Stories: The Magic Wand

This week saw children making the headlines. November 14 is celebrated as Children’s Day in India, to mark the birthday of India’s first Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru. The day is marked by events that engage children in activities dear to them—of which playing and stories remain all-time favourites.

This year the Gujarat government has recognised the immense value of stories for children and has declared that 15 November will be celebrated as Children’s Stories Day or Balvarta Din.

15 November marks the birth anniversary of Gijubhai Badheka, one of Gujarat’s best known children’s storytellers and educationists, who had been called the Brahma of Children’s Literature. In Gujarat his name is synonymous with a rich treasure of stories for children. Generations of children have grown up with these tales, told and retold by parents and grandparents.

Born in 1885 Gijubhai started his professional life as a Pleader in a district court. In the early 1920s he got deeply involved in the upbringing of his own son. Under the influence of the thinking of Madam Montessori he started experiments in child-centred education, when he joined the Dakshinamurti educational institutions in Bhavnagar. His vision and passion for experimenting in his field led to the setting up of the Dakshinamurti Balmandir—a pre-primary school in 1920. It is in the early says of his interactions with the children here that he realised the importance of stories for children as a means of learning. He started collecting stories for children, writing them, and telling them. He believed that stories were the magic wand that transformed children in many ways.

There was, at that time, not much literature in Gujarati which was specifically written for children. It was Gijubhai who established the child as an individual, and created a special space, and resources for the child, in literature.

As he wrote in his seminal work in Gujarati, on the art and craft of stories titled Vaarta nu Shastra: By calling a story a children’s story does not make it one. Children’s stories are those that children get a special type of enjoyment from. Children like short and simple stories. Reflections of what happens around them, behaviour of birds and animals, small rhymes that can be easily remembered and repeated—these are the characteristics of children’s stories.

But at the time there were no stories available that would fit this bill. Gijubhai delved   into the treasure chest of folk literature. He asked all the teachers and teacher trainees of Dakshinamurti to start collecting folk stories that were still being told in homes, in villages, and in fields, and pick those that would be suitable for children.

As he wrote in Vaarta nu Shastra “If you seek folk literature you will have to leave the city and go to the villages, and from villages, move into the forests and fields. When the toothless grandmother finishes her chores, and rubbing tobacco on her gums, starts to tell stories to the gaggle of children, there springs the magic of folk tales. You will find folk literature in every village chaupal; children will be spreading it freely from galli to galli, and grandmothers will be distributing the prasad in their homes.

Gijubhai and his colleagues went out as seekers of stories and returned with a rich repertoire of tales, songs, rhymes, riddles and sayings. He then retold these for children with his characteristic short sentences, word play, rhyme and dialogues.

And so every morning he told the children a story. In the afternoon the children would enact the stories. Soon they became so adept that they did not need to memorise the words; the rhymes flowed naturally and if they forgot in between, they made up the words as they went along. As he wrote: If you collect a group of children and tell them a story, they will tell you ten more.

Gijubhai’s search for folk tales crossed the boundaries of language and country. He explored and discovered gems in the literature of different countries, and found incredible variety, as well as similarities. He localised and transformed these stories so that they were steeped in the sounds and colours of Gujarat, and over time they became not only Gujarati but uniquely ‘Gijubhai’s stories’.

Gijubhai’s stories are simply told tales with a mixture of prose and rhyme. There is a lot of dialogue and reiteration. The repetition of rhymes makes for lively storytelling in  which listeners can also join in. Many stories follow a sequence of cause and effect, leading to a chain reaction which is reinforced in verse. Children love the repetitive rhymes. Several stories have improbable characters and plots. Children love the absurd, fanciful and nonsensical.

Gijubhai told delightful tales of familiar animals and birds. In many, the animals talk and act in human ways while also reflecting each animals typical characteristics. The stories reflect a deep symbiotic relationship between animals and people with the two often trying to outwit each other. With equal panache Gijubhai told stories of common folk with common trades (tailor, potter, barber, shopkeeper), as well as kings, queens and princesses.  The characters reflect basic human traits—greed, envy, proving physical or mental prowess. Many stories follow the classic fairy tale style, opening with ‘once upon a time’ and ending with ‘happily ever after’. They capture the rustic flavour and pace of the days when travel meant walking from one village to another, and long-distance meant a bullock cart journey; and many encounters and adventures happened en route.

Several generations and a hundred years later, children today may not relate as closely to the settings and the pace of the narrative, and yet, the quirks and foibles of the characters; the silly and the absurd, the funny and the fantastic still touch a cord in the child, and indeed in the child in every one of us.

The initiative to celebrate Gijubhai and his stories by designating a Children’s Stories Day is a welcome one. In a time when children are so hooked into the digital world, perhaps even adults need to be reminded of the simple joys of storytelling. In the words of Gijubhai:

To My Fellow Storytellers

Here are the stories. Tell these to your children. They will listen with ardour and joy, over and over again. Remember, tell these stories beautifully; tell them as stories should be told—tell them with involvement. Read them out if you like. Choose a story that will suit your children’s age and interest.

Don’t tell the stories to bestow knowledge; don’t tell the stories as an objective narrator. Immerse yourself in the stories and take your children with you into the total experience.

You will discover that stories are a magic wand. If you want to build a bond with your children, start with stories.