#INDIAKIDLIT – The Case of the Fascinating Folktale

by Shobha Viswanath

Karadi Tales — a children’s book publishing house based in Chennai, India

A child’s imagination is a vibrant thing, always hungry for stories. Adults, in their role as storytellers to children, nurture this imagination through the stories they tell them. But this can be a daunting task for the typical adult who is usually preoccupied with quotidian matters that are unlikely to be of much interest to the story-hungry child seated before them. Her imagination won’t be satisfied with your day’s accounts of negotiating for a salary hike or struggling to find a reliable plumber. At the end of a day filled with such mundanities, you can hardly be faulted for not feeling inventive when tasked with telling a bedtime story.

So, what is the beleaguered storyteller to do?

If it takes a village to raise a child, folktales have long played the role of the village well, providing storytellers with a rich source of time-tested myths, legends, fairy tales and fables to draw on. They are an ode to humanity’s never-ending quest to make sense of the world around them. How the sea came to be salty, how the laburnum tree got its golden flowers, how the squirrel got three stripes on its back – before science gave us our answers, there were stories to explain all of it.

Characterized by their lack of ownership, folktales are the original open-source, creative commons intellectual property. Anyone is free to pick one up, adapt, remix, and embellish the simple bones of the folktale to his or her tastes. The folktale is a flexible template that can be yanked this way and that to become an altogether new creative product that still retains the elements of the tale it takes inspiration from. 

The Blue Jackal – adapted by Shobha Viswanath, illustrated by Dileep Joshi (1996)

The Indian child is no stranger to folktales. On late nights, she is put to quiet sleep by parents who tell her of faraway lands, foolish kings, and a fish that cannot seem to dry. India, as we all know, has a rich heritage of stories and folklore, many of which have been passed down generation to generation over hundreds of years. Several of these, at least initially, were passed on through oral storytelling until a fraction, a small minority, were captured and put down on paper. As bedtime stories, when told from the mouths of parents who recollect them from their own childhood, the folktale becomes reintegrated into the oral tradition that it originally came from. 

The Talking Cave – taken from The Panchatantra, narrated by Saeed Jaffrey, available via Karadi Tales YouTube channel

There is no doubt there are hundreds of tales that haven’t been recorded, and several different takes on old folktales and mythology that are in danger of vanishing with the current generation. There are also numerous stories from remote Indian cultures that don’t always make it to mainstream storytelling. With technology moving as fast as it currently is, and the whole world, younger generations, practically living their lives online and using the web for everything from entertainment to social interactions, capturing and immortalizing these stories – whether as picture books or audiobooks or animated TV shows – is crucial. Not only does it keep the tradition of storytelling alive, it keeps the stories alive too, as stories will inevitably be forgotten by the generations to come if there isn’t anything to remind us of them.

As any story does, a folktale serves as more than just a vessel to pass on a message or a moral. It also is an introduction to a culture – sometimes their history, sometimes their landscapes, their flora, and their fauna. Our country’s ancient cache of folktales and mythology span across India, from Jammu and Kashmir to Nagaland to Rajasthan to Tamil Nadu. A child could be transported to the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, where Yetis (known as ‘metoh-kangmi’) are rumoured to roam by the people who live there (e.g., see this blog post and this BBC article). A child could even leave the country and visit the highlands of Scotland where the Loch Ness monster has been said to dwell in the dark waters of the Loch Ness.

Folktales, of course, are not only told to children, or at bedtime. They have a long tradition of being shared among community folk who would gather under a tree or carry on with their chores in the fields or within the household, recounting among themselves that both impart wisdom and while the time away. It would be a mistake, then, to treat folktales as somehow childish, even when they are told to children. Many of the folktale retellings that we publish at Karadi Tales invite adults to rediscover the wonder that a simple story can invoke, while appealing to the child’s burgeoning sense of maturity. 

Neil Gaiman’s Snow, Glass, Apples, is a dark, chilling retelling of Snow White, while Anuskha Ravishankar’s retelling of the Maharashtrian folktale The Rumour is a comical story bound to induce chuckling in kids while warning adults of the all-too-grown-up dangers of engaging in gossip. 

