Oral Narratives (Sophomore LA)

Talking Voices


From the Mewar Ramayana

Last week we looked at the ways in which myths are created, the origin of creation myths, the archetypes that exist and persist and the binaries that exist within these narratives. But this is one way to look at the myths that surround us. As these myths begin to cross the borders, both physical and emotional, time and space, we begin to wonder how these stories are disseminated.

Todays session began by engaging with the idea of the ‘voice’ – who tells this story? Is the teller as important as the story? How important is the voice when we begin our journey to understand these stories? In the framing of a narrative the voice of the teller becomes essential to the story itself because they will determine the ways in which this story will navigate and negotiate with the listener. But how are these stories framed? Oral traditions, generally, and the epics, specifically, draw out a narrative through a sequence of frames – the outer frame which will concern the main story and characters, layers and frames are further added to the narrative and stories begin to grow – very much like a crystal. Examples of this exist in many of our stories –The Arabian Nights, The Shahnameh, Kathasaritasagara, The Panchatantra and Kahila and Dilma, to name a few.

“Some of the most compelling and enduring stories in the world have structural features in common: they are framed narratives. The inner story (or stories, or, even sets of stories) has one or many outer frames that situate the story being told to us in a long line of narrators…the inner (main) stories are framed by a sequence of inverted commas which mark the story as told to so-and-so by so-and-so and then told again to so-and-so until it finally reaches the teller/listener.”

-Tales from the Kathasaritsagara by Somdeva (translated by Arshia Sattar)

An excellent example of the oral traditions that have been revived in our decade and one whose inner stories came to attach themselves when it crossed the physical borders of space, is probably the tradition of the dastangoi. ‘Dastangoi is an oral storytelling art form. Dastangoi spread from Pre-Islamic Arabia to Iran and then to Delhi in India. From Delhi, dastangoi made its way to Lucknow in the 18th century, aided by the Indian Rebellion of 1857, during which several artists, writers and dastangos moved from Delhi to Lucknow. In Lucknow, dastangoi was popular across all classes, and was regularly performed at diverse locations including chowks (city squares), private households, and afeem khana (public opium houses). “It became so popular among opium addicts that they made listening to stories an important element of their gatherings.” The prolonged intoxication and prolonged stories narrated by professional story-tellers was mostly combined. Each afeem khana had its own story-teller to entertain the clients; whereas, among the rich, every household used to appoint a dastango as a member of its staff.’ Here is a video that will probably best explain the role of a goi of a dastan.

In the crossing over of stories we are often confronted by the question of what is ‘real’. How important is the question of ‘evidence’? And we begin to wonder how the voice, the teller and the story itself come to play these out. Our stories have, in many ways, found themselves in our histories. We often find that our myths which are so much a part of our everyday, morph with the ‘real’ spaces we occupy. For example, most Indian towns and villages will bear symbols of events from our epics. There are hardly any places in India that have not been touched by the characters in our epics and the translation of these epic works into folk narratives. In the telling of our stories that are orally transmitted, the students and I began to talk about the distinctions between history and mythology. How do we, in the Indian subcontinent, negotiate this? How can we, or more importantly, do we need to distinguish between the two?





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