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Remembering The Art Of Khasi Storytelling

Remembering The Art Of Khasi Storytelling

Genuica Majaw in her essay remembers how different stories narrated by her grandmother served as powerful tools for preserving the rich tradition and legacy of her community. Her writing reminds us to nourish your past and love it all the more in these times.

When I was a bit younger, the only form of entertainment we were privileged enough to have were outdoor games and storytelling. We played a lot during the day and after dinner we would gather around the hearth to hear grandma narrating legends and folktales to us. As much as I wished for the day to never end, I also longed for the warm evening by my grandmother’s side.

While narrating those stories to us, grandmother made sure to make it very interesting for us so that we would not fall asleep halfway through. As far as I recalled she never told the same story twice and never would she repeat the same plot. Her voice calm and soothing, yet the tone sometimes changed according to the emotions that she was trying to portray through the characters.

khasi grandma

When I was a bit older I asked my grandma if storytelling was her hobby, the answer she gave came as a shock to me.

It was not because she enjoyed it but because it was significant to uphold our culture, she told me those stories are mostly didactic in nature which perhaps I would later grow to understand them. She wanted us to unravel the meanings that would later unfold through these narratives as we grow up.

Grandma’s storytelling sparked an unending interest in me, so later when I joined the university I decided to take up Folkloristics.

On taking up folklore studies, I came to know that we the Khasi have a vast oral tradition that started from story-telling, to rites and rituals and the entire belief system itself was based on oral traditions.

Back then, the storyteller would always be an elder of the family who would gather the youngsters around the hearth (which is usually at the centre of the hut) and sang tales with the accompaniment of a string instrument called Ka Duitara (a traditional four-stringed instrument resembling a guitar). All this was somehow lost in time within the hectic and busy lives of people.

Making money somehow became more important than that one hour of family time around the hearth next to the glowing embers.

Some of the younger generations, folklorists included, have captured moments of story-telling by videotaping elders narrating legends and tales in order to preserve the moribund art. These have somehow helped in educating the younger and technologized generation, it however did nothing to stir the passion and the awaited sentiments that the older generations have towards a warm evening round the glowing hearth.

The Hearth
The Hearth | Photo courtesy: Banis Kharshiing

Our forefathers were wise enough to make sure some of these tales are incorruptible by attaching them to a geographical location. Many villages and tourist spots in Meghalaya earned their names through tales and legends attached to them. The most famous one are legends attached to Ka Noh Ka Likai Waterfall and the Dainthlen Waterfall in Cherrapunjee.

While passing through such areas we tend to recall tales told to us by our parents or grandparents when they have enough spare time or when they wanted to put an end to our curiousity over the name of a certain place.

For example, on visiting Ka Noh Ka Likai Falls we are reminded of the tale of a woman named Likai who jumped off the waterfall. Ka Likai had a daughter but her husband passed away early when the child was young so Likai remarried. The child’s step-father out of jealousy towards the child who received his wife’s unconditional love, one day murdered the child and cooked her. Later when Likai came home she ate the dinner her husband made with the thought that her child might be in the neighbour’s house and later when she took the basket to eat areca nuts and betel leaf she found her child’s fingers in it. This drove her insane that she hunted her husband down through the village but somehow ended up committing suicide by jumping into the waterfall.

The Dainthlen falls also has a tale about the serpentine demon that people of yore killed but because of the error made by one woman the gigantic serpent lives on and was worshipped by some people. The demon would bestow the worshipper with enormous wealth if he gets a human head.

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Tales such as these tend to be revived again and again as long as the area is not eroded by the waves of time and nature. These tales told around the hearth do not only trigger our senses but they are also richly endorsed with didacticism.

From the tale of Ka Noh Ka Likai one can learn that a step-parent can never love another child like one’s own. Similarly other tales and legends also have strong moral lessons that one can only learn when comparing these tales to the world around them.

The main purpose of storytelling is to impart valuable lessons and morals in the younger generation. However, with the onslaught of technology, storytelling has become a dying art.

Youths are busy following the new trends of netizens and the older generation are trying hard to make ends meet in a competitive world.

The golden cord that bound the family together after dinner has discontinued or chopped off and storyrtelling to me has become a distant memory. The legends and folktales that were meant to be carried on and maybe mutate according through time through oral traditions became immortalised in the pages of an old book which was read in school.

I tried reading those tales that grandma told us but it never felt quite the same. The emotions weren’t heavy. The soul was not moved and the didacticism of the tale was lost between the erased texts of a book.

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