‘Observe, analyse, reinterpret’: The aim of a new collection of folk tales and legends from India

‘Observe, analyse, reinterpret’: The aim of a new collection of folktales and legends from India
A folk tale about ghosts from Bengal, illustrated by William Goble. | Wikimedia Commons.

My storytelling sessions with my father remain a beloved part of my childhood memories which has come alive many years later when I retold the same story to my daughter when she was around six or seven years old. The story from the east in erstwhile Bengal travelled across the streets of Kolkata to the west in Pune, Maharashtra, where I now live with my family. The story had reinvented itself once again through a retelling, weaving in experiences from recent times and merging it with the original storyline.

A narration builds up its own repertoire, movement and through its general spontaneity, weaves a significant sense of association with the listener or the spectator. In terms of folklore, it is well understood that “actions” and “characters” are units of semantic analysis, where the “actions” highlight any process or variation which is relevant to the gradual development of the story and the “characters” undergo changes by the qualifications attributed to it, while remaining relatively permanent in time.

Both “characters” and “actions” in a storyline reflect themselves through a surface narrative as well as a deep narrative structure. While the former is reduced to a small number of categories, the latter sees the abstract oppositions that establish classifications of the world and codes of behaviour.

Folklore, in its own flow of spontaneity, has its natural resonance amidst listeners.

A lot also depends on the narrators and, of course, the connectivity through the local or regional language or the dialect. The personal association with each and every listener is different as each and every listener interacts with the story differently and responds to it separately as well. It is, thus, important to understand the basic structure of the emission and dissemination of folk tales.

The meaning of a narration often changes, and it occurs primarily at three stages. At the very beginning, a narrator/teller changes the story. In recent times, one must also consider a varied array of narrators and narrations, including electronic media and the internet, along with traditional oral narration, print publications, theatrical performances or plays, puppet shows, dance and musical performances, festivals, rites, and rituals, vrat-kathas (religious oral narrations of mythological stories concerned with a specific deity), amongst others.

The second change occurs during the time of transmission. Here, the mode of communication is to be considered once again as well as any small changes within the surface structure of the narration. At this level, one can also further witness variations like suppressions, additions, or dominant tones. These are significant to keep in mind, especially with the changing times and in the present global context.

Finally, there is the third change when audience reception takes place. Here, too, one has to keep in mind the mode of communication and also the specific sociocultural context, space, and time of the audience.


With the plethora of stories collected for this volume, there was a need to understand them across linguistic groups and also accord a geographical identity.

There are languages and dialects which are similar across many regions and while compiling the stories, I found an increasing need to observe, analyse, and thereby further reinterpret folk tales, myths, and legends from a new perspective in present times.

This cannot be observed in isolation alone and has to be viewed through comparative understandings of specific sociocultural, religious, and political contexts within specific regions. This is an imperative necessity, as time and again several narrators helped to highlight specific critical situations, emotions, and expressions through their retellings.

With the diversity explored in these stories, a need arose to analyse folklore from a very different perspective, especially as most of the narrations are based on personal tellings and often related to childhood memories, friends, or family units.

Here, it is also important to mention that the gender reflections within stories are not necessarily influenced by the gender of the teller, as might be commonly believed. This is particularly observed regarding women-centred stories in this collection, which reflect specific expressions, symbolisms, and emotions and thereby weave a significant genre of communication by itself.

It is also important to mention about therianthropy across several stories from Northeast India. Therianthropy is the reflection of shapeshifting of humans and has been mentioned across several cave-art forms, folklore, and mythological stories from around the world and throughout history. These stories generally speak of a transformation of a tiger or a tree into a woman and can possibly suggest a man-nature relationship through a close-knit bond of the regenerative powers of Nature which is reflected in the dominant picture of a tiger as well as a woman.

There are also some interesting stories associated with the idea of the supernatural.

As timeless classics, a representation of the fear of the unknown and the mystical or paranormal has always prompted a rational explanation from mankind. These stories reverberate across regions and also often help to highlight specific undertones of migration, exclusion, isolation, or social seclusion, including gender discrimination, physical, sexual and emotional exploitation.

Last but not the least, this book attempts to look at love stories from a very different perspective through the concept of “lost-love” and from a close study of a large number of similar stories which have been narrated from across the world. I decided to include this section especially after being awed by the number of sad love stories that I had come across in the course of my research.

Almost all the people who narrated a love story spoke about stories, forlorn with grief, anguish, and heartache. In fact, there were so many in number, that at a point, I started to believe that the “traditional” love stories are hard to find anymore. It was only after several discussions with many storytellers that I realised that it was not a loss of trust but the rising anxiety in homes and houses, and an oft-repeated discord within marital relationships that are reflected in these stories of “lost love”. Love seems to find its own ways of expression in the modern global world – leading to an oft-lingering emotional scar.

The Owl Delivered the Good News All Night Long

Excerpted with permission from the ‘Introduction’ to The Owl Delivered the Good News All Night Long: Folk Tales, Legends, and Modern Lore of India, edited by Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai, Aleph Book Company.

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