Fables and myths are a child’s gateway into different worlds. Retold from generation to generation, we all have our own unique versions of these wondrous tales in our heads. Many of these stories disappear because they are not documented and oral traditions are at the risk of being forgotten. Stories from endangered languages are never translated or recorded for the next generation.
Keen to retell and document fables and myths from India, Nitin Kushalappa MP has collected 15 fantastic folk tales from South India in his latest book, Dakshin: South Indian Myths and Fables Retold. Published by Puffin (an imprint of Penguin Random House India), the book is filled with tales of evil sorcerers, gods, goddesses, fairies, animals, village folk, hunters, kings, and queens. The folk tales in this book are based on diverse sources, drawn from books, songs sung at local temples, verses from regional languages, retellings of popular folklore, movies, and even comic books. Kushalappa has seven other books to his credit, including a book on local history, a translation, and a biography.
Dakshin retells a few familiar stories and also documents many unpublished folk tales. “Oral traditions are quickly becoming a thing of the past,” says Kushalappa. “The art of simple vocal storytelling from an elder to a child is no longer as popular as it was in the past. By reading books, children could learn these essential skills of imagination and creativity.”
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All the stories in the book have their roots in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, and even Kodava, an endangered Dravidian language spoken in Kogadu in Karnataka, a land rich in folklore, and also the author’s hometown. The collection even has a story in Mundari from Odisha, which borders Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Four of the book’s stories are retold from Pattole Palame, a collection of the oral heritage of the Kodava community and one of the earliest collections of a community’s folklore in any Indian language. In the book, Kushalappa appends every story with a note about its origin, source, and other interesting details.
Children will love the book’s cumulative tales about animals and birds, one of which is The Cat and the Fly’s Delicious Congee. This story is based on a much-love popular folk story from Kerala called ‘Eechayam Poochayam’ and follows a cat and a fly who decide to cook some delicious porridge.
‘The Tale of Bala Nagamma and the Evil Sorcerer’ is a famous folk tale from Guntur and is part of the rich Burra Katha oral tradition of storytelling narrated by wandering storytellers. An enchanting story filled with adventures with crescent shaped swords and female shape shifting serpents, it has been adapted into famous Telugu and Kannada movies.
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The Blessings of Vishnu is based on the legend of Annamar Kathai or the story of the elder brothers, a medieval story that spans six centuries and is set in the post-Sangam Tamil Nadu. Another story, ‘The Seven Fairy Princesses’, is based on a Kodava folk song from Pattole Palame. It features celestial beings, elven rulers, and gandharvas, but takes unexpected twists and turns. It has all the elements of a folktale that we love, with near-impossible tasks to win the hand of a princess and animals coming to the rescue of humans. This story is set in Ellalenge, which corresponds to the town of Ezhimala beside Mount Eli on the North Malabar coast.
In the book, Kushalappa also goes to some unexpected but equally vibrant sources - his family. ‘The Giant Red Kangaroo’, the Queen and the Hunter’ is a story that the author heard from his maternal grandfather, Muckatira B Mandanna, a storyteller who narrated tales he heard during his service in the army. This unusual story is about a giant red kangaroo that rampages the earth, destroying everything that comes in its way. A brave hunter decides to hunt the kangaroo down but he must race against a powerful queen and her army, who want to catch the kangaroo too.
“My grandfather also told me the story of Chandra Varma, who is supposed to be our mythical ancestor.,” says Kushalappa. “This was told through generations and was meant to explain the origins of our community.” This story is present in this book as ‘The Moon Prince’ and transports the reader to beautiful Coorg with its many myths and legends. “My third standard school teacher Mrs. Mabel Leo told us a tale about an evil sorcerer who was defeated by a brave boy. This sorcerer couldn't be defeated normally because his life resided in the body of a parrot. I didn't realise it then but came to know later that this retelling was a version of a popular folktale that was made into a number of Indian movies and comic books.”
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The myths and fables retold in this story communicate moral narratives that are cleverly folded into delightful and imaginative tales. This is why folk tales appeal to us all - they break literary conventions, transcend genres, and take us on unexpected journeys.
Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai