The first time my children heard the basic seven notes of Indian classical music was over a Karadi Tales tape in my car in Dallas. As the Mom-mobile blasted to play-dates and gym classes, the sound-track was:
53“Sa sing the sunflowers
Re ring out the red roses
Ga giggle the gulmohurs
Ma murmur the marigolds
Pa pop the pretty poppies
Da dance the dahlias
Ni nod the neem flowers
Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa”
Sometimes, bedtime story telling was delegated to a Karadi Tales tape, with Saeed Jaffrey’s singular voice telling the story of “The Foolish Crow,” Kauwwa, who was won over by the flattery of Lomdhri, the wily jackal.“Hungry was he, and some roti he saw, being cooked by a granny, on a sunny verandah.”
Yes, Karadi, the anthropomorphic bear, had to compete for my children’s hearts and minds with a purple dinosaur called Barney and an aardvark called Arthur, but there was no doubt which fictional character was Mom’s favorite. Karadi the bear was from the home team, and his stories powerfully evoked the land that lay at the end of a long plane journey. Visitors from India were invariably asked to bring some of these books with them.

So it was with a lift in my heart that I heard that Karadi Tales was now available in the United States. I browsed through “The  Story and the Song,” an adapted Tamil folktale titled published by Karadi Tales. The story recounts how Parvathi, so busy with her new domestic responsibilities, forgets to share the story and the song that the wise old Thayi had shared with her. Written by Manasi Subramaniam and illustrated with loving, painstaking detail by Ayswarya Sankaranarayanan, this book takes you instantaneously into grandma’s village home. As I turned the pages, I was drawn into the evocative atmosphere of bygone life in a small village. The pages are strewn with familiar household items: brass oil lamps, idli molds, earthenware pots, mortar and pestle, kerosene lamps, the baby Krishna painting in a Tanjore style, and yes, that old relic of a bygone era, a newspaper.

I interpreted the importance of sharing the story and the song, as an imperative for Parvathi to retain her pre-marriage identity. After her marriage to Kamban, Parvathi moves to his small house by the riverside, and in page after page, we see her engaged in domestic tasks. She is seen shining the peacock-shaped brass lamp, helping with Kamban’s accounts, writing letters, teaching the village children, and roasting coriander and chilies. She is surely an economic asset to her husband, but the story and the song in her are languishing. Thayi’s request is for Parvathi to retain some of her own identity, and to take time to nourish her creativity. “A woman’s work is never done,” the saying goes, and this tale comes with a message that regardless of the demands on this young married woman, she must strive mightily to not allow any part of herself to die.

This same sentiment can be applied to a diasporic culture, carefully maintained and nourished to thrive. Looking through these brightly illustrated books reminded me of a conversation I had with film maker Mira Nair earlier last year. “The mantra of my work and my life is: if we don’t tell our stories, no one else will.” (Mistress of Emotions, India Currents, April 2013.)

Research has repeatedly shown that audiences prefer local stories from their own culture, even if these are lower in production values than global products. With Karadi Tales books, no such tradeoff is required. Beautifully written and illustrated, they represent the best of Indian culture. Frequently, Karadi Tales stories are drawn from the Panchatantra and Jataka tales or the epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

So, much like Thayi calls upon Parvathi to preserve the traditional arts of literature and music, Karadi the bear reminds us that the spirit is refreshed by a story or a song. Many of us have fond childhood memories of bedtime stories from a grandmother, vivid in a way that only childhood memories can be. With books like the ones available on Karadi Tales, it is more likely that another generation of children will have fond memories that are closer to grandma’s home.

Geetika Pathania Jain lives in the bay area. She is a regular contributor to India Currents.

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