If you say, “I’ll tell you a story,” nobody is going to say “I’ll not listen.” Folktale captivates everybody’s heart. Primordial man contributed to developing the story while sharing his experiences with the people around him. He kept adding minute details to make his experiences more enchanting and thus developed the technique of storytelling. The rustic folks sat in the yard at night and listened to the stories for relaxation after the day’s tough grind. A skillful narrator tells the story in a manner that captivates his audience. For that reason people used to gather around and lsiten to him.
References to aphorisms such as katha kanchiki, manam intiki [The story returns to Kanchi and we to our homes[i]] and kathaki kaallu levu, munthaki chevullevu[ii] [story has no feet, pot has no ears] only reaffirm that story has been around for a very long time.
We may find storytellers and listeners even in the remotest corners of the world. There is not a soul in India who is not interested in stories. For that reason, India is considered the natal home for story. We have evidence of the seeds of story even in the Vedic period. Folktales prevalent among the populace are included contextually in the epics of Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavata purana. Pancatantra told by Vishnusarma also includes a few folktales. Bruhatkatha by Gunadhya can be termed an anthology of folktales. Jataka stories of Buddha contains stories of birds and animals. Ancient texts on poetics such as kavyadarsa and sahityadarpanam define story as a fictitious or made up account. Manusmruti defines ‘katha‘ as dialogue.
Evidently, ‘katha‘ meant an account and includes a few real-life incidents. Folktale belongs to the genre of prose. Janapada katha, folktale in English, may be defined as a mode of communication from mouth to mouth, and from one ear to another in a set tradition and down the generations.
Spith Thompson defined the term “folktale” broadly and stated it as tradition-bound, prose narrative. We however need to make a distinction between a folktale as defined above and the folk epics and folk histories (chronicles). When we talk about a folktale, we must seperate these two genres. From the perspective of themes, the three genres appear to be comparable. However, the folk puranas and the chronicles are different from folktales, if we take into account the time, the place, and the individual perspectives of the narrators. Fictional literature features two traditions:
1. that of the elitists, and,
2. that of the folks in general.
In the case of folktales, it is hard to establish the date and the author. The written literature on the other hand is made available necessarily keeping in mind the criteria of its patrons, regardless from which part of the world they came. In that, oral literature has greater freedom than the written literature. For the same reason, oral literature has the capability to obtain the approval of all the people in a given society. They all are in a position to share the same experiences as narrated in those folktales. Folktales are based on the people whose lifestyles also enhance the amount of its freedom and become even more influential in creating that literature. For instance, the day laborers possess economic freedom as well as individual freedom, and freedom to live their lives as they pleased. Their stories reflect that freedom in the expression of their thoughts and mode of thinking.
Story is a mechanism that projects the social set up from the past into the present and from the present into the future. We may classify folk tales into the following categories: epics, chronicles, classics, humor stories, long stories, issue-based stories, stories of crooks, fantasy, parables, and social stories.
The story that grew out of a society is capable of molding that society. Therefore, the individuals in that society, their mentalities, religion, beliefs, customs, and minute details of their daily lives are featured in those stories. For that reason, they would say, “The folklore is a mirror of culture”. Society is the basis for ideal life. Men and women play important roles in the prosperity of that society. And family is the primary basis for individuals. Woman plays a key role in the prosperity of the family. Man participates in social activities while woman is more rooted in family matters.
There is no story without a female character whether it is a folktale or modern day story. Even when the society in general respects women, stories often depict woman as a weak indiviudal. There are also writers who depict woman as an incarnation of sakti while in real life abuse and humiliate them in every possible way. Also we read stories where the message is no woman deserves independence. Today, we still read stories, which emphasize that chastity is important for woman, and chastity is valued higher than beauty. We must admit that these stories are actually undermining woman’s position in our society today.
Netheless, there are a few writers, inspired by the progress taking place in the society, present stories that drum up woman’s greatness.
