Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Research behind the scenes: Sibling tales from India

I like to show my work, so here is another behind-the-scene post about a fun project.
I was invited by the Hopp Ferenc Museum of Asian Art to tell stories at their Raksha Bandhan Siblings Day event. It sounded like an exciting theme, and I do love museum gigs, so I decided to bring a whole new bouquet of stories. Building the program was an adventure.

Here is what I had to go on: I needed stories from INDIA, about SIBLINGS. Of course, the usual criteria still applied:
1. I only tell stories that I enjoy and am excited about
2. I needed to prepare stories for various age groups, since at a family event you never know who is going to show up
3. I had to fill 30 minutes with stories, multiplied by possible age groups that meant I needed to prepare 6-8 stories
4. I have a habit of bringing at least one new story to every gig, just to keep my repertoire fresh
5. And, of course, I wanted to focus on stories where siblings love and help each other, or at least are not binary good/evil and murderous

I started building the program by looking at my existing repertoire. I do have some tales from India (I love folktales from South Asia), so I ran through my index cards, and fished out some that fit the sibling theme. I found three, but two went into the "maybe" pile, because one only really featured one of the siblings, and the other I needed permission for. I concluded that I will need a lot more than that, therefore I began my usual drill of finding new folktales for a theme.

Step One: Buy a lottery ticket
Sometimes it is easier to find stories than one would think, especially if someone else has already done the legwork. So I put folktales from India about siblings into Google Books, and waited for a lucky find. While the search did not bring up a full collection, it did show me a book about sibling relations in cultures in India, as well as a folktale collection that had a "brothers and sisters" chapter. Both had Preview options, so I flipped through them, and filed some possible stories away for later research.

Step Two: Open, Sesame
Then came the key phrase search in Google Books. I typed in phrases that might lead to a folktale text I wanted: "loved his sister", "helped her brother", "helps her brother", "rescues her sister", etc. All in all four he/she combinations, past and present tenses, etc. (because "" tells Google to look for the exact phrase only). I opened all likely results in new tabs.

Step Three: Sifting for gold
One by one, I looked at the Google Books results. Did the book have Preview? If not, was it available in a digital format? I use JSTOR, HathiTrust, Archive.org, Gutenberg, Sacred Texts,and occasionally Kindle for these, and pray to get lucky, since here in Hungary I am cut off from free Inter-Library Loan (which is, frankly, painful). Wherever I could get a glimpse of parts of a story, I tried to guess if it would be worth investigating further; many common tale types are recognizable from a paragraph. I threw out tales where siblings killed or tortured each other - and also the ones where they... um, were a little too close.

Step Four: Back to the source
Because the book search only yielded limited results, it was time to get serious: Go and hit up the Thompson Motif Index. Luckily, it has a searchable version, where I could type in "brother" and "sister", and search for India in the results. Sisters got 301 hits, brothers got 346, but not all from India. I jotted down the numbers that sounded promising (H1151.18: Husband rescues wife's sister from box in an elephant's ear).

Step Five: Sources of sources
The Motif Index itself has the nasty habit of referencing other motif indexes. In the case of India, the source noted is usually the Thompson-Balys Indian Motif Index, which I was lucky enough to acquire while I was studying in the US. So, with the numbers I noted down, I turned to this other book, and looked up the motifs again, searching for the texts they cited. Once again I did the "is there a digital version?" rounds on the Internet. Wherever I got lucky, I finally had the chance to read the story itself, and see if I liked it.

[At this point, I have been researching for 6-7 hours, too bad they don't pay me by the hour for gigs]

Step Six: Story selection
Now that I havecombed through forty or fifty folktales, it was time to pick the ones that I liked best, and wanted to include in the program. There were some that I loved at first sight, some that were new and exciting versions of tale types I love (such as the Gold-spitting Prince), and some I selected because I loved the message of the story (portraying humans and animals as brothers). I even picked one that was probably too violent for kids, but I was intrigued by the dedicated friendship of two half-brothers, one human and one half-rakshasa, who killed monsters together. Slowly, the new story collection began to take shape. I felt like a pearl diver coming up from the deep with magical treasures.

Step Seven: Bringing the tales to life
Of course, this was only the beginning. In order to make a performance good, I had to learn, digest, embody, and color the stories for live telling. I researched all the cultural elements, strange words, flora and fauna in each tale, and read up on the regions they originated from. I was happy to notice that, without paying attention, I managed to pick tales from various different parts of India, showing wonderful cultural diversity. The rest was the fun part: Practice the stories, taste them, love them... and tell them.

Step Eight: The performance
As it usually happens, I prepared way more stories than I needed. In the end, I had time to tell two of them at the event, to a lovely, attentive audience of mostly adults and older children. It was raining that day, which is probably why we didn't get a lot of the smaller kids at the museum, but the storytelling worked out wonderfully. I told about a brother and a sister who set out to find Soma, a washerwoman with magical powers, to help break a curse on the girl, and crossed seven seas together, and then I told about two brothers, a human and a tiger, running a race to see who gets to live in cities. In this latter one, the strength and speed of the tiger was balanced out by the human's cleverness, and a little help for their third brother, who was a spirit. Both tales were fun to tell, and the audiences seemed to enjoy them.

All in a good day's work.

One of the tales had baby eagles


  1. Hi Csenge, what a wild and eye-opening adventure! You and I traveled all over India collecting not only stories but "flora and fauna." Thanks for taking me along - if only in my imagination. I continue to watch you grow thru the stages of becoming a storyteller. I am happy to call myself one of your stepping stones along your path.

  2. It is nice to know the process of selection and research you do for storytelling. I am happy that the event was successful..which is your favorite "Raksha Bandhan" story?

    1. Soma the washerwoman, I really loved that one. Also loved the one about the half-brothers, it's called Blue Lotus and Red Lotus.

    2. The titles sound interesting. I will look for both of them for sure.
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