Indian Culture & History

Celebrating the Oral Traditions of India

The World Heritage Week that commenced from yesterday aims at spreading awareness about one’s culture and past. India, being one of the oldest civilisations in the world, has no shortage of history and heritage. Protecting and caring about monuments is relatively easy, but the protection and preservation of intangible heritage is hard. Our abstract ideas, ways of life, religion and traditions form a part of this intangible heritage. One such inseparable part of our “Indian-ness” is the ability to tell stories! We are the most dramatic and animated storytellers of the world. And this oral tradition of bringing alive a story is deeply embedded in our identity as an Indian.

The Indic Civilisation, one of the oldest living civilisations, is considered to be one of the finest and largest repositories of the Art of Storytelling and Oral Traditions in the world! Do you remember the good old stories narrated by our grandparents? From Vikram-Vetaal to Akbar-Birbal, stories about kings and queens, animals and ghosts, the ones that we heard have not only lived with us over the years but have been etched in our memories and are also passed on to other younger siblings and future generations. These traditions bring alive the history and animate our humble customs and traditions.

In India, the oral traditions have played an integral part in passing down the essence of all religions and spiritual paths, the epics and the village folklore. The transmission of which is mostly through speech or song and can include folktales, ballads, chants, prose or verses. In this way, it was possible for our society to transmit its history, literature, law and other knowledge across generations, orally, without a writing system or in parallel to a writing system.

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The Vedas have been preserved without a loss of a syllable for centuries through the practice of Oral Traditions. In fact, they are referred to as “Smruti” (that which is remembered) and “Shruti” (that which is heard) in Indian literature. The “guru-shishya parampara”, the tradition of a succession of gurus or teachers orally passing down the teachings to their disciples through the system of Gurukula, where disciples lived together with their teachers to orally imbibe knowledge from them, further strengthened these traditions in India.

Other religions such as Buddhism and Jainism too used oral traditions, in parallel to a writing system, to transmit their canonical scriptures, hymns and mythologies from one generation to the next. In Islamic traditions too the “Azan”, the first call is remembered and recited daily. Even during the month of Muharram, the Persian poem of “Marsiya” that is recited is a unique example of orally transmitting and remembering the martyrdom of Karbala.

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The oral traditions of India remain a unique testament to the capacity of the human brain to absorb, remember and reproduce structures of great complexity and sophistication without a system of written notation. India being a land of diverse cultures has every state and district that follows its own style of storytelling. While some simply narrate the stories through songs, others employ props like masks and even elaborate plays and dance dramas.

Perhaps the most animated one is narration through the Puppet shows! Puppets are still very commonly seen in village fairs and the devices are used to decorate houses in an attempt to add the spice of tradition in a modern setting. But nonetheless, these shows add colours to the story they are conveying and require a great deal skill in their making and painting. The traditional narration of stories through Yakshagana dance form, the travelling bards of Vasudev, Harikatha, Povada, Ovi, Dastangoi, bhajans and kirtans play a part in upholding this intangible heritage of India.

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The art of storytelling is best exhibited through the rich and complex tradition of Classical Dance. Each of the classical dance forms revolves around transmission of mythological stories, religious and social teachings and other stories of love, wars and heroism.

“Katha kahe so Kathak kehelaye”, having its origins in the storytelling travelling bards of ancient northern India, known as Kathakars or storytellers, Kathak has come a long way from being a nomadic bard to a temple art form to the Persian influenced dancing style that we see today. Being a storytelling art form, Kathak has a wide spectrum of diverse topics ranging from Lord Krishna to depicting various moods of the lovers in union and separation!

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Most of India’s literature is a result of years of oral transmission. Have you read the Panchatantra, Hitopadesha and Jataka tales? Though the surviving work of Panchatantra is dated to about 300 BCE, the fables are likely much more ancient and are considered to be a part of oral traditions of India.

But why is storytelling of importance to us?

The power of the spoken language to ignite the listener’s imagination and transport him to the world of ideas, dreams, myths and fables, is truly amazing. It not only increases our vocabulary by introducing us to new words but also enhances our listening skills. It’s the best way to keep in touch with your cultural roots.

The story of “Storytelling Land of the world” is endless. Spanning from millions of centuries, cultures and religions, India enshrouds in various forms of oral traditions. But sadly this art is slowly losing out in this fast-paced world. A worldwide effort is needed to prevent oral tradition from becoming extinct. An attempt is needed to introduce the children to the magic of words and stories and bring smiles on their faces. The wealth of stories found in great epics of every culture should be documented.

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I still remember the stories my grandmother used to tell me and remember the lullabies my mother used to sing to my sister. We all have fond memories of being part of such a tradition. But how many of you are still keeping alive this rich art of India? Will we be able to impart this tradition further to our children?


© 2018 Ashwini Nawathe, Kaleidoscope of My Life

All Rights Reserved

Hi, I'm a nature lover, a trekker and an ardent reader from Mumbai, India. After playing Lawyer for a time, I shifted to my passion and love – History! A 9 to 6 job as a Senior Executive: Research, Content Writer and Editor helps me earn by bread and butter which is ultimately spent on travel and food :)

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