Tales from India

Book Links: Dec./Jan. 2000-2001 (v.10 no.3)

by Cheryl Jones and Gowri Parameswaran

Storytelling in the classroom is a wonderful and easy way to enhance the curriculum in a number of subject areas. Teachers who incorporate folk literature in their curriculum, however, often explore stories outside the Western tradition only when working on multicultural units. Stories from other parts of the world have long and rich traditions, and readily fit in with countless themes that are taught in Western classrooms. One country with great stories to offer is India. The Indian subcontinent is known as one of the "cradles of civilization," and retains a flourishing oral tradition that can be traced back thousands of years. Today India is the second-largest country in the world in terms of population, with just under one billion people in its 26 states. It is a land of great diversity-of religions, languages, races, and geography. People who live just a few miles away might speak completely different languages, practice different religions, eat different foods, and have different modes of dress. However, stories are still a part of daily life, and they are heard in the home, at school, at religious gatherings, and via traveling performers.

Animal tales that explore moral themes, trickster tales that stretch the imagination, and stories that exemplify the continuing battle between good and evil forces in the world-all of these are found in tales from India. Many of these are found embedded within the great literary works of India, and are known by practically all Indians. Among the most well known of these classic works of Indian literature is the Mahabharata, an Indian Sanskrit epic poem compiled between 400 B.C. and A.D. 400, relates the story of two sets of cousins, the Pandavas and the Karuavas, who fight for control of the Kuru kingdom. Hindu philosophy is set forth in the myriad stories told in this epic.

Set within the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita, a focal point for Hindu philosophy. In this story, Prince Arjun, seeing friends and relatives in the army he must defeat, is reluctant to go to battle. The god Krishna, a reincarnation of the god Vishnu, explains to Prince Arjun where his duty lies, and in doing so reveals the truth about life and death and explains the basic tenets of Hindu thought.

The Ramayana, compiled between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200, is another great Sanskrit epic. Containing a number of ancient legends, it recounts the story of the life of Rama, the prince who was the human reincarnation of the god Vishnu, and his efforts to win back his throne and rescue his beloved wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata exemplify the struggle to do the right thing that all people experience. Both epics have been translated into all the Indian languages and are recited every year during major holy festivals.

"Everyday" tales that almost all children in India learn come from a variety of sources. These are often familiar to Western children who have heard Aesop's fables; in fact, some scholars believe that the Aesop fables originated from tales told in India. The Panchatantra, a collection of animal tales, contains stories that extol the qualities of cleverness and shrewdness. The Puranas include myths and legends surrounding gods, heroes, and saints. Both of these collections have Hindu origins. Jataka tales recount experiences the Buddha had in his reincarnations as various animals; all have a moral lesson. Many of these stories are retold or reenacted in Hindu temples and Buddhist chaitras, as well as on street corners.

Following is a "storyteller's choice" of books that lend themselves to traditional telling and can fit into almost any thematic unit. Many of these are short and quite easy to learn; they would be quite suitable for the teacher delving into traditional storytelling. Some of these tales are particularly suited to promoting discussion of interpersonal situations within the classroom. All invite comparison to similar tales in other cultures.

Story Collections

Dalal-Clayton, Diksha.
The Adventures of Young Krishna: The Blue God of India. 1992. 114p. Oxford, o.p.

Gr. 3-7. Known as "the Blue God" for the color of his skin, Krishna is much loved in India. Here, 11 tales chronicle the boyhood adventures of this mischievous god, who is constantly getting into trouble for his pranks. His strength is legendary, and his successful battles invite comparison with Hercules' feats. Told with a lilting cadence, these stories are well-suited for reading aloud; unfortunately however, most are too long for anyone but a seasoned storyteller to attempt.

Buddha Stories. 1997. Illus. 32p. Holt, $16.95 (0-8050-4203-2).

Gr. 2-5. Ten short Jataka tales are retold here in a lively and engaging manner. Each ends with a short moral, such as "Treat others with kindness and your deeds will be rewarded," or "Disaster can come from opening your mouth at the wrong time." These would be excellent choices for the beginning storyteller as well as models for students to emulate when writing their own fables. The artwork is arresting and will inspire students to try the same technique. Reproduced in gold on deep indigo paper, Demi's delicate pen-and-ink drawings are modeled on what is considered to be the world's first printed book, a Buddhist, or teaching, made with woodblocks in A.D. 600. Because the pictures are too difficult to see in a group setting, the book is best shared one-on-one or in very small groups.

