Storytelling has been an age-old way of transmitting knowledge from one person to another and from one generation to another. It is still one of our pedagogical methods of imparting education to our children. Tales of Alif Laila, Vikram Baital, Sindbad still reverberate in our ears. And who can forget the horrors of Raantas and the adventures of Khurr (Witty Bald Man). I vividly remember those bone-chilling cold nights when my late maternal grandmother used to tell us horrendous and adventurous tales. I and my siblings would every evening ask for an early dinner, for which sometimes we were reprimanded by our mother, so that we could compel grandma to take evening meals with us and while doing so, regale us with tales of a fantasy world. It was not all about amusement; it bound us closely with our parents and grandparents.
The custom of storytelling is as old as human civilisation. We have evidence from different ancient civilisations of the prevalence of storytelling in their culture. The practice has not just been a medium of knowledge transmission but also an important mode of entertainment and amusement. During times when there were no gadgets like radio, television, smartphones, etc, there were tales told by the grandmother.
Though every mother, grandmother and grandfather were storytellers, there used to be some famed ones in the locality or village. They would enthrall the audience with their distinctive articulation. It was the time when houses had no fences. Everyone had easy access to their neighbours’ houses, contrary to modern times. In those times, perhaps, the people were less jealous and greedy.
After taking dinner, people of all ages would assemble in the compound of the storyteller’s house or in a large room. The beauty of that era was the trust and confidence of people in one another. There were no lockers then, but robberies and burglaries were almost negligible. Those people were bound together by love and trust. The storytellers would sometimes use the attics of their houses if the space was not enough to accommodate the gathering. The audience would never dare to utter a single word during the narration of the tale. Black tea was served to the audience free of cost. And it was not necessarily prepared by a member from the host’s family. Anyone from the audience would prepare the black tea or kehwa for the whole audience and for the storyteller. Black pepper was added to the kehwa because it is believed to be an excellent anti-inflammatory substance. It would relieve a sore and itchy throat.
The storytellers were admired and respected by one and all in society. They were considered sagacious. Most of the storytellers were literate and educated. Knowledge of Kareema Naameh (an introductory book about manners and etiquettes in Persian language), Gulistan Boastaan of Shaikh Saadi Sheerazi, and the ability to recite the Quran were some prerequisites of these storytellers. Many storytellers would narrate epics from Kashmiri literature. The stories and the tales narrated were full of emotions, morals, and entertainment. Even horror was a common component of many stories. Stories of kings, prophets, warriors, traders, sailors, and supernatural powers were often narrated.
Then came Radio Kashmir. This institution took the storytelling tradition to sky heights. It became an integral and vital part of our culture. Radio Kashmir Srinagar gave us the legendary Mohammad Isma-eel Mir of Mujgund, popularly known as Ismaal Mir. I won’t exaggerate to call him the best ever storyteller of Kashmir. What Shakespeare is to English Literature, what Mohammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar are to singing, so is Mohammad Isma-eel Mir to storytelling in Kashmir. He remains popular even after his death.
But, the legacy has now almost vanished. We have become slaves of smartphones and the internet. Families have almost disintegrated. The real tales of our families are appalling. Everyone is suffering from nomophopia. Children are always seen playing games on phone or laptop, fathers are seen browsing Facebook, and mothers are seen chatting on WhatsApp. No doubt, internet and smartphones are blessings in many ways, but their injudicious and indiscreet use has made them a curse. Keeping pace with changing times is necessary. We can’t use bullock carts to travel when we have cars and trains available. We can’t separate husk from grain using pestle and mortar when we have automated machines to do it for us. We can’t rely on letters when we have email. But we shouldn’t also fall victim to machines so much that we forget the real essence of life.
The writer is a teacher and a columnist. [email protected]