Tamil Folktales in Oral Tradition

by Reet Hiiemäe; IUP Publications, India, originally posted January 3, 2004

Moral Fictions: Tamil Folktales in Oral Tradition

Would readers send us a few of their favorite Sri Lankan Tamil folktales for publication?

by Stuart Blackburn, edited by Lauri Honko

Moral Fictions. Tamil Folktales in Oral Tradition. (FF Communications 278.) By Stuart Blackburn. Ed. Lauri Honko. Helsinki: Academia Scientarum Fennica, 2001. Pp. 338. Index, bibliography, glossary, photos.

The book presents one hundred Tamil folktales recorded from oral tradition in 1995-96. The project deserves attention, for hitherto the folktale in India has not been adequately documented and has only rarely been the object of thorough analysis. Moreover, not until 1997 was there a full-length monograph interpreting

Moral Fictions

Indian folktales collected from oral performance. Hence, the author’s main purpose in writing this book is to present a homogenous oral storytelling tradition in contemporary India.

The starting point of Stuart Blackburn’s study on Tamil folk tales is the question: is fantasy the defining element in fairy tales? Having collected and analyzed over 300 tales, he concludes that although fantasy is present, at the core of the tales lies a moral vision in which wrongdoing, especially physical cruelty, is punished. Most of these tales conclude with the conventional wedding but not before they accuse, expose, summon, and punish those who lie, cheat, or mistreat others. In general, to the author’s mind, the tales express a broader social consensus about desirable and undesirable behavior.

In selecting the tales for the book, the author has been guided first by the quality of the telling of the tale and, secondly, by the need for balance among the tales. The chapters of the book are based on real-life contexts‹each chapter (2-6) is organized around one tale-telling session. An exception of this rule is chapter 7, which consists of so-called single tales that were told outside of the afore-mentioned sessions. In chapter 8 Blackburn gives a comparison of European and Tamil tale characters and points out the local color of some internationally known figures (prince, snake, ogre, magical helpers, etc.). He also analyses the local terminology of the Tamil folktale. Most Tamils would call a folktale a katai; this category encompasses many narrative forms, including the legend, the ballad, and even the novel. Blackburn notes that specific kinds of folktales are distinguished in Tamil by their contents, although these usages are neither regular nor universal. The most popular type in Tamil is the “king and queen” story, which roughly matches the narrative range of the fairy tale. “In a certain place” is the traditional opening for any Tamil folktale. A fairy tale may also begin with a brief sentence, “There was a raja,” after which the teller may indeed tell a tale about a raja but may just as often tell one about an ordinary hero or a clever woman, with no raja in sight.

Blackburn realizes that tales are told by all age groups, although more commonly by people over 30; almost equally by men and women, with a slight majority of women; within all social groups and castes, though more commonly in villages and towns than in cities. The most common contexts for telling are home and work. Probably the most popular time for telling tales to children is meal-time (not at bed-time as is the case elsewhere in the world).

The author has also observed the aspects of audience participation. He realizes that the nature of audience response varies according to the degree of familiarity in the group as a whole. The storytelling sessions presented here were characterized by a high degree of familiarity, and Blackman notes frequent interruptions by listeners and sometimes attempts to correct the teller. A special way to provoke discussion or to challenge the listeners is using a question-tag as a tale-ending formula. It causes a shift of attention to the morality of the characters’ actions in a tale.

One of the crucial issues for the author is the meaning of the tales and its changes in space and time. He points out that the meaning of a tale is not intrinsic, rather the speakers and listeners produce meaning by interpreting the tales themselves. On the other hand, the tale is not entirely empty of meaning before it is spoken and heard. Blackburn describes how the meanings are historically constructed and discusses the relations between the real meaning and the constructed meaning of a tale.

Blackburn’s methodically organized collection of tales serves as a valuable document of a culture and lifestyle, and should be a highly recommended reading for everyone interested in Indian narrative art.

Reet Hiiemäe

Estonian Literary Museum, Tartu


Also see: https://www.iias.asia/sites/default/files/2020-11/IIAS_NL30_33.pdf

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