Krishnaswami, Uma.
Shower of Gold: Girls and Women in the Stories of India. Illus. by Maniam Selven. 1999. 125p. Linnet, $19.95 (0-208-02484-0).

Preschool-up. Eighteen stories from Hindu and Buddhist traditions, popular folklore, and historically based legend present strong heroines and the choices they face. The tales move quickly and reveal much about the cultures from which they came. For instance, "The Warrior Queen of Jhansi" tells the story of Queen Lakshmibai, who trained a battalion of women and led her kingdom into war against the British. In "the Romeo and Juliet story of fifteenth century India," the love of Hindu Roopmati and Muslim Baz Bahadur finally overcomes their people's religious prejudices. Students studying the story of Boadicea, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, or looking at the role of women in society will find this an intriguing collection. Background information and sources are provided.

Krishnaswami, Uma.
The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha. Illus. by Maniam Selven. 1996. 100p. Linnet, $19.95 (0-208-2442-5).

Gr. 4-up. Seventeen tales about Ganesha, the much-beloved Hindu god with the elephant head and the human body, are retold here with a storyteller's flair. Krishnaswami has done an admirable job in providing background information and sources for the reader. The trickster tales and moral content of the stories are sure to generate discussion.

Ness, Caroline.
The Ocean of Story: Fairy Tales from India. Illus. by Jacqueline Mair. Edited by Neil Philip. 1995. 123p. Lothrop, $17 (0-688-13584-6).

Gr. 2-up. This colorfully illustrated collection includes a number of antecedents to familiar Western tales, from Andersen's "The Princess and the Pea" to a version of Cinderella. Imbued with adventure, romance, magic, and common sense, the stories in this collection are told well and move at a brisk pace. This is a good choice to read aloud, and one that will complement units that compare tales across cultures.

Treasury of Indian Tales: Book 1. Illus. by Debabrata Mukerji. 1993. 105p. Children's Book Trust, (81-7011-038-6).

Gr. 3-5. These 12 folktales, told in a storyteller's voice with a good deal of dialogue, move at a rapid pace. Each has a strong moral and satisfying ending; most are well known in India today. Western children will be intrigued by the machinations of various gods and goddesses. The watercolor illustrations in black, white, and shades of orange are reminiscent of woodcuts; although not as polished as illustrations found in most Western books, these are well placed and add interest to the tales.

Stories from Panchatantra, Book III. Illus. by Debabrata Mukerji. 1993. 65p. Children's Book Trust, (81-7011-044-0).

Gr. 2-5. According to the preface, stories of the Panchatantra depict nitishastra, or "wise conduct of life." Here the animal stories move at a rollicking pace. Published by the Children's Book Trust, this illustrated collection is representative of the kinds of books read by many children in India today.

Singh, Rina.
Foolish Men of Agra: And Other Tales of Mogul India. Illus. by Farida Zaman. 1998. 48p. Firefly, $14.95 (1-550-13771-9).

Preschool-Gr. 4. Between 1526 and 1707, a patchwork of small states in India grew into the great Mogul Empire under the rule of Babur, a Muslim scholar and soldier. His grandson, Akbar, eventually succeeded him and became renowned throughout the world for his patronage of the arts. Here, 10 delightfully told tales drawn from the traditional stories of Mogul India recount the adventures of Akbar's confidante Birbal, a clever Hindu courtier whose exploits are well known to children in India even today. Children and adults alike will enjoy the way Birbal outwits jealous rivals and rescues innocent people through his influence with Akbar. Each story is illustrated with zest and humor in colorful watercolors. This would tie in nicely with studies of India's history and culture.

Spagnoli, Cathy, and Paramasivam Samanna.
Jasmine and Coconuts: South Indian Tales.1998. 175p. Libraries Unlimited, $24 (1-56308-576-3).

