Folktales – The foundation of children’s literature in India

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Dr Ira Saxena
Child Psychologist and Author

The consciousness of a value system has dominated the Indian mind from ancient times, every aspect of learning emphasises the educative angle and its appeal has not diminished in the literary expression. Primarily the purposive element in the story sets apart the Indian literature.


Storytelling is as old as the stories themselves, the classical children’s literature evolved in oral tradition and various storytelling styles developed through the ages. The flow of the story cultivates curiosity credited to the mental and physical experience of enjoyment. In a shroud of mystery, unravelling slowly, layer by layer, it involves intrinsically the passion of yet another creative faculty, so obscure but natural – our ability to imagine consciously and create images which are not existent. It is a verbal art whereby the narrative content outlines the aesthetic dimension and strikes upon sentiment and sensuousness. It stimulates imagination in two ways; one is by the beauty of thought and the other by the beauty of form. The story becomes a creative endeavour of deep rooted striving of the soul after the unattainable, expressed symbolically, just like sparkling dust of a fairy’s magic wand as pictured by the great Indian poet —
“ Fairyland…

If people come to know

where my King’s palace is,

It would vanish into the air.

But let me tell you, mother,

in a whisper,

Where my King’s palace is,

It is at the corner on our terrace

where the pot of tulsi stands.”

– Rabindranath Tagore

Role of folktales and epics

For hundreds of years, the folk tales and epics played a role which no other literature has exercised in the history of any nation. It satisfied the people’s need for rasas – the juices for the uplift of the mind bequeathing sublime poetic satisfaction. Archetypal ideas ingrained in the myth patterns like the protagonist; the quest, the spiritual object, the wisdom of age, the sacredness of hierarchy and the importance of a just order that may, as well accounts for the popularity of the genre. Mythology, epics and folklore can be studied as the encyclopaedia of Indian civilization. History, legend, religion, ethical codes, art and culture manifest in the incredible narration restoring the eternal charm of the story.

The consciousness of a value system has dominated the Indian mind from ancient times, every aspect of learning emphasises the educative angle and its appeal has not diminished in the literary expression. Primarily the purposive element in the story sets apart the Indian literature. From the Panchatantra stories meant to teach the foolish princes, the folk tales, the 25 stories of the valiant King Vikramaditya, epics, all stress upon a code of conduct and a set of values for a civilised society. Respect for elders, unquestionable reverence for the teacher, extreme regard for visiting guest, honouring the word, valour, nurturing esteem, truth and forgiveness find utterance frequently in the stories and does not fail to relate its fundamental place in life. It has lent a moral eminence and an identity to the society from which it cannot shirk. Despite the constant projection of a psychological methodology of teaching without sermons and refrain from manifest didacticism, the value orientation finds expression in modern literature, though not its flagrant format; it flows like an undercurrent in the writing of modern children’s fiction. The effect has trickled down through generations like the permanent flow of the river Ganges down the ages.

It is possible to understand the mind of a people through an understanding of their mythology. Myths provide a framework for getting to the essence of everyday occurrence in the life of a given society. The traditional Indian literature draws no separate demarcation for the adult and children, the plots and lessons were meant for all, as the village folk settled in the village square for their daily dose of stimulation in the storytelling session; each selected the interpretation of the story, deriving meaning from it, according to their comprehension level and experience.

The formula of myths has been comprehensible to the masses and children alike, since the story objective is mainly on the physical not psychological dilemmas, conflicts with barriers to overcome are outside rather than inside, and with significantly greater emphasis on the more obvious virtues such as bravery and loyalty. Most folk tales carried the cultural symbols and codes of behavioural expectations intelligible to every listener in those days and passed on through the ages on the strength of the plot, action, humane virtues and the forces of the story element. The situations and characters of the tales fit into the lifestyle of each generation, delivering solutions to suit different locales and language groups. The young and old, alike, could relate to the pace of the story, straightforward conflicts, and the amazing actions flowing like a stream with the enchanting narrative. Further enchantment is contained in the sequences of drama and the characters that live in the real world and act in the real world where both, the narrator and the listener lived. No supernatural structures are created; no make-belief canvas is painted for the story to unfold. No parallel worlds exist. There is heaven, the abode of godly people living in luxury and golden glamour who are constantly molested by the demon kingdom of the nether giant-like creatures possessing a repulsive appetite.

