We are delighted to welcome writer Swapna Dutta back to PaperTigers with this article about the stories collected by Dakshinaranjan Mitra-Mazumdar (1877-1957) and thanks to him, still known and loved by Bengali children today. I personally have to thank Swapna for introducing me to the work of Sukumar Ray, and I think I’ll now be seeking out some of Mitra-Mazumdar’s tales. Swapna is also a regular contributor to BoliKids .
When I was a child the concept of stories and story-telling was inseparable from my two grandmothers; and it was so for most children of my generation. Those were the days of joint families where the mothers were always busy with household chores or outside work and fathers, too busy in their own world. But Grandma/grandpa/grandparents always had time for us. They were the ones to pet and pamper; listen to our troubles; provide us with pickles and sweets; and most important of all, tell us stories. Our grandparents had a formidable stock of tales that included folktales and fairy tales; stories from mythology and epics; and stories that formed part of common rituals – an integral part of our life. Children who lived in metro cities had access to the radio. But for the rest of us, hearing stories from grandparents was our chief source of entertainment when it was too dark to play outside; during the long rainy afternoons and the shivery winter evenings.
Most of those stories had come down through generations as part of oral tradition. As a result, there were several variations of the same stories. Not that it hampered our pleasure in any way! It was fun to come across two different endings or have the prince/princess face different situations, adventures and dilemmas. One of the pioneers to note down these tales and bring out a printed collection was Dakshinaranjan Mitra-Mazumdar. He patiently collected stories from village women, travelling from village to village as he did so, his main aim being to preserve the folklore of Bengal. The first collection Thakurmar Jhuli (paternal Grandma’s bag of stories), was published in 1907, followed by Thakurdadar Jhuli (paternal Grandpa’s bag of stories) and Thandidir Thole (maternal Grannie’s bag of stories) in 1909. The last of the series was Dadamashayer Thole (Maternal Grandpa’s bag of stories), published in 1913. All four books were copiously illustrated with woodcuts made from the author’s own sketches. They have entertained generations of children (in undivided Bengal at first, and then in West Bengal and Bangladesh) for the last 100 years and continue to do so, although the prime favourite is (and has always been) Thakurmar Jhuli. Rabindranath Tagore, the famous poet, wrote the foreword of this book.
And now for a brief look at the contents. Both Thakurmar Jhuli and Thakurdadar Jhuli comprise a variety of stories – folktales and fairy tales, stories of kings and queens, princes and princesses, demons and witches, birds and animals, and finally, stories of ordinary people. The adventures are replete with thrills, chills and kills; fights and bloodshed, romance and humour.
Each book is divided into thematic sections. Thakurmar Jhuli, for example, has four parts. The first has stories of romance and adventure; the next has stories of demons and witches and gory tales of violence and bravery; the third part has mainly animal stories and the last is meant for very young children and has lullabies and rhymes. Thakurdadar Jhuli, on the other hand, has only romantic tales which my generation found to be rather sentimental and cloying, although the stories were apparently prime favourites in my mother’s time. Thandidir thole dealt exclusively with common rituals practised by young girls at the time and legends connected with these rituals. No one practises them now (except perhaps in some rural areas) so the book is mainly of interest to researchers of folklore. But Dadamashayer Thole, the last book in the series, contains stories of humour and slapstick comedy and remains a favourite even now.
Both grandparents themselves and the stories told by them played an important role in shaping our thoughts and values. Every story in these collections had a moral – implied, rather than spelt out. And the teller of the tales saw to it that we noticed it. Simple virtues such as love, loyalty, honesty and fairness of conduct were glorified, and the stories also described what happened when people did the opposite. The violence and gore in the stories had no adverse effects because we knew that goodness was bound to triumph over evil eventually, no matter what happened in between. The stories also portrayed that being dishonest, unfair, cruel or selfish did not pay; that goodness always carried its own reward and one always came by one’s just desserts in life. All this became a part of our thoughts unconsciously, thanks to our grandparents. Life is very different today and there is often no place for grandparents in our present nuclear families. The stories live on, via CDs, DVDs and telecast programmes. But passive viewing can never take the place of stories told in person, where our imaginations were left free to conjure up the scenes; and the ‘idiot box’ can never be a substitute for grandparents and all that their storytelling meant to us.