Once upon a time ….
These words have excited us through the ages, suggesting the start of a pleasant bedtime session (for kids I hasten to add, not adults). From time immemorial, until the written word gained currency and people could afford published works, community folklore and family traditions were transmitted orally. Ancient scriptures, religious rites and spiritual meditational practices whether in India, here among the Indigenous communities or elsewhere were passed down, word of mouth from one generation to the next.
Trained story-tellers and narrators of history played an important role and were respected. I understand in India, there were sutas and kathavachaks (narrators of scriptures and religious texts in Sanskrit and Sikhism respectively), dastangos (storytellers who specialized in oral Urdu storytelling art form) and other itinerant performers who amused local audiences with the large repertoire of stories gathered during the course of their travels.
My maternal grandmother was a repository of stories; while some were often repeated, they never bored us. A lot of these were based on the janam sakhis (birth stories) of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism and other Sikh Gurus. She also recounted many other tales about the benevolent 16th century Mughal king Akbar and his very smart adviser Birbal, the Sufi master Sheikh Chilli and the seemingly bumptious Mulla Nasrudin, who was actually an intelligent satirist. An illiterate lady, she had retained her store of tales for each aspect of life through a tradition of oral stories that was passed down by her aunts and mother etc. Each story concluded with a moral which she would emphasize before ending the session with “Chalo hun saun jaao, bada chir ho gayaa ae” (“Go to sleep now, as it well past bedtime”).
Many of these stories have circulated for many years and been published in the Panchatantra (a collection of oral Indian Fables), Jaatak kathaain (stories from Buddha’s life), Amar Chitra Katha (Everlasting Picture Stories) as books, comics, audio and visual media.
The oral tradition allowed the narrator to take a flight of fancy and embellish the story in accordance with the mood of the listeners or even her/his own temperament as the evening went on. Just like in a live Indian classical music performance the artist(s) and the audience draw on and support the other, encouraging the performer(s) to improvise and embellish their composition in accordance with the patrons’ mood and ability to appreciate the delicate nuances of the music. Today, bedtime stories are rarely recounted; they are read out. Sadly, at least for me the earlier, free form of expression is now being constrained by the written word.
Nevertheless, it is always fun to read a bedtime story (or three!) when the grandkids stay overnight. The oldest S, over eight years old has now started to compose stories on her own! My grandmother would really have been proud that two generations later, her family tradition of story-telling remains intact.