Gr. 2-up. More than 45 short tales from South India---rich in dialogue and easy to tell---are presented thematically according to such values as simplicity versus greed; respect for family and elders; hard work and study; and wit and humor. Introductory sections give background information on South India's history and culture. This is full of intriguing information that will be quite useful to anyone reading or telling stories from this part of India, and is highly recommended as a classroom resource.

Picture Books of Individual Tales

Barry, David.
The Rajah's Rice: A Mathematical Folktale from India. Illus. by Donna Perrone. 1994. 32p. Freeman, $15.95 (0-7167-6568-3).

Preschool-Gr. 3. Offering her the most costly jewels in his kingdom as a reward for curing his sick elephants, the raja is only too happy when young Chandra asks for one grain of rice, to be doubled for each square that is upon his chessboard. Her choice saves her village and cures the raja of his greed, all while teaching readers the concept of geometric progression. A different version of the story is told by Demi in
One Grain of Rice.

Claire, Elizabeth.
The Little Brown Jay: A Tale from India. Illus. by Miriam Katin. 1994. 24p. Mondo, $9.95 (1-879531-44-5).

Preschool-Gr. 4. Afraid to speak to the handsome prince in her sharp, ugly voice, Maya is overjoyed when the brown jay gives her his own sweet voice. In return for this selfless act, she covers him with her shawl and he becomes a blue jay. A brief explanation of pourquoi tales, photographs, and cursory information on India are included. Since the desirable prince in this tale happens to be blind, this could spark discussion on disabilities.

Gleeson, Brian.
The Tiger and the Brahmin. Illus. by Kurt Vargo. 1992. 40p. Picture Book Studio, book and audio cassette, $19.95 (0-88708-233-5).

Gr. 2-5. When a holy Brahmin releases Tiger from his cage, Tiger threatens to eat him unless he can find someone who feels the tiger's actions would be unjust. Sure of his rescue, the Brahmin is dismayed to find that the animals he encounters feel he must submit to his fate. "The tiger is your master. Face your fate and be eaten," says the elephant. "Be a man. Go back to the tiger. The world is a cruel place," says the pipal tree. The Brahmin despairs until a lowly jackal tricks the tiger into going back into the cage to show him exactly what happened. And the Brahmin "lived the rest of his life a much wiser man." Large, colorful geometric illustrations give this Jataka tale a modern edge.

Hodges, Margaret.
The Golden Deer. Illus. by Daniel San Souci. 1992. 28p. Scribner, o.p.

K-up. This Jataka tale recounts the story of Buddha when he appeared in the shape of a golden deer. When two herds of deer are captured and shut into a park to please the hunting whims of a great king, they agree to a lottery to determine which one will die next. The golden deer takes the place of a doe who will soon give birth. When the king discovers this, he repents of his hunting and promises to forever protect all animals. Although suitable for the beginning storyteller, the rich illustrations make this tale an excellent choice to read aloud.

Kajpust, Melissa.
The Peacock's Pride. 1997. Illus. 32p. Hyperion, $14.95 (0-7868-0293-6).

K- Gr. 4. In a story that complements any unit on communities, Peacock defeats the viper that has taken over the birds' water hole; as a result, all his neighbors must acknowledge him as king. Peacock's imperious demands soon become onerous, and cause the others to seek a way to put him in his place. When the drab Koel bird suggests that Peacock give up his kingdom if he can prove that his beauty is equal to that of Peacock, the vain bird readily agrees. Koel sings a remarkable song, and Peacock finally learns that "each of us is special in our own way." Rich colors and Kajpust's large, luminous illustrations make this a great read-aloud option; the fluid use of language makes it a good choice for the experienced storyteller.

Martin, Rafe.
The Monkey Bridge. Illus. by Fahimeh Amiri. 1997. 30p. Knopf, $17 (0-679-88106-9).

Gr. 1-4. When his band of monkeys is threatened by the king of Benares, who covets their fruit tree, the Monkey King reaches out and becomes a "bridge" that allows his subjects to cross to safety. Touched and chastened by the Monkey King's willingness to sacrifice himself for his people, the selfish king of Benares promises to protect the monkeys and their amazing fruit tree. Richly colored illustrations with decorative borders evoke traditional Indian paintings in this environmental lesson from the Jatakas.