In between lived the ordinary earth people sorting out their problems and frequently suffering the oppression from the demons. Of a more supernatural nature are the sky-rovers – the vidyadhars – the people who have, through special learning acquired an exemplary capacity to fly in air and transport them from one place to another, yet they remain human to core and live by the established ethical standards of society. On the earth, in the forests and the cities there is complete communication between the animals and humans; for example the monkey brigade of Prince Ram who build the bridge on the sea for Ram’s army to get across to fight the demon king in Ramayan or the talking animals of Panchatantra stories. The element of disbelief is overcome in the constant intermingling of animals, humans and the divine; fantasy does not take off in a strange world with strange laws. The dividing line between the natural and supernatural is blurred ensuing from the basic principles of Indian philosophy. All forms of life are animated by the same principles and humans merely exist on a higher plane of evolution.

Finally, Indian folklore pulls itself apart in stylisation. The flow of Sanskrit poetry in the text strikes a profound impact of metaphorical beauty and linguistic excellence. Most collections of fables and folk tales follow similar format of story presentation. The tale begins with a frame story which stands alone by itself, its outcome and characters woven into succeeding stories, also exclusively complete, each with fresh conflicts and more characters rounding off in the end to complete the whole story. Although it sounds complex, the style is, nevertheless, fascinating. The later renderings of these tales have not ever repeated the original style in children’s books since all stories are not suitable for children by present day ethos. The psychological shift of modern prose and segregation of adult and children’s stories led the creators of modern prose to focus on the main plot of the tales and its outcome in a rather simplistic fashion.

Children’s literature

Children’s literature really prospered after India’s independence in 1950’s, even though the literary masters of creative writing for adults produced some outstanding works of fiction for children in the beginning years of the twentieth century. After Independence there was a concentrated effort of publishers and authors, in the true spirit of building the nation therefore focusing upon the newly emerging identity of the child. The modern Children’s literature developed a philosophy more universal in nature strictly adhering to the current social developments. As a result of socio-political consciousness, rise of democratic values, the change in attitude towards the money-lender, the collapse of the feudal system, the social changes in the caste and class consciousness, the spread of Gandhian principles and above all the changing role of the women in the society, a new framework of standards concurrent with the changing society emerged. The preceding superiors were cast aside as symbols of exploitation and the role of the monarch as the super-human agent of God was belied. The current fiction reflects a major shift to the more modern values that focused the child in the real world and the treatment of the child as determined by psychological principles.

Even today a large section of children’s literature caters to developing pride and in our heritage, resulting in resurgence of roots again and again; hence, a large chunk of modern children’s literature consists of retelling folktales, the Ramayan and Mahabharat.

At the helm are the Panchatantra stories and the storehouse of folk tales absorbing the societal complexes portraying eternal human characteristics. In its vast structure the epics accumulate the essential pulse of life and relationships, even the activity of a philosophic mind. Every generation has related to it and found meaning within the framework of every social situation and age. The publishing industry does not tire of producing new presentation of these stories with emphasis on design, art and production quality. Each rewritten book on the epics or stories from epics, even folktales presents a fresh approach, stylistically and aesthetically to the tale. ‘Fascinating Folktales’ stands apart as a brilliant example of enduring folklore from different regions illustrated in folk art styles of the particular region. The combination of the folktale and the folk-art styles, such as, Madhubani from Bihar State, the Phad from Rajasthan State, Saura from Odisha State, Kalamkari from Southern India as depicted in the collection completes the enchantment of the tale lending a cultural flair to it.

The influence of Persian tradition in 11th to 14th century spread stories from ‘Gule Bakavali’- the adventures involved in fetching the rare flower from Bakavali, ‘Tilisme-hoshruba’ – the world’s first magical fantasy epic where the word magic is interchangeable with science (magic slave is a robot and magic claw similar to a flying machine like a modern drone), ‘Bustane Hikmat’ – tales of magical cures, ‘1001 stories of Arabian Nights’ of Alladin and his Magic Lamp, Sindbad the Sailor fame and ‘Aesop’s Fables’ (including many animal stories adapted from Panchtantra and Jataka) which have been soaked up along with the existing oral literature

The great treasure house of folklore has been visited by most creative writers again and again, selecting and portraying these eternal stories in a format relevant to the present and making it more fascinating to the young reader – Once Upon a Time in India. The picture book quality of Fascinating Folktales combines interesting folktales from different States of India presented in the aesthetic traditions of the folk art from respective regions. Both the stories and illustrations are reminiscent of the richness of the cultural features and the historical antecedents of Indian art create a compelling study for the reader as well as the art students.