Woman appears in a variety of forms in folktales. She is portrayed as a mother, daughter, younger sister, daughter-in-law, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, co-daughter-in-law, co-wife, aunt, niece, cousin, queen, maid, and/or witch. The entire literature of folktales may be divided into three categories:
1. Folktales depicting domineering mother-in-law;
2. Folktales depicting domineering daughter-in-law; and,
3. Folktales depicting woman’s situation at home and in society.
1. Domineering mother-in-law.
In family environment, mother-in-law’s role appears to be an important one. There are numerous folktales depicting mother-in-law’s dominance. Some of them depict the mother-in-law as cruel towards her daughter-in-law while a few other stories show her as kind-hearted. Let us first review the stories, which validate the popular proverb, woman is woman’s enemy. These stories invariably present mother-in-law as domineering and her role as central to the story.
i) Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law stories.
Once upon a time there was a mother and a son. The mother got her son married and brought the daughter-in-law home. She was a wicked person. She would give the daughter-in-law only a glass of rice broth for food while she and her son had sumptuous meals everyday.
They had a strip of land on which they were growing eggplant and enjoying the profits from the produce. And also they had an palmyra tree in front of their house, from which they were making arrack and drinking.
One day, the daughter-in-law told the old lady living next door about her hardships. Following the neighbor’s advice, she waited until the next day when the mother-in-law climbed the palmyra tree to extract sap. While the mother-in-law was on the top of the tree, the duaghter-in-law removed the ladder. Then she went inside, helped herself a plate full of rice and eggplant curry, and said three times, taunting, “Attaa, the food, the food.”
The mother-in-law saw the daughter-in-law with the food plate, was upset, and threw down the pot she was holding at her. While doing so, she slipped, fell down and died. The son was sad for his mother’s death. The daugher-in-law was glad, thought that her mother-in-law deserved it for all the suffering she had caused to herself (daughter-in-law).
This story describes the bad things that could happen to mothers-in-law who ill-treat their daughters-in-law. This story is a lesson for every mother-in-law in our society.
ii) The mother-in-law who became a donkey.
There was an old kaapu woman in a village. Her husband died and she was living with her son. She arranged his marriage with a young woman from the next village. After the daughter-in-law moved in, she wanted to get rid of the mother-in-law one way or the other. She told her husband, “Your mother is getting old. She has a good appetite but is no good with the chores around the house. You send her away or else I’ll go back to my mother’s house.”
The son was hurt by his wife’s remarks and he told his mother the entire story. His mother was a smart one. She told him to take her to the forest and leave her there. He found a place by a well, put up a hut for her and left her there. He also gave her provisions enough to last for a while. And then, returned home and told his wife that he had left his mother in the forest. His wife and her mother were happy. They both started ill-treating the son. The son took their abuse without complaint.
A war broke between the three gods, god of rain, god of fire and the god of wind. They were fighting to determine which one of them was the greatest. They saw the old woman in the forest and asked her the same question.
The old woman told them that all the three were very important for the world. They were happy to hear that response, and they blessed her with a life of a twelve-year old girl forever.
The son went to see his mother, found her to be young girl, and conveyed the same news to his wife. His wife wanted her mother also turn into a young girl, and so, asked him to leave her mother also in the forest. He did so.
The three gods came to her (wife’s mother) and asked the same question again. They became angry with her answer and cursed her to turn into a donkey. The son brought the donkey back to their home, and tied her to the pole in front of their house. The villagers suggested that it was appropriate only for washermen to have a donkey in front of their house but not a kaapu person. Then he sold the donkey to a washerman.
The message in this story is that good befalls those people who live examplary lives and uphold the path of truth and dharma. On the other hand, those who follow the path of evil will come to their downfall as is evident from the wife’s greed and the unfounded wish for her mother’s transformation as a young girl, which resulted in the woman turning into a donkey. In this story, the son’s devotion to his mother and the plausible attitude towards his mother are also portrayed well. Some incidents in the story appear to be far-fetched but they are necessary to convey the message of common good. Also, this story includes two mothers-in-law, one portraying the admirable qualities in a woman and the other suggesting that greed is inappropriate for a woman.
iii) Mother-in-law’s statue.
