‘Telling’ Tales: The Quest for Meaning in Indian Folklore

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Vasudha Paramasivan, South and Southeast Asian Studies

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2005

The South Asian R5A course, titled “The Great Books of India,” tends to attract a very specific set of students. Many are heritage students – first generation South-Asian Americans — who want to “learn about India” or “learn about their culture.” The non-heritage students, on the other hand, want to learn about a culture “different” from their own. Students tend to expect to read the great works of religious and philosophical literature they have heard so much about. I thought it imperative, therefore, to include in my syllabus the rich traditions of Indian folklore and mythology. My class found classical Sanskrit mythology, with fantastic tales of Gods, Goddesses, and demons, “exciting,” “weird,” and “different.” My attempts to get my class to tease out meaning through close reading exercises, however, were greeted with skepticism. To my class, it seemed almost irreverent to read into such marvelous tales, prosaic explanations of power struggles and gender discrimination. While their skepticism was welcome, I had to find some way of addressing their resistance to the idea that there could be meaning and purpose behind folkloric narratives.

Before I could move on to regional folk narratives, I decided that my students had to find out for themselves that telling and retelling tales was not the prerogative of the past and that they themselves were involved in creating new tales and investing old tales with new meaning. Departing from the usual writing assignment, I asked them to present in class, as individuals or in small groups, a piece of folklore familiar to them. My only condition was that the presentation was to be based on a tale they had heard, not read. Students were to narrate or act out the tale as they had heard it, explain the context in which they had heard it, and also provide their interpretation of the story. There was much initial consternation. The usual writing assignment actually seemed attractive! I began to wonder whether the MTV generation had any exposure to oral narratives at all.

I found, however, that my fears were misplaced. The students had a variety of folklore to narrate, ranging from a traditional Japanese folktale to urban American lore about tailgating. To my delight, the Japanese folktale about a good deed rewarded had parallels in the Indian narratives we were to read. The highlight was a skit presented by two students enacting the Halloween lore that they had been told as children about razors hidden in apples. They even came dressed in ketchup stained T-shirts to lend a touch of gory verisimilitude to their presentation! The class became quite animated as everyone jumped in with different versions they had heard and explanations of exasperating parental anxiety. I was amazed at the number of variants on this Halloween tale, each more gruesome than the other.

The presentations seemed to put into perspective for my class that folklore was not confined to distant antiquity and that their generation had its own lore. When they realized that they could provide context for and read meaning into familiar lore, it became less daunting to do the same for the folklore of a different culture and time. As a result, my class was much more engaged in the session on regional Indian folklore. We had a wonderful discussion on the “textualization” of oral narratives. When I told them that Indian folklore had become textualized in print relatively recently in history, they were able to tell me that urban American folklore was also being textualized in other media, such as film. My class actually seemed to look forward to the next writing assignment and I received several insightful papers, including a couple of feminist analyses of Indian folktales! The act of collecting and explaining their own lore brought home to my class that telling tales was a profoundly human endeavor and that these tales were all the more “telling” in that they provided insight into diverse cultures and experiences.