Folktales as a Socio-Cultural Mirror of Indian Society

Most of us have fond childhood memories of listening to folktales from our elders at home. Often didactic in nature, many such popular narratives have been part of our primary education system. It is very difficult to locate their origin or even credit authorship to a specific person as they are transmitted orally through generations; resulting in varied versions of one particular storyline. Folktales can be perceived as carriers of values and traditions while they continue to impact our social fabric till date. Let us look at a few popular folktales which continue to capture the imagination of the Indian society.

The Legend of Rani Padmavati

The story of Rani Padmavati has gained massive attention recently, due to a Bollywood movie based on the folktale. It became the centre of controversy because a section of society felt that the movie demeaned the Rajput princess while another questioned the historical veracity of the narrative itself. One of the earliest recorded versions of the story can be credited to an Awadhi poet named Malik Muhammad Jayasi, who penned the poem Padmavat, two hundred and thirty seven years after the fall of Chittor in 1303 AD. Like any other folktale, different versions of the story exist. However, the basic framework remains more or less the same, where a sorcerer seeking revenge upon the King of Mewar, Ratan Singh, for banishing him from the court, entices Alauddin Khilji, the Turkish Sultan of Delhi, with tales of Ratan Singh’s wife, Padmavati’s beauty. Khilji after winning a prolonged war with Ratan Singh finds that the women in the Fort of Chittor have committed jauhar.

Demonising Muslim Rulers and Glorifying Jauhar

Historically speaking, one finds no mention of Padmavati in either Rajput memoirs or the Delhi Sultanate’s records. Stories such as these blur the fine line between fiction and non-fiction without realizing the deep fault lines they create in a communally fragmented society like that of India. The folktale here puts a (negative) image of Khilji as a treacherous Sultan lusting after wealth and women, while some scholars insist he was an extremely efficient and skilled military commander.

Padmavati is worshipped in some villages of Rajasthan as a symbol of sacrifice and purity. Cases of jauhar were reported till late twentieth century and it took humungous efforts from government’s side to eradicate this malpractice of women burning themselves alive. The question that arises is, why is it that such a gruesome violation of basic human right is glorified and moreover, why is misogyny celebrated with pride?

Shabari Ke Ber (Shabari’s Berries) – Challenging Caste Hierarchy

The story of Shabari feeding fruits to Lord Ram after having tasted them, has been vividly etched in public memory after Ramanand Sagar depicted it in his 1980s series Ramayana. This incident has no mention in either Valmiki’s two thousand year old epic, ‘The Ramayana’ or in Tulsidas’s five hundred year old work ‘Ramacharitmanas’. It most probably originated in Balaram Das’s ‘Odia Dandi Ramayana’. Balaram Das was Tulsidas’s contemporary and belonged to Panch-sakha group of 15th century Puri, Odisha. He identified himself as a shudra-muni or a low-caste sage. Balaram Das directly challenged caste hierarchy in his writings, as offering “saliva-soiled” food to God is forbidden. Moreover, Shabari belonged to a low-caste tribe. Ram eating those tasted fruits offered by a low caste woman is not even seen positively by his brother and companion in exile, Lakshman, in some versions of the story. Ram rebukes Lakshman by saying that devotion is superior than one’s caste. This way, we see God Himself dismantling caste taboos prevalent in the Hindu society and instead, emphasizing on humanist values of love and kindness.

Since the story attacked the Brahminical orthodoxy of the time, it didn’t gain such popularity then. However, the narrative has many lessons for all those who practice caste discrimination under the garb of religion. In a country that is fraught with communal tension, where one section considers their community of birth a right to torment the other and society is heavily influenced by the divide and rule principle of vote bank politics, Shabari Ke Ber has sweet fruit-like takeaways to offer to the society.

Man, Spirit and the Tiger – A Story of Naga Culture

In the Naga culture, there are many rituals and customs celebrating the relationship between man and tiger. Till date, tribal people from this community avoid killing a tiger and if at all they do, they fill the tiger’s mouth with water so that it can not utter its killer’s name properly; the reason being that as per a Naga folktale, the cosmic spirit, man and tiger were three siblings. They were blessed with divine power, intelligence and strength, respectively. After the death of their mother, they argued over the possession of their mother’s wealth. Spirit, being the eldest brother, decided to forgo his right and let man and tiger take all of the wealth. Since the youngest two brothers couldn’t settle the dispute, they decide to race up to a bamboo pole; the winner would get the village whereas the loser would have to leave for the forest. Man used his intelligence and shot the bamboo pole down from a distance so that when tiger reached their first, he thought man had already finished and won the race. Therefore, tiger left for the forest.

But spirit, owing to his divine power, knew the truth and took man’s all-seeing eye to replace them with goat’s eyes so that man could never see the spirit again. As per a different version of the story, both spirit and man hatched a plan together to send tiger to the forest because the tiger would smell their mother’s flesh before her dying. Nevertheless, man deeply missed both his brothers after getting control over the village. He, in order to bring them back, introduced many rituals to appease spirit and tiger. Hence, the peculiar customs of Naga tribes can be attributed to this folktale.

In addition to this, the story reiterates the fact that humans have been using their intellect to exploit and tame other species. It also draws our attention to recognise animal rights and treat them with compassion by accepting them as cohabitants of planet earth and not as our competitors. The lesson from this folktale reverberates with calls from around the world today to take action against the crisis of climate change to save our mother earth.

These stories underscore the powerful and everlasting impact of folktales on our lives. Folktales like that of Padmavati mess up historical facts and distort events while glorifying one community at the cost of other. However, the tale of Shabari, that broke caste stereotypes centuries ago, holds relevance in modern Indian society as well. The Naga story can be seen as an attempt to retrace one’s roots that gave birth to a very unique culture, adding to India’s cultural diversity while also highlighting the need to cooperate with the flora and fauna to facilitate the peaceful coexistence of all species.

These lessons goes to show that while oral literature is subject to distortion, it is also relevant insofar as it takes the shape of the society it exists in, thus making folktales an immersive cultural experience.

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