Jungle chat: Animals and birds in children’s literature

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India is a country of diversity in almost all respects, but the cultural roots are the same. This applies to the children literature of Indian languages (Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati, Kashmiri, Hindi and other Indian languages) also. It is almost impossible to say who composed folklore and oral tradition and when exactly they came into existence which are origin of all Indian poems for children, but no matter what the language, the Indians share a common culture and heritage, values and beliefs. As per the researchers, there are number of similar poems, songs, stories, etc in every Indian language. And animal and bird characters in children literature have been since time immemorial. Prof (Dr) Divik Ramesh presenting his views on the same.

Children and nature…

Divik RameshThe nature, which includes plants, trees, flowers, mountains, springs, water, sky, sand, animals and birds is not only an inspiring force but also a good company of the men , it is also the best, natural and essential company of children after the mother. I must say that this is true in the literary scenario of India too. Those who believe in dividing the children literature as per age-groups think that up to the age of 7-10 the children are attracted with animals and birds in their literature. One may agree to the fact that as the child grows older, the pattern and themes of verses and rhymes (including other genres) also change- keeping pace with his growing interests. Although in the opinion of some of the Indian children authors, which include prominent ones too, kings and queens, animals, birds, fairies, plants and flowers etc. have no place in contemporary children literature because they have become stale, outdated and irrelevant for today’s children who are living in scientific age yet there are many who dispute the rejection in absolute form . There are many Indian authors who have written a number of beautiful stories, etc. to establish natural love and liking of children towards animals and birds. Devendra Kumar, a prominent fiction writer of Hindi, has written many stories related to love of animals and birds with new approach

In spite of the fact that children love animals and birds so much that they want to look at them; they want to play with them; they want to live with them, there are many Indian parents and adults (particularly of the middle class) who are not in favour of keeping the animals in their homes for various reasons including the one that the animals like cats who eat rats and spoil their things. But many Indian authors have taken the side of children in their writings.

Nature in literature…then and now

The traditional way of using the nature which is generally visible in folktales may not attract the children of this era. It is also true that the Indian literature has been written with different approaches. Lakshminath Bezbaroa (1868–1938) who was a great Assamese personality and pioneer of modern Assamese literature has also written stories for children many of which are related to the animals. Approach of this author seems to be quite spiritual which may look like obsolete in spite of morals like a saying, as you sow so shall you reap therein. Even then it will not be a wise step to deprive the children of the nature altogether. Instead the authors must work on the new treatment. By treatment or approach, I mean a new style with new tools of expression. I agree that the literature which promotes blind beliefs, undemocratic values, feudal outlook, absurdity (unreasonable) and so and so forth are not required for the present child but to throw out the above i.e. animals, birds, insects etc. blindly out of the world of the children treating them merely as subject is also not desirable. Why? Because we must understand that the process of creative writing (poems, stories etc,) for children and adults is almost same. No one writes on the subject but it is the writer’s experience of the subject which inspires the writers to write and the artistic expression thereof matters more. To simplify, we may call that expression a subject too but in real sense the so called subject no more remains in its real physical existence in creative writing. To elaborate this I may say that an animal or a bird or a tree or a season or even king, etc are subjects in their natural world but when they take place in the creative children writing they become something else. A power of imagination, a new treatment or approach , author’s vision , new way of expression, etc transform the ‘subject ‘ to something else which can be named as original creation. Moreover, not only in the case of nature but in the case of other source material also the authors must take care of the fact that whatever they write that should be trustworthy for the children. In fact the ‘original creation must have foundation of reliability and logic for which scientific outlook also contribute. So long element of reliability prevails, any kind of imagination becomes acceptable and to bring reliability along with imagination in the creation is a great challenge which any aware author faces. In the name of science literature one cannot afford absence of creative imagination to favour stereotype monotonous dry informative literature.