A mother was living with her son in a village. After the son came of age, she married him to a girl from the neighborhood village and brought her home. The daughter-in-law was very obedient, was always seeking her mother-in-law’s permission for everything. After her mother-in-law died, she could not live alone and told her husband so. Her husband made a statue of his mother and gave it to his wife, and told her to consider it as her mother-in-law. The wife was happy. One day, she wanted to go to the village fair in the neighborhood village and as usual she asked the statue for permission. She did not get any response from the wooden statue, and so she took it along with her. On the way, she saw a Hanuman temple. She left the statue by the temple and went to the fair. People passing by saw the statue, mistook it for a goddess, and left gifts by the statue. The daughter-in-law returned from the fair, saw the money, and she returned home with the money cheerfully.
Next day, the entire village came to know that the wooden mother-in-law went to the fair and brought plenty of grains and money.
The next day, the daughter-in-law went to the fair again and did not return until it was very late. Therefore she decided to stay in the temple for the night. That night a few robbers came to the temple for disbursing their loot among themselves. The daughter-in-law was scared and cried and called out for her mother-in-law. The robbers thought that the statue might be sanctified with some mantra and gave it a part of their loot. The woman took the money, came home and told her husband about the money.
Her neighbor heard about it and asked her husband also to make a similar statue for him. Then, she went to the fair, and spent that night on a tree with the statue. She saw the robbers who were sitting under the tree, got scared and dropped the statue. The robbers saw her, became angry for dropping the statue on them, beat her up and robbed her of her possessions.
In this story, one daughter-in-law proved her love for her mother-in-law whereas the second daughter-in-law was greedy, wanted to earn money by unfair means, and lost everything in the process. We also find comparable mother-in-law characters in the stories such as etthuki pai etthu, and illarikam alludu. These stories highlight folk woman’s psychology through the mother-in-law characters.
2. Daughter-in-law in folktales.
Let us review woman’s position as depicted in the daughters-in-law character in folktales.
i. Smart daughter-in-law.
A father performed his only son’s marriage with a young woman from a neighborhood village. His father however was not happy. He thought that the woman was not taking good care of his son and so decided to test her intentions. The woman failed the test and was sent away to her mother’s home. Now the father and son were alone again. Father decided to teach his son a few tricks of his trade. He gave a sack of sesame seeds and told him to sell in it in the next village fair.
The son asked him, “At what rate?”
Father said, “Use the same measure to sell the sesame seeds as to buy the oil.”
“You mean cup for cup,” he said and went to the fair and sat down to sell his goods.
A smart woman came to him, and used an item as a measure which could hold plenty of sesame seeds but not oil. Father was impressed with her brains and made her his daughter-in-law. After that, he handed over the jewelry business to his son. The son went and gambled away all the jewelry to a woman and became her slave per terms.
His wife came to know about it, put on man’s clothes, hid two rats in her pocket, and went to the other woman’s house and challenged her to gamble with her. While the game was going on, the wife let the rats out slyly. The gambler-woman’s cat ran after the rats creating a commotion. The lamp went off, and the gambler lost in the game. She had to let go of all the men in her custody.
Thus, the wife saved her husband and brought him home. The father was convinced that his daguhter-in-law was smart and capable, and handed over the family matters to them, son and daughter-in-law.
The message in this story is a smart woman is always patient, clever, courageous, and also capable of taking on any challenge. The story also depicts a folk woman as a strong character, despite her lack of education, and capable of running the family; she is up to any challenge.
ii) What kind of authority a daughter-in-law has?
Neelamma was walking on the road hiding her hands behind her saree palloo.
