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Sunday, 29 January 2012





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Bifocal view of Sri Lankan folk tales

Folk tales occupy a rich, intriguing and entertaining realm of global sub-culture. There is hardly any country, region or community, that does not possess its own peculiar oeuvre of these multi-hued yarns emanating from mass imagination.

On a few, rare occasions, these "floating" tales are anthologised in sophisticated works. Pancha tantra, Katha Sarith Sagara (Ocean of Stories) by Somadeva and Arabian Nights, represent some globally-renowned instances of such story-collections.

We in Sri Lanka, have inherited a scintillating legacy of sumptuous folk tales, deserving a high niche at global level. But, my considered view of the matter is, we have not adequately celebrated on unparalleled folk-tale wealth.


In such a lethargic context, R. S. Karunaratne's collection titled Folk Tales of Sri Lanka, is a much needed nudge, to jolt the Sri Lankans awake into an awareness of a vast treasure they have so pathetically neglected.

In his current work, R. S. takes a bilingual look at fifty selected folk tales, that have commanded a perennial mass appeal in Sri Lanka. The English version of the folk tales, will invariably generate a sense of fresh discovery, in those, who, for one reason or another, have been outside the pale of Sri Lanka's indigenous culture. They will be surprised no end, that the Sri Lankans displayed such a sophisticated state of humour at folk level.

Those who read the Sinhala version, will renew their memory of the fun-escapades of Sri Lanka's jesting heroes.


In his collection, R. S. focuses his attention primarily on two characters, who could in a way, be described as the uncrowned kings in the kingdom of Sri Lanka's folk humour. Those two fun-kings are the Sri Lankan mass-idols Andare and Mahadenamutta.

To my mind, the mass adoration of Andare, was determined by two popular sentiments. Initially he was the privileged commoner, who could prick the bubble of inordinate pride, pomp and glory of those at Court, including the King. Secondly, his fun and mischief are down to earth and tally completely with folk frequency.

But, who is this Andare? In his 21st story, R.S. has Andare informing the King, that he is keen to breathe his last in his native village Dikwella.

This establishes that, though he served the Royal Court in Kandy, Andare was a native of the deep south.

Andare is a residual presence of the Vidushaka's (Court Jesters) who occupied a prestigious position in the state hierarchy of ancient Indian rulers. The Vidushaka was the only person in the kingdom who could take liberties with an august monarch, with impunity. In most instances, the Vidushaka was a learned Brahamin, who could jest at the follies and foibles of kings. This office

had a wholesome aura to it. It was the traditionally endowed duty of the Vidushaka to remind the ruler constantly, of his earthy, human stature, in spite of the divinity, kings are said to possess.

The Vidushaka's barbs enabled the king to think in the human scale and dispense justice to the subject humanely. Viewed in this light Vidushaka's (Court Jester's) rule was therapeutic.

Childhood episode

R.S. Karunaratne's Andare tales, begin with a childhood episode, establishing beyond doubt that Andare's jesting was in-born. R.S. narrates the Andare tales, with a marked relish enabling the reader too, to imbibe the spirit of the story.

The simple and clean style R.S. amend opts in his writings in the work, brings out the gramatic core of the stories, with a telling effect. The way R.S. tells the story appeals equally to the young and to the adult.

R.S. ends his Andare section, with the passing away of the court Jester. The poem he recites, while he is in the throes of death, is about the vicissitudes of life. Back then, he lived in the lap of luxury. And now, as inexplicable Kamma would have it, he has to breathe his last at the foot of a 'Weera' tree.

While lying, Andare passes on this didactic observation. It is said, that he died with his legs and hands spread out. Rigour mortise had set in since his posture could not be altered, the king ordered a coffin to be made to fit in Andare's unorthodox death posture. The king had said, that even in death, Andare makes us laugh.

In the ensuing part of his work, R.S. emphasizes the activities of not one specific individual, but those of a leader and his disciples. This leading "Guru" is a favourite personality in the realm of Sri Lankan folk-tales. He is Mahadenamutta (The great know-all).


When you read his funny adventures, as R.S. recounts them, you cannot help, but admire the mass imagination that brought Mahadenamutta into being. Folk inventiveness has monumented in Mahadenamutta, a character that caricatures the pompous obduracy of the non-pragmatic men of learning.

What a totally uneducated villager could negotiate with great ease, becomes a knotty problem and at times, even a tragic crisis, when Mahadenamutta sets out to solve it, with the assistance of his equally dense disciples. He always depends on the "book" and gets into complex snarls.

R.S. adds yet another folk personality to his collection - King Kekille - notorious for his decisions that are totally bereft of even a vestige of reason.

R.S. Karunaratne's Folk Tales of Sri Lanka should find a place in all homes. Reading and being overwhelmed by the brand of humour they exude, will help people to recognise their own follies. Nazurddin from the Middle East has acquired a globe-girdling adoration for his whimsical response to world's challenges. Our own Andare and Mahadenamutta possess all the potentialities to achieve such worldwide acceptance.

Probably R.S. could help them here.

The text is exhilaratingly adorned by the witty sketches of Jagath K.G. Punchihewa inspired by Andare, Mahadenamutta and above all by writer R.S. Karunaratne.



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