The Significance Of Nonsense In Indian Culture

India does have its own legacy of nonsense literature. The origins of nonsense can be traced back to the great mystical texts of India, such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the medieval poet-saints like Kabir and Sant Namdev. Furthermore, the folk tradition had a strong influence on the formation of Indian nonsense in its oral forms. India abounds in nonsense-like folk material: lullabies, nursery rhymes, folk drama, folk tale, never-ending stories, chain verses, and so on, some being for children, some for grown-ups, others for both. Still, as a literary form, nonsense is not very popular beyond the English-influenced areas of India, namely West Bengal, Orissa, and the Maharashtra. Let us add after Heyman xxxiv) that, since the mid-nineteenth century, and perhaps even earlier English literary nonsense has found its way into these regions, especially West Bengal, the language of which has, according to Sampurna Chatterji [Sukumar Ray’s brilliant translator from Bengali into English.], a riotous caboodle of effects that can be used to create a vivid nonsense literature. Sukumar Ray and Rabindranath Tagore [Heyman states that Tagore was the first to recognize that children’s chhoda represented a separate rasa — the tenth one (in Bengali the word means “taste,” “essence” of something, an emotional effect art has on the audience). He adds that in his preface to a collection of nonsense, _Abol Tabol_ (1923), Sukumar Ray names this rasa kheyaal rasa, “the spirit of whimsy” (xl-xli). It is worth noting that kheyaal also means “play.”], the main representatives of the genre in the Indian context, grew up reading Edward Lear, who incidentally, stayed in India from 1873 to 1874, and Lewis Carroll. As Heyman says, the influence of the English on the Indian nonsense is undeniable” (xxxiv). However, Indian nonsense does have its distinct differences from English nonsense. In his introduction to The Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray, the filmmaker Satyajit Ray, Sukumar’s son, observes that Indian nonsense places its characters much closer to real life than English nonsense, the characters of which are kept to a certain distance from the familiar world. He goes on to list the obsession with exotic food, indigenous fauna and flora, or extended families (as in Tagore’s poem “The Old Woman’s Grandma-in-Law’s Five Sisters”), among other specific themes. As Heyman suggests, Bengali nonsense was born out of the sheer delight of upturning the imposed rules, such as respect for elders or class/caste issues, and mocking the rigidity of folklore and sacred texts in order to create something that helps “live with such apparent opposing dualities, even to enjoy them” (Heyman xxxii).

Bee Formentelli, “Rabindranath Tagore’s Shey as a Playful Encounter Between a Poet and His Granddaughter.” In Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak (ed.), Children’s Literature and Intergenerational Relationships. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021. 95-113. 100-101.

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