Animal and birds rhymes have been very popular in Indian languages which have been very lovable to children for their fun. Nobody can deny that animals and birds have always been a great attraction for the children. Their shapes, their behaviour, there sounds, etc astonish them. They become objects of entertainment for the children. The children like to copy them and also imagine something new about them. One can experience this fact in their drawing books too. The Indian authors understand this interest of the children and try to create such literature which may increase their entertainment and love for the animals, birds, etc as fellow living beings. They have made the animals and birds as participants of the festivals and many other events in their literature. Generally, the Indian authors have realized and expressed the same in their literature that man has been cruel to animals. He is the only animal who has been hunting for pleasure while all the other animals hunt for food.

Ancient Indian literature…

Whenever we talk about animals and birds in Indian children’s literature, we cannot remain without mentioning some of our great world fame classics written in Sanskrit and Pali languages. These are considered as the source of children’s literature of all the Indian languages. These classics are Panchatantra (divided in 5 parts written by Vishnu Sharma more than 2,000 years ago to educate mainly the politics including manipulative powers, importance of human intelligence etc. to 3 idiots or ignorant young princes of a king in six months through stories with animals and birds as characters. There are 87 stories.), Hitopdesh (a short or little changes form of Panchatantra written by Narayan Pandit), Kathasaritsagar (written by a resident of Kashmir, Somdev) in Sanskrit and Jataka (refer to a voluminous body of literature native to India concerning the previous births of the Bodhisattva. These are the stories that tell about the previous lives of the Buddha, in both human and animal form. The future Buddha may appear in them as a king, an outcast, a god, an elephant—but, in whatever form, he exhibits some virtue that the tale thereby inculcates) in Pali. At the same time great epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana, etc are also big source of stories for children and animals and birds have played an important role in them.

Children literature categorized…

If we look at the children’s literature as whole, we will find that it falls under two broad categories . Under first category we may put that literature which was not specially written for children but still has capacity to entertain and educate the children after some editing and rewriting and thus making them relevant for today’s world of children. While, the second category of children’s literature is that written specially for children. In the modern children’s literature , we may locate both the categories. For example there are some stories of leading Hindi fiction writer Premchand which are written for the adults but can be enjoyed by the children equally.

If we look at the history of modern children’s literature (in its real sense) of major languages of India like Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, Malayalam, Oriya, Assamese, etc. we will find that it started at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. In some other languages it came later. For example in Manipuri, a North-East language, the need for children’s literature in printed form began to be felt in the early 1940s to 1950s. After 1947 a number of books on children’s literature were brought out. In the case of major languages one of the reasons of beginning of Children’s literature was the need of preparing the text books for education. The Christian missionary schools were established and due to them new type of education system inspired to write stories in new style. Further, Kavimani Desikavinayagam Pillai and Subramania Bharati tops the list of Tamil modern authors who gave the lead to contemporary poetry for children. Truly speaking, without any prejudice towards the best part of classical and early writings for children, the children’s literature which can be said as the most suitable literature and which is not didactic like the old literature and which includes the literature relating to animals and birds etc. too for the contemporary children, is written in the post independence period of India. It was not wrong if the great Hindi children’s author and editor late Jaiprakash Bharati declared, that era after 1970 should be accepted as golden period of Hindi children’s literature. We may apply the same to the children’s literature of many other Indian languages too. It does not mean that the children should be deprived of the knowledge of classics of children’s literature. Now India has the best type of children’s literature which may compete the best literature of any language of the world.

One may also find such literature in which presence of animals and birds are in form of simile or abuse, or useful finished products, pictures, etc.

On a concluding note…

We may enjoy various forms and styles of existence of animals and birds (and also insects) in the contemporary children’s literature of Indian languages. Sometimes they exist in the form of themselves, sometimes they exist in form of metaphor, allegory, symbol, picture, messenger, toys, mask, etc sometimes they exist in form of person, sometime they exist as themselves but speak in man-language and sometimes they exist totally in new form. It is good that Indian authors keep on experimenting to give such literature a new shape, content, language and approach etc.

(Presented recently at AFCC 2014, Singapore).

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