Sangamma saw her and asked her wherefrom she was coming.
Neelamma said, “I am coming from your home to borrow buttermilk.”
Sangamma asked, “What happened there?”
Neelamma said warily, “I don’t know. Your daughter-in-law said it was not ready yet.”
“What right does she have to say that, let’s find out. You come with me,” Sangamma said.
Neelamma followed her to their home. As they approached the house, Neelamma stopped at the porch steps.
Sangamma said, “Come in. Did you bring a dish for the buttermilk?” So saying, she took the dish from Neelamma and went into the kitchen and returned.
Neelamma was about to thank her kindness and say, “May god bless you and your family for umpteen years.”
Before she could open her mouth, Sangamma said, “Here’s your dish. The buttermilk is not ready yet,” and handed her the empty dish.
Neelamma was disappointed and left, telling herself, “I’ve heard it before, that was true.”
Mother-in-law believed that the daughter-in-law had no right to say even the obvious, that the buttermilk was not done yet. This story is realistic and a good example of everyday events in our homes.
iii) Your actions may not always yield the results you have hoped for.
In the following story, we find a folk woman in the character of a daughter-in-law, who would not accept her mother-in-law’s dominance.
A mother got her son married and brought the daughter-in-law home. From the minute the daughter-in-law set foot in the home, the two women were wrangling with each other. The young woman wanted to get rid her mother-in-law with the help of her husband.
One day her mother came to see her. After supper, they all went to sleep. The mother noticed her daughter-in-law’s evil thoughts and was watching her. The young woman (daughter-in-law) tied a rug to her mother-in-law’s foot, and told her husband to take the woman in the rug and throw her in the river.
In the meantime the mother-in-law untied the rug from her foot and tied it to the foot of the daughter-in-law’s mother. Unaware of this swap, the son wrapped up the woman, from whose foot the rug was hanging, took her out and threw her in the river. Both husband and wife were happy that their problem had been resolved.
They returned home and saw the mother sweeping the front yard. The son was surprised to see his mother. He could not figure out what had happened.
This kind of stories illustrates that if one tries to hurt someone out of malice, he or she could end of losing one of her own. The story also conveys the message that negative thoughts like anger and jealousy, which are so common in women, can be destructive to one’s own life. Mother’s character illustrates qualities like worldly wisdom, cleverness, and timely action in folk women.
iv) Settling the score:
A mother-in-law decided to kill her daughter-in-law and told her son about her plan. The son agreed and told her to carry out the plan herself.
The mother-in-law got angrier and decided to burn the daughter-in-law alive and the son agreed to that too.
She set up the pyre in the graveyard and laid the daughter-in-law on the pyre. She forgot to bring matchbox and so returned home to fetch it. In the meantime, the son felt sorry for his wife, untied her, and told her to climb a tree and abide her time. In her place, she put a rock, and covered it with a sheet. His mother returned with matchbox, set fire to the pyre and, they both left.
A few robbers came there to share their loot and sat under the tree on which the wife was hiding. They heard the rustle from the top of the tree, were scared that it might be a ghost and ran away leaving their stolen goods. The wife came down, took all the money and returned home. Her mother-in-law saw her, was scared at first mistaking her for a ghost. The young woman said that she in fact had died, gone to the heaven and found her father-in-law there. she said he had given her the money and jewelry for their use, and promised more after they had been used up.
The mother-in-law believed her story, decided to go to the heaven herself and bring all the money her husband had. She went to the graveyard, set up a pyre, and set herself afire and died in the flames.
Thus the mother-in-law’s greed led to her own death.
3) Woman in folktales.
