Where we stand…

In today’s electronic world, driven by instant messaging, abbreviated, and yet more abbreviated language, the world of folklore; of a time when people had the time to orally tell tales seems forgotten, absurd at best. We do not seem to have the will, desire or patience to slow down, listen, enjoy, spend time on the detail or bask in the flavour of where the storyteller wants to lead us. Somewhere in the middle of the story we want a one-paragraph synopsis, and what is worse is that we make a value judgement based on that a watered down version of a story, once rich in language, once rich in detail, once rich in its creativity. We seem satisfied, with the regurgitated in whichever form – be it literature, music or movies, as long as it has a neck aching beat or a plethora of images showered down like torrential rain. It so fits in with our ever-growing ability to jump from one to the next – thought, image, sound. Somewhere you can even hear the audience think – Where is the sex man??!

The question that comes to mind is: Is folklore really dead? Or are we really dead? Or mutating slowly to a dehumanised state, devoid of all that once made us? But if we don’t look too far away, we see that our children are full of imagination, soaking in the make believe; acting out – from playing adults to listening, awe struck, to the tales as they unfold in the magical worlds of their bedtime stories. But then along the way something happens. The world steps in and surgically sucks out all the joy, creativity and imagination of a beautiful childhood.

The conflict…

And so to my world of theatre – where I often have to go back to my or the actors childhood again and explore that wondrous make believe world again. But it is not easy! Sometimes, the gap is too big. Or often, the effort for the actor to be part of that old world makes him too artificial. Or there is just simply no interest! We are so used to the fast pace of life, movies or literature that somewhere we just don’t have the patience to enjoy the simple moments.
On the other hand, having worked with some of the worlds best pre school children’s programs I find it terrible that what we end offering our children today is a sterile adult driven idea of what children need to have as part of their daily bread. The adult opinion, that creates for the child a world where anger, jealousy, rich and poor do not exist. And I often ask another question: Where does such a world exist? Isn’t it funny that it is those very things that some educational programs take out of their narrative are the very things that have kept the folklore of old going for ages and has been the diet for many a generation of people that were more grounded, happier and content than we shall ever be. On the other hand, stories go to the other extreme. Using violence, witchcraft and magic to create a fantasy world as far removed from reality.

The Magic of Folk-lore…

That is the beauty of folklore. The stories are not only good. But they are grounded in reality and in everyday situations that one can so easily identify with. The stories are not only about an age rich in values and traditions, they are also about human history and human thought and direction in which it flowed. If there is an argument today that folklore is something redundant it is because of the value systems that we now adopt and find acceptable are so different from the value systems of before. Many may say that this is nothing new. But then how do we rise to the challenge that folklore puts before us? And the answer to this is maybe to understand the humanness in the story and then either make parts of the story more relevant to today or change the settings completely, keeping the core. And I have come up with this problem in various forms when directing or writing for the stage, and each time I hesitate when tampering with something that is so complete in itself.

Take for example when I was working with very young children on a Panchatantra story that I had adapted for stage. After spending many weeks trying to make the children observe the different animal movements and rehearse the plot, I realised that to make the story more relevant I had to change the settings from the jungle to the concrete jungle of the city. I told the children to observe the qualities of the animals I had assigned to them and then worked with them to bring them into the characters I made for them in the new setting – So the sly fox became “Sly Sanju” and so on. They were instantly switched on to the new characters. They had seen a “Sly Sanju” kind of character on the telly or in movies from the time they were small and knew what and how. Although they enjoyed the play in this form, in a way I felt sad at what I had created, for in creating something out of the story I had brought my budding actors closer to what I needed them to play, but on the other hand a lost a very element that I had in the original.

The beauty of the tale…

The point that I am coming to is the original stories had a purity and innocence, which is lost when one tried to modernise them – The vicious lion who did not realise that the reflection in the well was his, is a prime example. But more than anything else what folklore has is an innate wisdom, which transcends all. I remember when I was in my second grade I came across my first tale. It was about a thirsty crow, who could not drink water out of a pitcher as the water level was low and so he dropped the pebbles scattered into the water causing it to rise so that he could have a good drink. Innocent practical wisdom! It not only was a good story but it showed you that practicality is a different kind of intelligence. It showed you that if you were smart you could succeed no matter what the circumstances. And most of all it shows that when you are faced with the worst of circumstances it can bring out the best in you. In therein lies the other beautiful quality of the folk-tale. It’s simplicity! And working on folk-tale in their original form in the way they are told is to see them in their most powerful and beautiful. They are then a joy to perform and a joy to explore and work on.
In today’s climate there is a dangerous trend to bastardise everything – from the classics like Shakespeare to folk-tale. To give them a new and a modern twist. To make them “more relevant” to our needs and times. It is a trend that I am not in favour of – For then anything goes in the name of “modernism”. The challenge of the classics is to play them, to understand them in their time and then to bring them alive in their time and cultural settings. It is a harder study because then one has to delve deeper into the study of the period, the world order at the time, the thinking of that time and the cultural and religious beliefs. It is with that mindset then that the folk-tale should always be interpreted, understood and performed and then one can see the beauty, the wisdom and the morals of a story simple told and beautifully threaded together.

Post filed under Musings.