Folktales and Printed Translations Across the Indian Subcontinent: The Travelling Tales of Niret Guru

Reference work entry


Folktales from across the Indian subcontinent have various interpretations about the structure of “niti” (conduct) reflected in them. The Sanskrit term niti is also a part of the regular vocabulary of almost all the languages of the Indian subcontinent, including Hindi, Sinhala, Nepali, Bengali, Tamil, and Assamese (amidst others), and can be translated as morality, correct behavioral conduct, or the rules of conduct. The notion of niti is reflected across many genres of folklore, including fables, rhymes, poems or chhara, songs, ballads, myths, and legends. It is mostly expressed through the primary emotions of jest, wit or humor, anxiety, apprehension and fear, hatred and jealousy, and sadness.

A popular storyline in the region and across almost all forms of folklore is that of the “foolish” teacher and his small group of followers. The original stories are centered around a teacher – Gooroo Noodle from the folktales of South India – which was written and published by Italian missionary in Chennai in the mid-eighteenth century. Within a few decades, the popularity of the Tamil book encouraged several translations. It was first translated into English by Benjamin Babington (1915), and, soon after, this led to translations into other regional languages of the region. Thus, it became Niret Gurur Kahini (The Story of Niret Guru) in Bengali and Mahadaenamutta Sinhala Katandara (The Stories of Mahadana Muththa) in Sinhala. Thus, this particular erudite teacher came to be known through his many names across the Indian subcontinent. He is known as Mahadana Muththa in Sri Lanka; Guru Paramartan, Gooroo Noodle, and Guru Simpleton across Southern and Southeastern India; and Niret Guru in and around and beyond Bengal in Eastern India. Having their origin in the folklore of Southern India, the set of stories travelled across the region and moved south and reached the shores of Sri Lanka. The stories also travelled north and moved through southeastern parts of the Indian subcontinent toward Eastern and Northeastern India. This is a story of a simpleton – a foolish teacher – who sets out to find a few students as he feels he has too much of knowledge to share. Thus, he manages to find five ardent and devoted students. The rest of the stories revolve around the many lessons that the Guru teaches these five followers; until one day, because of the foolishness of the students, the Guru dies. Thus, this ends the stories of the Guru and his disciples. These texts helped to create a platform of interaction between the literature of the dialects and many other mother tongues and the printed word of the English language. On the other hand, the initial text in Tamil and the subsequent prints in other regional languages also helped to initiate an important era of translations from the English language. At present, most of these versions are out of print, though the main stories live on through various forms of digital media, including animation shorts. The stories of Gooroo Noodle, Niret Guru, or Mahadana Muththa are still popular across time and media and methods of communication.


Colonial oral traditions Niret Guru Indian subcontinent Continuity Communication 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Symbiosis International UniversityPuneIndia

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