A country as vast and as ancient as India naturally boasts a treasure-trove of oral folktales. The diversity of India’s cultures ensures a wide and complex range of tales, which help to maintain traditional language and customs from different regions, religious and social groups, and tribes. Folktales exercise a powerful influence over the popular imagination, with folk heroes often being deified in villages.

In the past, Indian folktales were collected casually or for literary interests. It was during the 1970s that Indian folklorists trained in the US began to conduct a scientific study of Indian folklore, which led to their classification according to different schemes.

In the 1980s, the central Institute of Indian Languages and the American Institute of Indian Studies started their systemic study on Folklore. In particular, South Indian universities advocated for folklore as an academic discipline. One of the most notable folklorists to analyse folklore in an Indian context was poet and scholar AK Ramanujan.

Ramanujan’s work in Indian folklore studies includes his essay Where Mirrors Are Windows: Toward an Anthology of Reflections (1989), his commentaries in The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology (1967), and his anthology Folktales from India, Oral Tales from Twenty Indian Languages (1991.) Folktales From India was the last book he ever published, just two years before his death.

At the time of his death, he was working on a translation of oral women’s tales in Kannada. An obituary in The Independent by Walter Hauser points out that Ramanujan’s interest in oral histories was clearly peaking towards the end of his illustrious literary career.

Shape-shifting stories

The most remarkable thing about folktales is their fluidity. In his Preface to Folktales from India, the author says, “no selection can truly ‘represent’ the multiple and changing lives of Indian tales.” Each of the tales in this collection has variations in other regions.

He defines a folktale as “a poetic text that carries some of its cultural contexts within it; it is also a traveling metaphor that finds a new meaning with each new telling.” There is no way of determining how “accurate” the tales are, since they have all undoubtedly been told and retold multiple times, and translated by different people in different times and places. But Ramanujan points out that he has taken care to include only tales from actual tellers and not literary texts. Thus, what we have here is a significant selection of oral tales translated from twenty-two Indian languages.

The book opens with a detailed introduction, which discusses the importance of oral traditions to an understanding of Indian culture. This introduction, from one of India’s eminent folklorists, is illuminating. The scholarly discussion belies the fact that folktales are “the literature of the dialects, those mother tongues of villages, street, kitchen, tribal hut, and wayside tea shop.”

This populist element is reflected in the tales themselves, which deal mostly with rural settings and common folk. Even where there are kings and queens involved, they either serve the masses or are helped or outwitted by them. What’s fascinating about any collection of folktales is the similarities and repetitions in themes and motifs across tales from different languages.

Ramanujan says, “It is well known that such folklore items, like many other sorts of items in cultural exchange, are autotelic: that is, they travel by themselves without (often) any movement of populations. A proverb, a riddle, a joke, a story, a remedy, or a recipe travels every time it is told. It crosses linguistic boundaries any time a bilingual person tells it or hears it.” He goes on to explain that in a folktale that changes from teller to teller, the tale’s structure remains the same while the cultural details change.

This collection comprises 107 tales that are quite brief, ranging in length from half a page to six or seven pages. Many of them have intricate plots involving multiple twists and turns, numerous objects that seem innocuous at first but prove to be useful, and a variety of encounters. Some patterns recur across the tales. An example is the number seven.

A king has seven wives in one tale, and a sultan has seven daughters in another. In contrast to plot, the characters are quite simple. Some, whether human, supernatural or animal, are naïve or gullible and easily persuaded to change their minds. Others are completely evil and irredeemable.

Their motivations are typically weak. These tales, usually told to children, are entertaining, but their primary purpose is didactic. Thus, most of them end justly, with the good being rewarded and the wicked being punished. A few of them help explain rituals and superstitions in certain parts of the country. The homespun simplicity of these tales, despite their complicated plots, are both a cause and effect of why they have entertained so many for so long.

Ramanujan groups the tales into eleven cycles, each of which comprises at least one tale from each of the following categories: male-centered tales, women-centered tales, tales about families, tales about fate, gods, demons, and such, humorous tales, animal tales, and stories about stories. Let’s take a quick look at some examples from each category.

Male-centred tales

A man usually leaves home in search of wealth or a valuable object or to complete a task. He must face considerable obstacles before achieving his goal. In the end, he is victorious and rewarded with wealth and/or a bride. Many of these quest and adventure tales end with a wedding.

In The Barber and The Brahman Demon, (Bengali) a very idle barber does no work all day but sits in front of the mirror and preens. One day, scolded by his mother, he decides to leave home to try and amass some wealth. In the forest he encounters a demon that wishes to feast on his flesh.

In A Musical Demon, (Tamil) a very poor Brahman grows sick of his poverty and sets out on a pilgrimage to the hold city of Kashi. In Outwitting Fate, (Tamil) a young Brahman sets forth in search of a great sage who he hopes will impart knowledge. In Winning A Princess, (Tulu) the youngest of three sons leaves home to try and win a princess who has thus far refused all suitors including his older brothers.