In today’s world, women appear on the surface to have achieved progress in all fields, including positions in legislature. Yet several women are being driven to suicides and deaths arising from disagreement over dowry amounts. The reason for such atrocities is woman herself; one woman is the adversary of another. The second reason is in our country we still have parents who consider “being born as a woman” is a curse. I think it is despicable that a mother should despise her own daughter, and set different standards for sons and daughters. It is also reprehensible that, on one hand, woman is respected for all appearances, and at the same time allow the conditions demeaning to women to exist. In today’s society it is a reality, and the same conditions are reflected in folktales as may be seen. The folktales, passed on to us as fiction, do clearly illustrate the dominance of men over women in those days. Let us review some of such stories. Stories such as Mynavati, Abheda, Four daughters, Pativrata Sangamma, and Daughter of a thief are cases in point.
The story of Abheda goes as follows:
A couple had a son and a daughter, Abheda. In those days, religion, devotion, trust, and beliefs were deep-rooted and the folks gave in to those debilitating tenets and lived accordingly. They all believed that there were powers beyond the scope of humans, and people lived their lives anchored around those customs and beliefs.
Abheda’s parents were told that a single daughter would bring bad luck to the family, and so, they left her with a drifter and went away. Abheda grew up, submerged herself in a life filled with pujas and bhajans. This went on for twelve years. The drifter noticed that Abheda’s way of life would do no good to her and so he sent word to her parents.
Her brother came and convinced her to go with him to a forest. In the forest he tried to kill her but could not. He left her there alone and went away.
Abheda stayed under the tree and continued her meditation. In course of time, a sandhill formed around her. A king passing by heard her bhajans and had the sandhill dug up. He found Abheda and married her.
The point is although her parents had left her as an ill-fated woman, she got married to a king because she was blessed.
The next story about a king who was about to beat up his wife:
A king saw a young woman and noticed that she was very smart. He put her to a test. He put a jasmine garland around her neck, told her that that she should dig up a tunnel and a well, grow a garden of coriander and fenugreek. He said all this should be done before he returned and before the garland in her neck withered. The young woman agreed.
She dug up the tunnel and well. And then, she put on man’s clothes and went in to the city. She heard that the princess proclaimed that she would marry a man who could make a horse walk on the water. The woman took up the challenge and succeeded in making the horse walk on water. According to the condition, the princess was supposed to marry the man. However, since the woman was not a man, she got the princess married to a sword, per custom, and returned to the king’s palace. There she danced in the court, and spent two days with the king. She took a ring and a sheet from the king as tokens of her being there and returned to her place.
The king returned to her place and was surprised to see that the woman had completed her assignment. However he was not sure the child was his; he was about to beat her up for lying. The woman produced the ring and the sheet she had obtained from him. The king was impressed with her ingenuity and took her to his palace.
This story once again proves that women in folktales were depicted as intelligent, courageous, and capable of carrying out their mission.
In a vast majority of folktales, we see importance given to woman and her conditions. Some stories depict woman as inferior to man. Folk women, even though illiterate, are portrayed as perceptiive of their social and familial conditions and shared their experiences with each other through stories and songs. Folk women believed in religious traditions, worshipped village goddesses, and were keenly drawn in to irrational beliefs and customs.
In addition, they were also afraid that, if they had not followed tradition, bad luck would befall them. Some of the stories such as maaruti kuuthuru and Padmavati’s story indicate that not only they showed shrewdness in resolving their problems, but they also showed enormous amount of patience. But for a few stories which depicted women as capable of heroic deeds, most of the stories depicted the woman’s position as inferior to that of man.
(Paper presented at the National Conference on Folk literature at Osmania University, Hyderabad, November 2000, and included in the anthology of essays, Vyasa jyothsna, by Dr. Saratjyothsna Rani, 2002.
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi, and published on thulika.net, October 2006.)
 Cheap liquor made of palmyra sap.
[i] The proverb appears to have its origins in dasakumara charitra. Since most of the stories had originated in the town of Kanchi, it had become common to end the story with the line that it went back to Kanchi. Possibly, it was also the time when poeple would gather under a tree and listern to the stories and then return homes..
[ii] A proverb implying stories are not often logical.