By Tarquin -- There was a fascinating item on BBC World Service's World Today yesterday about a Palestinian storytelling tradition that I'd never heard of. It's called Hikaye, a form of narration told by women for other women and children. According to UNESCO: 'The tales are fictitious but deal with real concerns of Middle Eastern Arab society and family issues. In this way, the Hikaye offers a critique of society from the women’s perspective and draws a portrait of the social structure that directly touch the lives of women. The majority of conflicts narrated in the tales often describe women torn between duty and desire.'
The oral tradition is thriving here in India as well. Recently, we were in West Bengal to watch a Jatra, a play performed by a travelling theatre group. Traditionally Jatras are morality plays drawn from the Hindu epics. But in recent years their producers have started drawing inspiration from international news. Plays about 9/11, the London bombings and the Tsunami have all been staged. The production we went to see was about the life and trial of Saddam Hussein. The writer told me that villagers come to see his plays because they can't really relate to TV news. They need to have the characters and the plot acted out for them. (To read more about this, check out my piece in the Sunday Times on Dec 24th).
Public education programmes in India rely heavily on theatre and storytelling as a means of communication. Last year, I travelled to Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh to do a story about female foeticide. I was helped locally by a Non-Government Organisation campaigning against the illegal use of ultrasound sex determination tests by Indian doctors. As part of their education campaign they stage mini-plays in villages in which an aborted female comes back as a ghost to haunt her mother.
But it's not only in rural areas that the oral tradition thrives. Here in Delhi, the company that operates the new Metro is staging plays to educate people about how to behave when using public transport. According to the Hindustan Times (Dec 17th): 'The drama groups consisting of eight person, perform in Hindi, Punjabi and Haryanvi to explain to public the penalties associated with stone throwing and spitting inside the metro stations. At present stone throwing on the metro is a serious office which could lead to life imprisonment or rigorous imprisonment for 10 years and even death sentence in case metro trains or tracks are damaged or sabotaged, while spitting paan or being drunk could lead to fines of Rs 500 [$10] apart from the forfeiture of the ticket.'
Of course India has a long and rich oral tradition. Some of my favourite tales are found in the Panchatantra, or the Tales of Bidpai. This is a collection of Sanskrit (Hindu) as well as Pali (Buddhist) animal fables. The original Sanskrit text, now long lost, and which some scholars guess might have been written around 200 BCE, is attributed to Vishnu Sarma. However its antecedents in Indian oral literature among storytellers probably hark back to the origins of language and the subcontinent's earliest social groupings of hunting and fishing folk gathered around campfires.
Storyteller and poet Ramsay Wood has written a brilliant English-language rendition of the Tales of Bidpai entitled 'Kalila and Dimna', which is available through ISHK. They are beautiful stories and have been around for thousands of years. What else can you say that about?
(Photo Above: Public announcement system Indian-style)