The Colombo International Book Fair 2017, where Sri Lankan book lovers throng has a wealth of literature for all tastes and ages. The children, parents, and grandparents, I saw were busily selecting books for the “growing ups”. It is fascinating that that these stalls are full of stories, poems, and drama, in Sinhala, Tamil and [...]

Sunday Times 2

Children’s folk literature we grew with and its development for modern times


The Colombo International Book Fair 2017, where Sri Lankan book lovers throng has a wealth of literature for all tastes and ages. The children, parents, and grandparents, I saw were busily selecting books for the “growing ups”. It is fascinating that that these stalls are full of stories, poems, and drama, in Sinhala, Tamil and English, with translations from other languages, for children. It signifies that our younger generations will be fortunate and well endowed with a richness of values and tastes to make them world beings. I came out with a sense of satisfaction, for future Sri Lanka.

Among these books was the folk literature of Sri Lanka from which our versatile writers based their written-stories and poems and had drawn paintings for young-ones. With them my thoughts journeyed to my childhood when we were also proud inheritors of a vast heritage of folk literature which is developed to suit children of today. Their major aspects could be categorised as poetry, stories and drama. Perhaps the entré to these segments in other cultures was less profound in our generation, compared with today; but we too had a taste of these, folk literature as we developed skills in other languages, especially English later in life.

The folk poems- I nostalgically remember my grandmother reciting or singing the Yasodarawatha poems, seated on an easy chair for her enjoyment and also for us, the children, to hear.

Colombo International Book Fair 2017 held at the BMICH from September 15-24.

‘Wanaye gosin mal yahanaka nindanawada-Komala anagi siripa deka ridenawada’

Age nethiva deviyo mura karanawada-mage eth rajuni ada oba kthenakada’

“Are you sleeping on a flower-decked bed after going to the forest-
Do your beautiful valued holy feet ache -
Do the Gods without being proud watch you sleep.

My revered tusker in life ‘where are you today”(translation mine)

“Kele thibena koi dewath rasawewa-Wane bambaru lesa pirivara ethi wewa,

Awwe thibena res mala aduwewa-Gawwen Gawwa diva maliga ethiwewa”

“May everything that grows in the forest become tasty – May you have followers like the bees in the jungle.- May the heat in the sun become less powerful – May there appear divine abodes, where ever you go for you to rest.” My grandmother sings the whole poem musically, with the emotions of sorrow the poem encapsulates. We memorised these folk poems from our childhood and began to inquire about the background and the meanings of these songs. Automatically, we entered a world of Buddhist literature, which years of learning could teach us.

The nelawili gee, the nursery rhymes sung sent us to sleep, with a story in the poem.

‘Umbe amma kirata giya-Kiri erawa enta giya -
Kiri muttiya gange giya – gangata udin kokku giya’
“Your mother went to collect milk-To draw milk from the cows -

The pot of milk was floated in the river-The swans flew over the river.” Obviously, the swans are a symbolism created, depicting them as born from the milk which flowed down the river. The children fell asleep with pure thoughts of purity of life brought by mother, and the motherly love subsisted, from that tender age.
‘Puthe umbe loku amma-Athe walallak demma-Nethe agaya ehi nimma-Puthe nada doyyimma’

“Son, your maternal aunt-bedecked your hand with a bangle-cannot fathom how valuable it is. So son sleep without crying, fully consoled.”
The emotions of love generated by the lyrics and the thoughts contained in them moulded the young lives. The games they played, like the olinda seed game, has poems,

‘Olinda thiyenne koi koi dese -Olinda thiyenne Bangali dese- Genath sadanne koi koi dese-Genath sadannae-Sinhala dese.’

“Where do you get olinda from- Olinda grows in the Bengal region-Where do they plant the olinda, They are planted in the Sinhala land.”

There was curiosity to find where Bangali desa was. Such inquisitiveness made the young explore more heights.

These were selected only to portray the poetic nuances inculcated in children from their tender ages which subsisted for generations.

