Saturday, January 20, 2007

Of birdtalk and contraception

I went to The Bombay Store recently, and bought statues of two tiny metal birds, in traditional Dhokra style. The birds are that famous pair from folklore, the tota and the myna - the parrot and the starling. The parrot is male, the myna female.

Dhokra is an Indian aboriginal/tribal art form from eastern and northern India. The word Dhokra itself means "oldest" - and refers to the lost-wax method of making amazingly aesthetic stuff with nothing but clay, beeswax and metal scrap to work with.

Not only Dhokra artists, but several other Indian handicrafts depict the tota-myna pair (for example, it is a popular motif on Maharashtra's famous Paithani sarees). And in an interesting modern variation - the Indian goverment uses the tota-myna as their brand ambassadors in a birth control campaign in northern India.

Called Aao Baaten Karein - Come Let's Talk, this campaign encourages discussion on family planning and contraception, through dialogue between the tota and the myna.

In all of Northern India, the tota and myna are recognized as secular symbols representing the male and female form. They are known for their talkative nature. They are considered expert story-tellers, and their stories typically include opposing points of view, banter, humor, riddles, and poetry.

Perhaps the original source of this widespread folk symbolism is the Suka Saptati, the "Seventy Tales of the Parrot" - a clever Sanskrit book written in the 9th Century (or earlier perhaps) about the affairs of men and women. The Suka-Saptati was translated into Persian - the Tuti-Namah - and was very popular in the Mughal courts.

The Suka Saptati goes thus:
Once upon a time, there was a merchant who went on a long journey, leaving his beloved wife. He asked his trusted birds, a mynah and a parrot, to keep her entertained while he was away. The wife however, being smitten by another man, arranged a secret tryst through a go-between. The mynah pleaded with the wife to change her mind, offering advice on righteousness. The angry wife tried to wring the myna's neck, but the bird escaped. It was then the parrot's turn. The parrot agreed to let her go, provided she listened to just one story. The parrot then began narrating - and the story was so fascinating, that the wife was too late for her tryst with her lover. Every night, for seventy nights, the parrot told a story - and every night, the wife missed meeting her lover. On the seventy first day, the husband returned, the parrot told him all that had transpired, and the husband was grateful to the clever bird for saving the family honour, so to speak.

And in case you're wondering what happened to the wife, well, the wife repented and was forgiven. I presume the husband didn't go on long trips again!


Reshma Anand said...

interesting use of folk symbolism in public awareness campaigns

Anonymous said...

Hi Deepa i found this quite metaphorical,to me the moral of the story is that the wife just needed to be engaged mentaly,the parrot provided something that the husband lacked,but it as a happy ending and i like that

DNA Ayurveda said...

aybowhan Deepa, Greeting from a Shri Lankan currently "passing thru" the UK. i feel that your blog is a wonderful piece of writing and information. with Love&Light, d.n.a.