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Updated: July 20, 2010 15:42 IST

Documenting the folk tales of Tamil Nadu

Kausalya Santhanam
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India is rich in folk tales with each region having its own treasure trove, though boundaries can blur and coalesce. These tales, rooted in the life of the common people, have been handed down through the oral tradition. They have served as a source of instruction and the chief means of entertainment through the centuries. Modernity and the advent of electronic media have impacted folklore, and it is in danger of fading out, unless committed to print or audio documentation.

This book is a translation of selected tales from Naatuppura kathai kalanjiyam, a collection of stories gathered from all over Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry by a committed team on the initiative of Aaru Ramanathan of the Tamil University, Thanjavur.

Inspiring

The translator, Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, in her well-worded preface, points out how the oral tale is “dynamic, aesthetic, inspiring, and while making light reading is capable of provoking deep thought.” Excerpts from the preface of the general editor to the Tamil volumes are included in the book; Ramanathan mentions how such collections of stories give an “insight into the creativity, traditions of life and language skills of a people.”

Vijayaraghavan has grouped the tales thematically and according to the districts they were gathered from. Each section has a preface from the original as well as one by her. Among the many themes are “the aesthetic as social archive”, “troping and naming”, “ancient cities and tales,” and “folk dances.” Brief notes have also been provided.

The first set is from the regions around Cuddalore and the theme is “Gender and divinity.” It includes the popular Anandayi tales; the translator points out how Anandayi is worshipped only by women.

There are tales that deal specifically with Tamil beliefs and literature. The “Kuttiandavar” tale gives details of the glorious port city of Kaveripoompattinam or Poompuhar, with Vijayaraghavan drawing attention to the fact of “the little canon shaping the big” and explaining how scholars hold the view that the literary classic, ‘Silappadikaran' “grew from folklore.” The Tamil specifics are also brought in with reference to folk deities such as Ayyanar and Jakkamma, sports such as Jallikattu, and dances such as Kummi.

Universality

There is a distinct identity as well as universality about folk tales. The one about the sister who saves her brothers is similar to the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, “The Wild Swans” where the girl silently makes shirts for her brothers who have been turned into birds by the wicked stepmother.

The story of the jealous neighbour who tries to imitate the journey to the forest and gets thrashed by bandits is another that has universal tones. In “The Tale of Tales,” there is even a reference to “Chakespiyar” (Shakespeare)! The story of the jealous queens trying to do away with the fecund one is only too familiar. Also included is the Tamil folk version of the last of the Vikram-Betaal tales.

The chants and songs have been translated retaining the local flavour. In the social context, the tales featuring the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law are interesting. Tribal tales are grouped under a distinct section, though there are not too many of them.

The book cover could have been better; it is too direct and clichéd. The font strains the eye; it could have been reader-friendly.

Any attempt to document the richness of indigenous culture is appreciable in a globalised world, which is felt to be losing many of its distinct ethnic and cultural forms, languages, and performing styles.

If the credit for painstakingly gathering the tales goes to Aaru Ramanathan and his team, the credit fordisseminating them to a wider audience through her translation belongs to Vijayaraghavan.

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