In these stories, the journey is long and treacherous, and the way is beset with perils in the form of wild animals or supernatural beings. While the men end up succeeding in their near-impossible missions, the women in these tales are typically just pawns or prizes or, at best, helpers.

Women-centred tales

Here, it is female characters who are responsible for saving or rescuing men. They do so by outwitting antagonists, who are typically other women, or by solving riddles, thus demonstrating their superior intelligence and resolve. In these tales, the men are often weak or stupid, and controlled by other characters such as their mothers.

One example is The Clever Daughter-In-Law, (Kannada) where a tyrannical mother-in-law forces her daughter-in-law to do all the housework and eat stale rice. If she complains, she’s beaten. The husband is meek and keeps his mouth shut. By the end of the story, of course, the daughter-in-law becomes the boss of the household and rules over the other two.

In The Wife Who Refused To Be Beaten, (Kashmiri) a rich merchant sends his ignorant and stupid son to perform a difficult challenge. Luckily for him, the son runs into an ironsmith’s daughter who helps him. When the merchant decides to marry the two off, meddlesome folk opposed to the match advise the son to beat his wife. In the end, it is she who rescues him yet again, this time from the wiles of an expert gambler, thus proving that “she is too good for him.” Interestingly, the women-centered tales begin with marriage, while the male-centered ones end with it.

Tales about families

Marriage is not the only relationship examined. These tales revolve around brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, and, often, around contrasting sets of relatives. For instance, in one of my childhood favourites, Sukhu and Dukhu, (Bengali) a man has two wives and a daughter by each, called Dukhu and Sukhu. He loves the younger pair more until he dies. The younger daughter, Sukhu, named after joy, is of course the bad one, while the older Dukhu, whose name means sorrow, is the good one, and they will get their just deserts.

According to Ramanujan, these family-oriented tales that explore “not only bonds of affection but rivalry, incest, betrayal, and cruelty,” offer psychological insights. A Freudian reading of these tales does indeed offer up subconscious desires and phallic symbols.

For instance, in Sona and Rupa, (Hindi/Malwi) the prince desires his sisters. On the other hand, a feminist reading is equally valuable, especially for tales that contain patrilocal households where a man, usually the king, has several co-wives.

Tales about fate, gods, demons and suchlike

Magic is one of the most delightful elements of folktales. In these pages, you will find that women transform themselves into flowering trees and magic bowls provide endless and delicious food. Magical events add an element of poetry to these stories, which feature supernatural beings such as brahmarakshasas or demons and vanadevatai or forest spirits.

In folktales, unlike mythology, as Ramanujan points out, the gods have bodies and perform bodily functions. In these tales, many of the supernatural figures tend to be gullible or easily outwitted or shaken. Several tales deal with the concept of fate. While in some instances, fate can be overturned, in others it proves inexorable.

Humorous tales

If magic seems to help make impossible things happen in the fourth category, then in these, rulers – and powerful rulers – are often brought down to earth by rationalist court jesters. The tales of men like Birbal, Tenali Rama, and Gopal Bhar, depending on which region you grew up in, have long been popular for their humour. These clever, witty men frequently show their rulers the folly of their ways. These tales also provide comic relief amidst some of the darker ones.

Animal tales

Perhaps the oldest and some of the best-known Indian folktales are the ones about animals, which go as far back in written texts as the Jatakas and the Panchatantra. Intended especially for children, they enable their young audience to feel powerful when their counterparts in the stories – small animals like the crow or Hiraman the parrot – defeat stronger animals like tigers. A well-known example of such a tale is The Monkey and The Crocodile (Tamil, Kannada.)

Stories within stories

This comprises metafiction or fiction about fiction, where the tellers reflect on tales or the stories contain stories within them. That the book begins with two such tales is perhaps no accident.

In Tell It To The Walls, (Tamil), a woman grows fatter and fatter because she cannot tell anyone her woes. Finally, one day she begins to tell her grievances to walls. As she does so, the walls collapse under the weight of the stories, but she grows lighter and lighter.

This tale is immediately followed by Untold Stories, (Gondi) where a peasant refuses to tell the four stories he knows. When he goes to sleep, the stories slip out of his belly and express their anger at not being let out. These and other tales suggest the importance of allowing oral tales to circulate. Their survival depends on their being passed on, and as they move from place to place and time to time, they take on lives of their own.

In a later tale, A Story In Search of An Audience, an old lady can find no one who will listen to her story of the sun god. Finally, the only audience she can find is the unborn baby in a pregnant woman’s womb. While the mother sleeps, the old lady tells the baby her story, and ends with a blessing: “Wherever you go, deserted villages will become prosperous towns, cotton seeds will become pearls, dry trees will be covered with fruit, even old cows will give milk, barren women will have children, lost jewels will be found, and dead men will come back to life.”

This collection is delightful and essential for anyone interested in Indian folklore or in entertaining young people with bedtime stories. Read these tales and don’t forget to pass them on. You never know what might happen.

Oindrila Mukherjee is a writer and an Assistant Professor at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can follow her on Twitter at @oinkness.