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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.