There seems to be an undying demand for folk tales to be brought out as picture books, rapid readers or story collections. It is really interesting to note how the characters, relationships and plots travelling down the generations still find meaning in the modern times and their message being absorbed, perhaps, in the same spirit as it had been originally intended. Like a blazing star the story of Babban Hajjam and the King heard from my grandfather never ceases to tickle me to this day and I couldn’t resist the temptation of narrating the story to share my joy which has recently published by Karadi Tales.

Every generation has related to the rich tradition of storytelling and found meaning within the framework of every social situation and age. The age-old oral tradition has found expression in art forms, dramas, musical ballet and classic theatre. The publishing industry does not tire of producing fresh presentation of the stories. Each rewritten book on the epics or stories from epics and folklore presents an immaculate approach, stylistically and aesthetically appropriate for the tales. A leading publisher of books for children, the Children’s Book Trust began with churning the folk tradition before filling the demand of children’s literature with creative modern fiction and adventures, National Book Trust, a government venture has produced colourful folk tales for the young and older readers.

The epics, for example are rendered by professional storytellers in regional folk performances, which became the chief instruments of popular education and culture. These folk traditions that travelled down in history with the epics and tales are preserved in modern times like an ancient relic. Even today the storytelling styles such as Chitrakathi (form Maharashtra State) using a painted canvas to tell a story, Phad (from Rajasthan State) employing magnificent folk art and Dastangoi (telling a tale) re-live the oral tradition. The renditions of Mahabharat in storytelling like Pandvani and Yakshgan are energetic and high-pitched, accompanied with basic string and percussion instruments, bringing the saga alive with the force of rhyme and action and offering, even to the illiterate, a dose of philosophy, ethics, social and political ideas, emotion and romance.

Ramayan on the other hand has a wider appeal. It is read with a religious fervour in homes by family members and in public functions, by expert storytellers on a very musical note. The poetry lends a rhythmic simplicity to the couplets that even the raw, untrained person can sing without obvious ostentation. On a regular basis each year the story of Rama manifests in verbal art and enacted in the form of a ballet called Ramlila, absorbing different artistic styles and creative presentations. Every village and city comes alive with Ramlila, enacting the trials of Rama, rounding off with the burst of crackers as the paper effigies of the three demon brothers go up in flames symbolising the victory of good over evil. The strength of the story inspires the flow of narrative in well-crafted performances that together ignites the imagination and generates a sublime experience. These renditions of the epic, again, are historical traditions evolving fresh approaches in art and aesthetic substance with every age.

Myths are stories that originate in folk belief of a nation and races present the supernatural as the dominant element. Some interpret the natural phenomena by concretizing through story to imagine the human perception of the universe. The essence of folklore rooted into the psyche of India entreats over issues in Children’s literature — varied and spread over different genres and readership delivering a healing spirit over today’s stresses. Newer and imaginative expressions of folktales never cease to gratify in every art form. An entire range of graphic paperbacks popularly known as Amar Chitra Katha has, now, thrived through two generations like a cultural treat. Many publishers of Children’s literature continue to uphold the magic of unreal realism of the timeless folktales in picture book format, abundantly illustrated hardbacks, graded school readers, even pricy table top artistic publications. The flow is relentless and consistent disseminating enchantment for generations to come.


Dr Ira SaxenaDr Ira Saxena, a child psychologist, writer, and critic of children’s books, has been writing mostly realistic stories, novels, and non-fiction. She writes both in Hindi and English for children of all ages. Her writing has focused on themes of computer crime, science fiction, humor and the Gandhian spirit of non-violence. Many of her short stories and novels have won awards. She is the recipient of Shankar’s Silver Medal for Writing in 1996 and White Raven’s recognition in Germany in 2000.

Her award winning books are, ‘The Virus Trap’ (computer crime novel), ‘Gajmukta ki Talaash’ (Quest for the Jumbo Pearl) – a non-violent adventure set in India’s freedom struggle) and ‘Manmauji Mamaji’ (humorous stories). Recent novels like ‘The Web Trail’, ‘Curse of Grass’, ‘Chand Katori’, ‘Paraa’ and the story collections offer a thought provoking sensitive fiction.

She writes extensively on aspects of Children’s literature, presenting papers at conferences in India and abroad. She has been elected to the Executive Committee of International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) and is the founding member and Secretary of Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children. As the Chairperson of the International Book Therapy Conference in 2012 she presented the keynote address – Reading is Healing.