigm seems to be shifted disproportionately to the left.
The story goes on… to India, as we’re talking about the left and creating narratives. No country has a more distorted vision and understanding of its history than India. Her people have been told that their history, Itihasas are myths, her invaders are saviors and the protectors of her civilization, rebels or nuisance. Why? What has the nation lost greatly in the last 70 years along with its territory? What loss made a whole nation de-racinated and forget its roots? The loss of its history, its stories…her (India’s) identity. The left is keen on capturing the territory of history, simply because it wants to tell its stories. Stories not glorifying the heroes but deifying the invaders, stories not rooted in civilization but filled with malice against the protectors of the civilizational heritage.
The stories that have been passed down through the millennia within the communities have been lost or deemed as myths not worthy of sharing. In the joint family structure prevalent in the past, continuation of civilizational identity without corruption was ensured for millennia through constant presence of grandparents in their grandchildren’s lives. The children understood the past, not through the scrutinizing eyes of the present-day intellectuals, who have no stake in their future, but through the eyes of those men and women who have lived it themselves. In the society, it was
a common sight to see Kathakars reciting stories in the form of Harikathas and BurraKathalu entrenched deeply in the history and local folklore. In fact, one of the greatest heroes of India, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj was a Kathakar himself and attached great importance to this form of storytelling .
Harikathas, Burrakathas and oral traditions produced generations which looked at the past through a nuanced approach, aware of the utilitarian aspects of traditions and most importantly, did not demand that the past should always stand up to the scrutiny of the present. As a consequence, the subtle inferiority complex that plagues an average English-educated urban Indian today, did not exist a few hundred years ago. As modernity eroded the joint family, there was a slow but salient change in who teaches our kids about their civilizational identity. The place occupied by grandparents and Kathakars was then filled by the State (Universities) and now the internet and pop-culture.
The effects of modernity are long-term and expecting an intervention from the State in this matter may be too optimistic. Thus, a nuclear family with two busy individuals, who wish to pass on their civilizational values to their children, will find it increasingly difficult to do so. The fix to this problem lies in our stories because natural religions wean without the stories and its own storytellers. The stories of ancestors, our heroes and our Gods told by our own storytellers, who understand them not through a contemptuous gaze but reverential humility.
Thankfully, the space of pop-culture has its diamonds in the broken glass with the likes of Shri Ramanand Sagar (Ramayana), Shri Chandraprakash Dwivedi (Chanakya), Shri Baldev Raj Chopra (Mahabharat), and few others across the length and breadth of the country. Arguably the oldest, and continuing civilization on the earth has no dearth of stories that would appeal to everyone across the generational spectrum. This became even more evident with the garnered views and recent popularity of 1987 TV-Series Ramayan. If an 80s re-telling of Indian Itihasa can attract the modern generation, then the diminishing art form of Harikatha  can be brought back en vogue. The Kathakars can leverage the modern OTT social media platforms like YouTube to
pass on our own stories that will inspire generations to come.
Next, we will present the traditional modes of storytelling in the Indian culture and their contribution in preserving the Indian civilizational identity. When the timeless stories of this civilization reverberated in every corner of the nation, she (India) produced men like Kalidasa and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. As long as the stories of India continue to be narrated, she will keep producing such men.
Now, as Plato says, let’s indulge in the education of our heroes in our way through stories…
By Agnisrivathsa and Sumit Mishra
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- Vansina, J. (1985). Oral tradition as history. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Langbert, Mitchell & Quain, Anthony & Klein, Daniel. (2016). Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology. Econ journal watch. 13. 422-451.
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- NewIndianXpress. (2019, August 26). Harikatha faces identity crisis among new generation across Andhra Pradesh. Retrieved July 28, 2020, from https://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/vijayawada/2019/aug/26/harikatha-faces-identity-crisis-among-new-generation-across-andhra-pradesh-2024446.html
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