Prose: In the area of prose were the Gamarala’s stories, Andare’s humour, Mahadenamuththa’s stories and stories drawn from Jataka stories. Only a few examples are chosen here to show the literary talents and ethics that these stories inculcated in children. The Gamarala’s stories always start with, ‘Once upon a time’, Gamarala represents the agricultural society we belong to and the stories represent the daily life of the innocent villager; for example, the story of Gamarala’s wife hard of hearing who does not hear a person, a traveller, asking the directions to Dompe when the Gama mahage was weaving a mat with reed. She imagines that the person wants to buy a beautiful reed mat she had woven. So she asks her daughter to bring the newly woven mat for him to see. This episode had been composed into a ballad by the late Karunarathna Abeysekara (Siri Aiya), for his Lama Pitiya on Radio Ceylon; this popular Viridu, ends with,’ Umbe ilaw pedura mata epa; Dompeta yana para kiiyapan’ ‘I do not want your blessed mat. Tell me the way to Dompe’. The traveller had got impatient and he retorts, not knowing about the hearing defect of Gama mahage. These were popular stories among children who loved humour during that era.

Andare was the court jester and he kept the royals happy with his humorous deeds. How he along with his son ate a mat-full of sugar drying in the sun in the royal compound saying, “umbe kateth pas mage kateth pas”, is a hilarious episode. Andare asks people in the royal household what is drying in the sun on mats, and they reply that it is sand. Andare knowing what it was, plays a trick on the people who were trying to make a fool of him. He tells his son to come crying that his mother, Andare’s wife passed away. The boy comes to the compound with the mats of sugar, and sobs as he was prompted by Andare. As the saying goes when such a tragedy, occurs, one has to wallow in the dust. Andare does it in style with the son wallowing on the mats of sugar, and eating them, ‘Kapan Puthe, Umbe kateth pas mage kateth pas’.

Then comes Maha dena muththa, an all-knowing one, with his acolytes, who were given funny sounding names, Puwak badilla, Rabboda aiya, Idikatu Pencha, Pol be Muna and Kotu Kithayya. They were names coined to reflect the peculiar physical traits of the characters. How all of them were trying to wade through the river which was overflowing, in the dead of night is a typical yarn, depicting the rudimentary wisdom of these souls. Mahadenamuththa, the wise man tells his acolytes that it is dangerous to cross the river as it has swollen and they should wait until the river goes to sleep, to go across. In order to make certain that the river was sleeping they dip a burning ‘hulu aththa’, a burning torch made out of dried coconut branches used in the village. This torch makes a hissing sound when dipped in water and the group believes that the river is awake. The group of wise men then decide to sleep on bank of the river as the river was awake. These stories based on a rural setting made the children laugh their hearts out. (I only wish that more could be related but due to space constraints, all that is intended is for present day children to get their elders to relate these stories to them as they know them, as it is our folk story heritage.) These characters may have been chosen by the folk story compiler from peculiar village folk who were distinct from others.

The other area of literature were from jataka stories; the elders related these stories like the vessanthara jataka for children to understand the Buddha’s life stories. In fact the village temple had periodic renderings – deshana- of these stories in the village sermon hall, (bana maduwa). The children’s literature was therefore closely interwoven with varied sources of folk culture.

Drama: The village drama too was another source for children to gain knowledge about folk culture. Two popular such modules were Sokari, and Kinduru. Especially during the new-year period the villagers stage these two forms of nadagam in the temple compound. The stories are based on folk stories and jataka stories, sokari is linked to India when a family comes to Sri Lanka for settlement. Kinduru is a jataka story of a species living in the naga loka. They were performed by the village dance troupe who inherited the art from ancestral times. These nadagams have been sophisticated by our great dramatists and children could enjoy them in the villages or cities when they are performed.

We should pay a debt of our gratitude to those national icons starting from the late Professor Sarachchandra who protected these art forms for posterity. Also our authors and writers who have preserved our folk literature for the younger generations, (names are too many; our tribute to them all).

May be they will take our valuable children’s literature to foreign lands through our compatriots living in those outer climes and also further enrich our children’s literature based on our folk arts and arts brought from those lands. Cross fertilisation of our children’s literature will undoubtedly happen through our younger generation of literartists. We wish them all success.

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