The Rumour – by Anushka Ravinshankar, illustrated by Kanyika Kini (2010)
The Rumour – by Anushka Ravinshankar, illustrated by Kanyika Kini (2010) – available on the Epic books platform for children

Folktales, however, can often overtly didactic – the prelude to The Panchatantra explains that its animal fables were composed to teach three young princes the lessons of statecraft and wise leadership. And yet, there is a danger to treating folktales as mere instruments for instruction. Asking a child to memorize and recite the “moral of the story” risks ruining their enjoyment of it, turning the story from something that sparks the imagination, and challenges the listener to draw their own conclusion, into just another chore.

So maybe The Rumour isn’t about the dangers of gossip. Perhaps the folktale – which narrates how a minor incident in a sleepy village gets blown completely out of proportion as villagers add more and more embellishments with each retelling – is about how we use storytelling to entertain ourselves, and how telling tall tales – despite the risks – is something we just can’t resist.

But how long will this tradition of folktales last? Given our fast-paced world with its shrinking attention span, it seems unlikely that folktales could originate today. The very nature in which we communicate stories is different, and the sheer amount of content being created daily, and the rapidity with which they are being churned out, means that short stories are fast forgotten. Popular stories in long form (such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the Harry Potter series) are likely to remain in circulation and be retold and readapted, particularly on screen. But the short-form folktale? Perhaps not as likely. As publishers, we do our part to immortalize stories in print and audio, but whether these will be remembered by the generations to come is still the question.

The Monkey King – adapted by Shobha Viswanath, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy (2004) / The Insect Boy – by Shobha Viswanath, illustrated by Monami Roy (2006) / The Lizard’s Tail – by Shobha Viswanath, illustrated by Christine Kastl (2014)
One Rainy Day: a counting book – by Shobha Viswanath, illustrated by Ashwathy P. S. & Anusha Sundar (2018) / A Tangle of Brungles – by Shobha Viswanath, illustrated by Culpeo Fox (2018) / Little Vinayak – by Shobha Viswanath, illustrated by Shilpa Ranade (2015)

Shobha Viswanath

As co-founder and Publishing Director of Karadi Tales Company, Shobha Viswanath has been responsible for steering the direction of her company from brilliantly produced audio books for children to creating new imprints for her publishing house such as Dreaming Fingers – illustrated books for the visually disabled, Charkha – inspiring biographies for young adults, and beautifully illustrated picture books for young children.

Internationally recognized and having won several awards for the quality of books produced, Shobha is now active in converting the books to other platforms such as digital apps, animated books and e books. She is an avid collector of picture books from around the world. She lives in Chennai with 732 books, 14 plants, one daughter and one husband.  

September is #WorldKidLit month and this year the GLLI blog is exploring different aspects of #IndiaKidLit in the run-up to the 2022 Neev Literature Festival, a celebration of Indian children’s literature being held Sept 24 and 25 in Bangalore. At the Festival, the winners of the 2022 Neev Book Award, which aims to promote and encourage high-quality children’s literature from India, will be announced in 4 categories: Early Years, Emerging Readers, Junior Readers, and Young Adult

2022 GLLI blog editors for #WorldKidLitMonth
  • Karthika Gopalakrishnan is the Head of Reading at Neev Academy, Bangalore, and the Director of the Neev Literature Festival. In the past, she has worked as a children’s book writer, editor, and content curator at Multistory Learning which ran a reading program for schools across south India. Prior to this, Karthika was a full-time print journalist with two national dailies. Her Twitter handle is g_karthika.

  • Katie Day is an international school teacher-librarian and one of the Jury Co-Chairs for the Neev Book Award. An American with a masters in children’s literature from the UK and a masters in library science from Australia, she has lived in Asia since 1997, including 15 years in Singapore, first at United World College of Southeast Asia and now at Tanglin Trust School.  She has also lived and worked in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and the UK. Her Twitter handle is librarianedge.

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