Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Story-telling Revival

Story telling is as old as humanity itself. From the very beginning we have loved stories. The Greeks and Romans had their mythologies, the Germans their Brothers Grimm, the Dutch had Hans Anderson, and so on. Every culture and group on earth has its folk tales, fairy tales, animal fables by Aesop, and goodness knows who else, while Scherazade's tales spanned one thousand magical Arabian nights! India has its share of stories too: mythologies, religious stories, literature, and folk stories are all so popular that they are even available as comic books for many different ages, audiences, and languages including English. One big difference in the Indian classics though is the difficulty in distinguishing a clear line between fiction (what is imagined) and non-fiction (what happens in reality). Many of the historical places and events (such as battles) in the classics are deemed to be true  - imagine Homer's Iliad and Schliemann's finding of Troy :)

A couple of years ago, I came across Eric Miller and a story-telling institute in South India while I was googling for the Tamil classical epic, Silapadikaram, which I'd studied as a child. Silapadikaram means The Epic of the Anklet. It is the (true, according to some) story of a heroine rather than a hero; a tale of two young lovers, the young woman Kannagi and her husband Kovalan, set among the ancient Tamil kingdoms of the Cholas, Pandyas, and the Cheras around the beginning of the Common Era.  Eric, I learned, runs the World-Wide StoryTelling Institute based in Chennai and organizes story tours based on the Tamil classics. A New Yorker, Eric first traveled the route Kannagi and Kovolan took when they traveled from Poompuhar to Madurai to find a new life after their parents' business had failed. Kovalan, takes Kannagi's anklet, goes into the city, gets infatuated with a dancer Madhavi, and forgets his wife. Meantime, the queen misses her anklet, which is similar to Kannagi's and Kovalan who had gifted it to Madhavi gets thrown into prison and executed. Kannagi comes into the city, finds out and seeks an audience before the king where she throws her own anklet down on the ground with such force that it shatters and the jewels inside spill out. Her anklet, one of a pair to the one Kovalan had was similar (filled with rubies) while the queen's anklet was filled with diamonds (I might have this part reversed). When the king sees the injustice he has unwittingly meted out, filled with shame that his righteous kingdom has been so marred, he dies. His wife follows suit. Kannagi's anger though still does not abate. She's a tragic heroine of magnificent proportions and catastrophic destruction. In her anger she destroys the cultured city of Madurai famed for her fantastic architecture, thriving Greek, Indian and Persian trade, and happy population.

Miller, citing Sobol (1999), notes there's been a story-telling revival in the US and the UK since the 1960s. In India, the story-telling revival is just beginning. His fascinating paper (2011) provides excellent references and description of Tamil story-telling history, present status, and possible future directions. One of the story-telling genres among the Tamils caught my attention: Orthodox Hindu God Stories (Hari Katha) also known as Katha-Kalak-Chebam or  Religious Story-telling. When I look at each word in the second name for the genre, specifically, I am intrigued: Katha means story, kalak means stirred up, and chebam means prayer, literally story stirred by prayer or prayer that stirs up (creates) stories? There are South Indian Christians, especially the Mar-Thoma, who claim a history as old as Western Christianity, since their church was founded by the Apostle Thomas. More than enough time for them to have built a rich treasure-trove of Yesu-katha (Jesus stories) themselves. Also, Indian Christianity brought in by the British, Portuguese, French, Spanish and the Dutch, is now a little more than 400 years old. How do Tamil Christians share katha-kalak-chebam? Are they the same as the stories in the Bible or do they differ? How do they inform the born-again Tamil Christian's Biblical worldview and modern identity? I also think these are good questions to ask of ourselves, many-generation Christians (a misnomer, since we must each be born again to truly have Christ in our hearts, but I think you know what I mean) or just plain followers of Christ? What God-stories make up our identity?

Thanks to Pr. Scott (Irvine Pres.) who played no small part in rekindling my interest in fiction and poetry. Sunday after sunday, meeting after meeting, I heard him re-telling stories, quoting poetry, and other great literature. I remembered growing up on a steady diet of fiction (mostly read with a flashlight under the sheets and hidden from my parents!), that my undergraduate major had been in English Literature, and renewed my love affair with the English language.


Fabricius, J. P. (1972) J. P. Fabricius' Tamil and English Dictionary. 4th ed. Rev. University of Chicago, Digital Dictionaries of South Asia.

Mathai, Kamini (Oct. 29, 2008). Now, Tourists Can Go Down Story Trails.

Miller, Eric. (2011). Aspects of the Story-Telling Revival in India.

Miller, Eric. (1991). TamilNadu's Silapathikaram, The Epic of the Anklet, Ancient Story and Modern Identity.  A self-published booklet.

Sobol, Joseph. (1999). The Storytellers Journey: An American Revival. Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois Press.

Storytelling Institute.

The Places of Kannagi Storytelling Tour (2010).

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