I’ve retold folktales orally and for print many times over.
As a professional storyteller and as a writer, I have considered how to authentically retell stories from the myths, folklore and perhaps even from history.
In recent years, the consciousness of heritage and authenticity has been given its right priority.
But does that mean if I retell Indian stories from my own culture, I don’t need to research? I’m no expert in the culture, the traditions and the epics of India. India is vast and varied. It spreads from the snowy peaks of the Himalayas to the tip of the shores kissed by three seas. Its people are diverse and dazzling – from the fishermen on the coastlines, to the farmers of the plains. Its people live in tribes and tenements, villages and cities. So I follow these steps to research every story.
1) First I try and find multiple version of the story I have found. This website is a great resource on “travelling tales”. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html
Because my first find of the story is from an Indian source, I do not assume that it is Indian. Stories travel and that’s why they endure. Sometimes it might turn out that the story I have read and liked is originally from another continent.
2) Once I have found multiple variations and nothing has made me reject the story yet, I would want to know if this story is part of a bigger collection. Is the character in this story a legend in these parts? Does he feature in other stories? Does he have naysayers? What do they say about him?
3) I would then move on to geography. Where does it happen? In the mountains or in the plains? Does it happen in a forest or in a village or a town? What topography does this story have – rivers, mountains, farms – what kind of farms? Is the soil red or brown? What kinds of trees grow in this part of the world?
4) Then I research the people in the story – their livelihoods, their communities and their motivations. Were they fishermen out at sea for many days or were they farmers afraid of the drought? What did they harvest? Whom did they worship? Then of course I would want to know their clothes, what they ate and how they lived. Festivals, weddings, deaths and celebrations are all important.
5) Depending on the age of the story, I would want to know the political setup. Which king reigned? Was it during the time of Islamic rulers or was it way before that, when Hindu kings ruled the land? This would tell me more about the historical setting and the motivations of the story.
None of the above would strictly go into the story itself. I need to know all of these to choose my vocabulary to tell the story. Be it oral or a written variation, the story in its barest form could have travelled far and wide. The clothes it wears, the colour of its skin, the drawl of its language needs to be authentic to the land it comes from.
When I came across the story of Pattan, which is now being published as Pattan’s Pumpkin, brilliantly illustrated by Frané Lessac and published by Otter-Barry Books in the UK and territories and Candlewick Press in the US, I had to adapt my research skills to a totally new level.
I came across this story, a previously untold flood tale, in a research paper by Philipose Vaidyar, a researcher from South India. He had worked on a research project involving tribes in the southwest mountain ranges of India. During his lunch break in the tribal village, he was told a story by one of the elders of the tribal village.
I tried to find other versions of the story – no amount of Googling (and I’ve a doctorate in Googling) and searching in bookstores and libraries helped. This story was in the minds of the tribal elders and it had never been written down. So the only way I could authenticate the story was through the research document. I checked with my publisher who consulted their experts who confirmed that one authentic printed source was sufficient.
So now began the task of writing the story – making up 32 pages, 12/13 spreads from two sentences of the backbone.
I researched the tribe online. I made my elderly Dad go to a research library in Chennai [formerly known as Madras], and he scanned pages from tens of books and emailed them over. Then came the twist in the tale.
The research notes suggested that the vegetable in the story was a pumpkin. But my research pointed out that pumpkins didn’t come to India until much later. So what was the vegetable that could be hollowed out and carved in ancient times? British Library archives yielded the answer – the bottle gourd, surakkai, in the languages spoken by this tribe.
I frantically reached out to the researcher and he confirmed that the tribal elder had indeed said surakkai and he had translated it as pumpkin by mistake. Now I had to tell my publisher that the pumpkin in the front cover wasn’t going to be a pumpkin.
The humbly bottle gourd wasn’t vibrant and colourful as a pumpkin. After some deep thinking, as a team, we decided to stick with the pumpkin. As we didn’t want to mislead or misrepresent the truth, we added a note inside the book explaining the choice.
Retelling a story is not just about the words, though. It’s a picture book and hence the illustrations had to be authentic too. Frané Lessac did her own independent research. She interviewed the researcher and she visualized the world where the story was set.
Pattan’s Pumpkin is a story about living as one with the environment, about this wonderful planet and protecting it. It is also an adventure story of Pattan, rescuing his clan in a pumpkin bumping down the valley. For that story to shine and be loved, as a team we had to make it true and authentic to the land it came from and the people who told it.
___________________________________Click here to find out more about the making of Pattan’s Pumpkin. Want to try your hand at oral storytelling? Here are some tips. Better still, come to the book launch and listen to Chitra tell the story. RSVP here for the event on October 8th!
Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British writer, based in London. Chitra grew up on a wholesome diet of stories from Indian folklore and epics. Chitra has written over 20 books for children and many of her stories are set in India. She regularly goes into schools to tell stories and conduct workshops. You can find out more at www.chitrasoundar.com and follow Chitra on Twitter at @csoundar.