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  • Contemporary Children's Literature in India
  • Kamal Sheoran (bio)

India is a country of many contradictions. Contemporary children's literature is one of them. It is the unpalatable truth that in a country where thousands of children are doomed to illiteracy, the urgent need is to provide textbooks and other basic needs for rudimentary education. At this point, to speak of children's literature as a specialized field is far-fetched and fanciful. This fact is accompanied by an unusual phenomenon. India has the greatest living oral narrative tradition in the world. It fulfils and feeds the needs of every young and growing child in that he gets his complete "story" quota orally. Thus if children's literature exists at all as a separate entity on the accepted scale of written literature, it exists in spite of rather than because of prevailing conditions. And in this context children's literature in India remains perhaps the greatest paradox of all.

Because of its nature, children's literature in India cannot be put into a neat compact section, nicely labeled, sealed, and stamped. The subject remains as vast and varied as the subcontinent itself—and as old. It becomes difficult to corral it under one heading. Applying any single code or criterion of judgment is equally impossible. The only way such an elastic and sprawling literature can be dealt with is to divide it into levels, taking each level individually and on its own merit.

On one level we have the traditional children's literature, which, for the most part, is oral narrative. It is a living literature that spills into various forms of the spoken and written word. On the other hand is the "modern," printed children's literature dealing with present-day styles and subjects. It is a more didactic form, less creative and still slow in development, irrespective of language.

On another level there is the language. Literature for children in English forms a separate section and remains quite different both in form and content from its counterparts, Hindi and the regional languages. English, which is the medium of instruction in almost every major city in India, caters to the more affluent section of society. Children's literature in English displays marked "Western" characteristics in style, subject, and treatment. Hindi and other regional languages are more insular, more "relevant" in content. The regional languages have access even to remote corners of the country and, although different from each other in treatment, nevertheless draw their themes from traditional folklore. [End Page 127]

Indian folklore is rich and imaginative and remains the most interesting source for children's literature. Included here are the Panchatantra, written in Sanskrit in 200 B.C., the Jatakas, the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata epics, as well as a large number of ancient Indian Sanskrit classics. Like the Norwegian collection of folklore, the Norske Folkeeventyr, Indian mythology is not specifically for children but it is most popular with children.

The Panchatantra tales in the oral narrative form are believed to have found their way into traditional folklore of almost every country in the world. Animal fables from this source are predominant and remain as always society's traditional vehicle of social and moral instruction. Tales of animal wisdom, cunning, and foolishness, in which conventional animal characteristics are ignored, are peculiar to India. Thus it is not at all unusual to find a clever quail, an intelligent crow, a smart jackal, or a stupid tiger; the owl is regarded as an ill omen, but not the raven; the peacock, far from being vain, is said to weep because he has such ugly feet, and the snake is not considered dangerous and vile but a protector of the innocent. These fables are retold in many languages and are universal to the country's multilingual literature.

Indian folklore, much of which has yet to be printed, remains a curious mixture of tradition and pure fantasy. Stories of ogres, ghosts, restless spirits, and other such representatives of the underworld as Yama the God of Death, and holy sages, "rishis," and "munis" who could curse a whole kingdom to ashes or bring alive the dead with a mantra, are chronicles...


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pp. 127-137
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