Main story: In a quaint little village of Punakha more than three decades ago, a young girl lived in a traditional house with her parents, grandparents and cousins. At the end of each day, the family would gather around the hearth and listen to stories narrated by their grandparents.
Today, Tshering Zam, 50, can clearly recall the stories that were narrated by her grandfather. The stories were mostly of fairies, demons, and supernatural human beings, stories of stupidity and wit, and of ghost. Most of the stories carried moral lessons.
Those were the days when there were no modern distractions such as the Internet or television so the family would spend evenings telling stories and dancing by the hearth, Tshering Zam said, who has been living in Thimphu for the past three decades with her children and grandchildren.
“I miss the simple life we led those days and how families used to spend time together. Today, not only have the tradition of oral storytelling lost but families are no longer spending meaningful time together,” Tshering Zam said.
In her personal pursuit to preserve the stories that were narrated to her, Tshering Zam makes sure she narrates the folktales to her grandchildren and buys books written about the country’s folktales.
“Today, children are not interested to listen, nor do they understand the stories that were told to us. Maybe because they don’t understand the content or context of the stories anymore. It’s sad to know that these stories are dying away with the old generation like me,” Tshering Zam said.
In a research article titled Dangphu Dingphu: The Origin of the Bhutanese Folktales, Dorji Penjore, a researcher at the Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research, addresses how Bhutan is no more an oral society and how its store of oral tradition is depleting fast due to rapid social transformation and proliferation of mass media and modern communication system.
There is little government or public effort to study, archive, translate, teach and use folktales, the article states.
Bhutanese folktales serve myriad functions for individual, family, community and nation through its multi-layered meanings. Stories may be of trivial events, but of great moral and social consequence, with experiences drawn directly from farmers’ daily life, says the article.
“One of the primary functions of folktales is to teach children yon rten (qualities, but often translated and understood as ‘knowledge’ or education) and rig pa (awareness, mistakenly translated as intelligence or memorisation power) necessary for surviving and thriving as farmers. When the monastic education was available to few children, the oral tradition served the role of today’s universal western-style modern education,” it states.
Our grandmother’s folktales are as meaningful as most school textbooks and classroom lessons mostly repeated enduring values of folktales, which are seldom found in other literary mediums, the publication states. “Demons of the tales stopped children from wandering alone in the forest; a cruel tiger is punished so that they can be kind; an ash of a frog-skin turns into gold overnight to fire their imagination; transformation of a lazy boy into a hard working person is their transformation as well; the spirits of trees and cliffs write human destiny, so that they respect nature; klu afflicts humans with leprosy so that people do not pollute their abodes.”
These stories serve as a medium for inculcating values to the children.
The article concludes with an important message that today children, more than anything, needs to learn Bhutanese values through the folktales to balance the non-Bhutanese values consumed through mass media in schools and home. “At the present rate of change, the folklore reservoir will be empty in the next few years. The current and urgent task is to document this important intangible cultural heritage before they are lost forever.”
Despite the woes, there are a few concerted efforts by private individuals and writers that are trying to revive this tradition of oral storytelling.
To inculcate a passion of reading, writing and listening stories and preserve the tradition of oral storytelling, around 150 students from four dzongkhags attended the storytelling festival ‘Dangphu Dingphu’ held at the Department of Youth and Sports (DYS) hall on October 22. Fifteen schools from Haa, Paro, Punakha and Thimphu attended the festival.
From each school, 10 students were selected to narrate and re-tell some of the old and forgotten folktales and stories. Some were originally written while a few borrowed from local writers and narrated stories that were told to them by their elders. Local storytellers were also invited who narrated stories in Dzongkha, Sharchopkha and Lhotsamkha.
Organiser of the festival, Pema Gyaltshen, a teacher, said the festival’s objective was to bring people that are keen lovers of folk stories, both young and old, and to revive the forgotten art of storytelling.
“We wanted to give a platform and a voice to our local authors and upcoming writers as well. Through this festival, we hope to create a collaboration of younger and older generations that appreciate the art of storytelling,” Pema Gyaltshen, said.
The organisers are now targeting to make it a nationwide event where schools from all the dzongkhags can participate and share their stories.
“We are very happy for the positive response we received during the event where past and present were brought together and students heard many new and old stories,” Pema Gyaltshen said. “The students had many things to say and expressed themselves so well. It shows how such platforms are important for students to participate and have a learning experience.”
During the festival, Sonam Yangchen from Ugyen Academy in Punakha was awarded the best reader while Rada Wangchuk from Changrigphel Lower Secondary School in Thimphu received the best young storyteller award from the lower secondary category. Chador Wangmo from Kabesa Middle Secondary School in Punakha received the best young storyteller award from the middle secondary school category. Phurba Wangmo from Shari Higher Secondary School in Paro received the best young storyteller award from the higher secondary school category.