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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Going Strong

by Shikha Das Shankar

It is in our nature to hold on to traditions that are valuable to our family, and if the tradition is simple, engaging and has been integral to human evolution, like storytelling, it is worth holding on to.

For decades, a wieldy little blunt knife is a cherished belonging of little children in a Yupik-speaking Eskimo village of Alaska. Their sense of ownership and responsibility is immense for this handmade toy given to them by elders in the family. Carved out of wood or bone, a yaaruin, or a story knife, is used to draw pictures on snowy banks or ground while simultaneously telling a story. Squatted on the ground in a circle, children draw and tell stories for hours, learning language skills, valuable lessons like good behavior and entertaining each other. The tradition continues even today, the authentic wooden or bone yaaruin replaced with the common butter knife oftentimes.

Across the Pacific, all the way to China, a stage with a thin white cloth screen, uncustomary to other forms of puppetry around the world, has been set to entertain guests of all ages. While the concept is similar to string doll puppetry tradition of India, the detailed artwork that goes into creating shadow puppets is unlike any other. The puppeteers have worked meticulously to make delicate paper-like cutouts of characters, joined together with thread, so they can be dangled freely across the white screen to create moving shadows. The dexterity of the puppet operator is worth mentioning as he is skilled to play up to five puppets at a time, each of which has three strings attached to it. Coordination, music and a compelling story, usually derived from a Chinese folklore, come together to create the magic of a 2000-year-old ancient Chinese Shadow Puppet tradition for its audience even today. At the heart of this tradition is a desire to tell a story right out of the pages of Chinese history and continue this storytelling art for generations to come. 

Storytelling was planted in our genes some 40000 years ago when our ancestors, the Neanderthals, told their story of hunting, food, and survival by drawing on the recesses of deep dark caves. They only needed a flickering fire and chiseled rock to do so.  Humans evolved and so did forms of storytelling. Oral narratives became critical to the evolution of human language, culture and traditions. Songs and sonnets or chants and epic poetry became a way of life.  Drawings and oral traditions turned into scripts, scripts into books, and what was previously only word of mouth turned into written records. The advent of technology, media and eventually the Internet facilitated audio, visual and written narratives unprecedentedly. Even in this digital age, traditional forms of storytelling stay close to our heart and continue to be passed down as a tradition. 

What’s your family storytelling tradition? Is rainy day a finger puppet kind-of-a-day with your kids? Maybe a little rush of adrenaline on a dark night, over campfire and toasted marshmallows, is what brings out the storyteller in you? We would love to hear your family’s unique, special or funny story telling tradition in the comments below!

Shikha is a freelance writer based out of a picturesque, hilly, Seattle suburb. Her husband and two children share her love for hiking, traveling and good food.

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