These four words open up windows to entire universes—unexplored, or familiar. This is how many a story begins. Stories are a life force that have imbued human life with that something extra, since the dawn of civilization. Stories are a way to convey history, culture, language, spirituality, and identity. One way to keep stories alive is storytelling. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communication.
20 March is celebrated as World Storytelling Day–a day to remember and remind ourselves of the magic and power of stories. What began in Sweden, on this date in 1991, as All Storytellers Day has now become a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling. On World Storytelling Day, as many people as possible tell and listen to stories in as many languages and at as many places as possible, during the same day and night.
On this day I celebrate a storyteller who collected, recreated, and created a timeless repertoire of stories. Generations of children have grown up with these tales, told and retold by parents and grandparents over the last one hundred years. This was my grandfather Gijubhai Badeka, one of Gujarat’s foremost educationists and storytellers.
In Gujarati, as in most Indian languages, the child reader had remained somewhat neglected till the middle of the nineteenth century. There was hardly any specific literature for children; only stories retold from classical Indian literature, or heroic stories from Western literature, in not very satisfactory translations. Gijubhai pioneered the creation of special literature for children that also contributed to preserving the oral tradition of literature through exploring and compiling the rich legacy of folk literature. His search for folk tales crossed the boundaries of language and country. This journey of exploration he described thus, in his seminal work titled Vaarta nu Shastra (The Art and Craft of Stories) published in 1925. “So many stories have travelled in foreign lands, so many stories have changed their religion and form; it is an adventure to trace their journeys. If we become wandering travellers with the stories, we will discover that we find one story in Tibet and will see the same story in Africa; we will discover the same story wrapped in snow at the North Pole, and yet if we wander in the Arabian desert, there it will be, but uncovered and bare…but still we recognise the story. Some stories adapt to their land, taking on the form and language of their adopted home, while others retain their origins wherever they may settle. Some stories follow the creed of universal brotherhood, they see the world as their home and go wherever they get a chance to serve and please. Some settle firmly in different countries and come to be recognised as belonging to that place. They are then only translated to reach other countries.”
Many of Gijubhai’s stories are members of this travelling band. Gijubjai transformed and localised these stories, so that they are steeped in the sounds and colours of Gujarat, and have today become not only Gujarati, but uniquely ‘Gijubhai’s’ stories. They are simply told tales characterised by a mixture of prose and rhyme. The repetition of rhymes makes for lively storytelling which listeners join in. Gijubhai retold delightful tales of ordinary people, and familiar birds and animals. With equal panache he churned out stories of common folk with common trades—tailors, potters, barbers, shopkeepers, but also kings, queens and princesses. The characters reflect basic human traits—greed, envy, fear, desire for one-upmanship. Animal tales reflect a close and symbiotic relationship between animals and people. Many open with “once upon a time”… and end “happily ever after.” A hundred years after they were written these stories still touch a cord in the child, and also the child in each of us.
Stories are older than us, they are smarter than us, they keep going, and they are a part of us even though we do not realise this. But stories need human beings to reproduce, much as we need food… we need things to keep ourselves alive.
Hungarian-born American polymath Thomas Sebeok said “…what we can do, I think, is try and create stories that are interesting enough and important enough that our grandchildren might want to tell those stories to their grandchildren — because that’s the purpose of stories, that’s what they’re for: They make live worth living and, sometimes, they keep us alive.
In my own small way, I try to carry forward the legacy of my grandfather by translating and retelling these timeless tales.