Bangla folktales: Stories of wisdom, wit and wonder | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 14, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 06:00 PM, April 13, 2015

Bangla folktales: Stories of wisdom, wit and wonder

Everyone loves stories, be it children or adults. It is this love which has kept alive, for generations, folktales that have been handed down by an oral tradition. Though this cultural phenomenon has partly been lost in oblivion under the pressure of modernity it can be a venerable source of our national culture. This is because the tales share the everyday "efforts made by our people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify and praise the action through which we have created ourselves and keep ourselves in existence."[Fanon, Frantz . The Wretched of the Earth. Penguin Classics 2001, pp 188]. 

Bangla folktales belie the simplistic image of Bangla rural life. Stories like Son-in-Law's Visit and Fair Share project with humour, the lighter side of tensions in the family. We see the optimism of a poor Brahmin in the story of the Magic Pot of Rice. The story of Who Will Die First talks about the common people's extraordinary hope for a more just world. 

Bangla folktales are often based on unusual characters - unhappy ducks, poor crows, chatty Tuntuni birds, foolish tigers, animals and birds that express themselves like human beings. It is evidence of the imagination and creativity of village folk. The story of the poor crow that jumped into the fire in his effort of making the sparrow as his friend criticizes existing class differences in society. The tale of two asses shares the wisdom: Be happy with what you have. These tales are "true" not because they actually happened but because there is often "truth" or wisdom embedded in them. 

Bangla folktales reveal the commonality of human experiences around the world. That's why we find the story of a two-ton wrestler, in a slight different form, in the folktales of Russia. Gypsies in the Czech Republic tell the same stories of Three Travellers and Mirror. The stories of Aesop and Panchatantra have much in common in their content. For ages, travellers from distant lands visited this region and Bangali travellers roamed around the world as well. A traveller who happened to hear a story during his journey would later relate to his own people, embellishing it or adding to it little details to suit the change of place and context. Thus the Bangla folktales, which have become a part of the world literature, represent the richness of the Bangali mind. 

Folktales are very honest in the sense that they attack the fault and the faulty to unmask moral distortion. It destructs in order to reconstruct. Among the many fanciful subjects of these folktales, the frolic and jolly tiny bird Toontooni is the famous one. It is generally considered as one of the smallest birds in the region. But the storyteller poses this little creature against the mighty cruel king and blows away the oppressive air with the fresh wind of laughter. Here goes the story of Tuntuni and the Noseless King: 
A Tutuni bird took a gold coin from the king's vast possession of gold which were aired on the palace roof to keep those from being rusty. He stored the coin in his nest and thought he had become as rich as a king. With a happy mind he flew around singing 
"The riches the king has in his chest,
I also have here in my nest."

It made the king very angry and he imprisoned Tutuni and took away the coin. But Tutuni managed to fly off. The King caught the bird again and this time he swallowed the bird with boiling water. He told a soldier to be ready with a sharp sword so that he could kill Tuni if he tried to fly away. The bird came out through the king's right nostril and flew away. The soldier swung his sword; but unfortunately, instead of killing Tuni, he cut off the king's nose.

Tuntuni flew over the palace and sang this song:
Tata ting tata ting
See the wretched state of the king!
He wanted to eat Tuntuni pie
But ate a frog instead, oh, my!
And then what happened? Ha, ha, hear
Seven queens lost their ears,
To bring my story to a close
I caused the king to lose his nose!
Tata ting tata ting
Noseless king!
Noseless king!

Tuntuni sang this song over and over and then flew away toward another country never to be heard of again. But the song remains to be sung by children for generations. 

These are all about folktales but what about the storytellers? Storytellers live on these stories. They never stop telling stories even when their family members and people despise them or laugh at them for it. 
Here is a tale of a storyteller: 
Being fed up with her husband's story telling habit the wife asked him to pack up all his stories in a bag and throw them away. So the storyteller went to the forest to empty all his stories. After a whole day of waiting when the wife found her husband coming back she ran to greet him and asked whether he had done away with all those silly stories? The story-teller replied with yet another story. 
"I didn't have time to empty my bag, because a very funny thing happened to me when I went into the forest. I met a big tiger who chased me through bushes. But before he could catch me, I jumped on to the branch of a banana tree and climbed up its trunk. The tiger climbed after me, and the higher I climbed, the higher the tiger climbed too. When we were up in the clouds, the banana tree began to shake and, with a crash, the tree fell down. Luckily, the tiger fell into the forest and I fell through the roof of your brother's house. Your brother's wife was cooking some rice cakes, and she gave me some to eat before I came home. You don't believe me? Well, taste one of the rice cakes yourself."

Although she was angry, the story teller's wife could not stop laughing. 
Stories come from the golper bhandar or jhuli (bag of stories) of the tale-teller which describes his or her heart filled with the passion for storytelling. The stream of stories dies of thirst only when stories lose their appeal to the complexities of everyday life. 
Tolstoy's tribute to folktales in his famous essay titled What is Art? Sums up the magic and importance of these delightful stories.
"The artist of the future will understand that to compose a fairy-tale, a little song which will touch, a lullaby or a riddle which will entertain, a jest which will amuse, or to draw a sketch such as will delight dozens of generation or millions of children and adults, is incomparably more important and more fruitful than to compose a novel, or a symphony, or paint a picture, of the kind which diverts some members of the wealthy classes for a short time and is then forever forgotten. The region of this art of the simplest feelings accessible to all is enormous, and it is as yet almost untouched."

The writer is Sr. Editorial Assistant, The Daily Star. Email:

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