Rose, Deborah Lee.
The People Who Hugged the Trees: An Environmental Folktale. Illus. by Birgitta Saflund. 1990. 32p. Roberts Rinehart, $13.95 (0-911797-80-7); paper, $6.95 (1-879373-50-5).

Gr. 4-7. When the maharaja's axemen come to cut down their forest for a new fortress, Amrita and her village hug their trees to save them. Enraged, the maharaja and his soldiers come to attack, but a wild storm helps them see the wisdom of the villagers, who know that they could not live next to the desert without the protection of the trees. The author's note explains that this is based on a true story with a tragic ending.
Aani and the Tree Huggers, by Jeannine Atkins, describes a similar event that took place in the 1970s that helped foster the grassroots environmental movement found in India today.

Shepard, Aaron.
The Gifts of Wali Dad: A Tale of India and Pakistan. Illus. by Daniel San Souci. 1995. 32p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16 (0-684-19445-7).

Preschool-Gr. 3. When he realizes he has more money than he needs, Wali Dad, a grasscutter, asks his friend the merchant to deliver a golden bracelet to "the noblest lady" in all the world. When the queen of Khaistan reciprocates by sending him fine silks, he asks the merchant to bring these gifts to "the noblest man." The merchant brings these to the young king of Nekabad. As the gift-giving becomes more extravagant, Wali Dad is caught in the middle. He decides to flee his home, but meets two peris from Paradise who use their magic to help resolve the situation. Exaggerated illustrations will appeal to children, as will the humorous twists in this tale of a man who finds the simple life to be the best. Western children might appreciate hearing this tale during the winter holiday season.

Shepard, Aaron.
Savitri: A Tale of Ancient India. Illus. by Vera Rosenberry. 1992. 40p. Albert Whitman, $16.95 (0-8075-7251-9).

Gr. 2-7. Beautiful, intrepid, and witty, the princess Savitri chooses young Prince Satyavan for her husband, despite the fact that it will mean living a simple life in the hermitage in which he and his father live. When Yama, the god of death, comes to take her husband one year later, Savitri outwits him and saves her husband's life. The story of this resourceful princess is one of the best-known tales of the Mahabharata. Full-page watercolors that show many intriguing details of Indian culture both enhance the story and highlight Savitri's beauty and courage, making this tale a good choice to read aloud.

Souhami, Jessica.
No Dinner!: The Story of the Old Woman and the Pumpkin. 2000. 32p. Marshall Cavendish, $15.95 (0-7614-5059-9).

Preschool-Gr. 3. Granny convinces a wolf, a tiger, and a bear-all ready to eat her-that she'll be much fatter after a trip to her granddaughter's. She manages to elude the hungry beasts on her return by rolling home in giant red pumpkin-and thanks to some fast thinking when the wolf discovers her.

Souhami, Jessica.
Rama and the Demon King: An Ancient Tale from India. 1997. Illus. 30p. DK Ink, $14.95 (0-7894-2450-9).

Preschool-Gr. 3. When his stepmother forces him to live in the demon-ridden wilderness for 14 years, Prince Rama's wife Sita and his best friend, Lakshman, refuse to leave his side. They successfully battle the demons, but the king of the demons tricks them and kidnaps Sita, whom he imprisons on his secluded island. Rama and Lakshman search worldwide, and with the help of the king of the monkeys, Hanuman, they rescue Sita and return in triumph to Rama's kingdom. Compare this epic tale from the Ramayana with the story of Jason and the Argonauts, or other Greek epics.

Young, Ed.
Seven Blind Mice. 1992. Illus. 40p. Philomel, $17.99 (0-399-22261-8).

Preschool-Gr. 3. Young's simple yet striking collages accompany this classic Jataka tale that shows how differently seven blind mice perceive the various parts of an elephant; only the seventh perceives the elephant as a whole. Young children will learn about colors and days of the week; older children will appreciate the moral lesson of this Caldecott Honor Book.

Cheryl Jones is an assistant professor of library sciences and the education librarian at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.
Gowri Parameswaran is an associate professor of Psychology at Southwest Missouri State University. Parts of this article are adapted from their chapter on India in the second edition of the book
Ventures into Culture (ALA Editions, 2000), edited by Olga Barnes Kuharets.