I am the village bard

Amal Chatterjee
7 min readApr 5, 2017


Source : Google photo

Synopsis : The oral tradition of storytelling among some people is still practiced where no written language is available because it is the only way to pass on the past history to the next generation. But we see now this oral tradition is on the decline due to technological changes and spread of education so the bards with their rich knowledge of their history are also vanishing.

There was a time when people learned their history through the oral tradition of storytelling that was passed on from one generation to the next. It was so because they did not have a written language in which to record the stories. The person who knew all the stories and loved to tell them was the village bard who would gather young people around him under the village tree and fill their curious mind with tales that only he could tell.

There was a time when people lived in isolation and not aware of the outside world because the outside world had not invaded their isolated villages in Africa. That would change in the early part of the 1800 when white missionaries like Dr.Livingstone and many others explored the unknown parts of Africa and discovered a great people rich with their culture, heritage and customs who had never seen a white person.

Sure there were the Arab slave traders who had been in the business since a long time but they considered the native people as savages and good only as a slave to be sold somewhere for a good price. They treated the natives very harshly indeed and were not interested in learning their history and culture because they did not believe that they were capable of great culture and traditions so they learned nothing from them.

The black Africans had great traditions and were once the rulers of legendary kingdoms in what is now known as Zimbabwe where the ancient ruins of their magnificent palaces can still be seen.

The white missionaries who saw the kingdom of Mutesa in what is now Uganda were surprised at the sophistication of the tribes living there who wore finely woven clothes and leather sandals. The palaces and houses were extremely well built and beautiful by a people considered savages and illiterate people steeped in superstition and ignorance.

But they were not ignorant thanks to the village bard who told them the stories of their past glories and achievements because the oral tradition of storytelling developed because they did not have a written language of their own and they lived in isolation from the outside world.

The Native Americans also were great story tellers .The bard was a highly respected old man who would keep the audience enthralled with his stories that he himself heard from the previous generation. They also made a pictorial history of their people on leather that they prized highly because it was often the only source of information on them.

They enriched the pictorial history by adding more stories as they developed. In other cultures that have become extinct now, people left behind fantastic art painted on cave walls to record their histories and stories thousands of years ago.

You can see these arts in caves on rock faces and other places sacred to the Native Australians who recorded their stories in pictorial forms because they did not have a written language and developed the oral story telling traditions to keep their history alive.

The island people who left their South Pacific islands centuries ago in search for a new home landed in Hawaii in their home made dugout canoes and navigated vast distance in the ocean depending only on their wits and the knowledge of celestial navigation that the white missionaries found hard to believe.

But they too had the oral tradition of storytelling that taught the young people how their ancestors came from far away islands just following the stars for direction to reach Hawaii.

So in all societies the oral tradition of storytelling developed because it was the only way they could preserve their glorious history that they passed on to the next generation.

The Mayas, the Incas and the Aztecs had their story tellers as well but they also relied on carving their stories on stone in hieroglyphs that some anthropologists have started to decipher to learn about their very rich culture and history sometimes in gory details but it was recorded.

The Romans and the Greeks were quite sophisticated in the use of their languages long ago and also wrote their stories in stones for posterity in the form of statuary etc. but remember that the vast majority of the population did not know how to read and write at that time so they listened to the bard to know the history.

The education of the masses in Europe and other parts of the world did not start until the moving types were invented making printing on paper easy and therefore mass produced to educate the masses but that happened only in the 1800s . Before that people were just as illiterate as the Africans so the oral story telling bards were found in Europe as well.

The Egyptians kept the education to the elites just like in India the Brahmins monopolized the scriptures so the rest of the population was deliberately kept illiterate. They understood that the education and literacy among the common people made some of them trouble makers.

The same thing happened in China where only the elites could learn the Chinese alphabets and were employed in the palaces as scribes to record their stories and history but the common people were kept out of it.

Then came the education of the masses through public schools and mandatory learning process that slowly replaced the village bards because now anyone who wanted could learn the alphabets and read.

The Khalifa of Baghdad Haroun Al Rashid so prized the learned people that he gave them lavish gifts in gold and silk and safe passage written on parchment with his signature and royal seal so that they could never be molested by bandits anywhere. In those days the books were hand written and often copied meticulously from Greek, Latin and Egyptian languages and then translated into Arabic and vice versa. Such transcriptions were highly prized and graced the shelves of the libraries of Alexandria and Royal courts in the Middle East.

In India where the written language Sanskrit developed thousands of years ago long before the rest of the world had its scriptures written in it to be studied exclusively by the Brahmins and used palm leaves to write on.

With all their sophistication and ingenuity, they did not know how to make paper until the Egyptians showed the way so used the palm leaves that become very brittle after some time and perish. I have seen thousands of such palm leaf documents in South Indian temples and palaces where they are kept in poor conditions that make them deteriorate.

So I come back to the tradition of village story tellers called the bards who still continue this tradition in some parts of the world where the mass education has not taken root but I suspect their days are numbered.

The European educators played a very important role in bringing the education to the common people in Vietnam when they introduced Latin alphabet to write their language thus making it easier for anyone to learn Vietnamese. The Chinese characters they had previously used was difficult to learn .It was the same in Japan where the English or Latin alphabets are now used to write Japanese that even the non-Japanese find easy to follow and learn.

But in many parts of the world, the languages remain oral and not written so the missionaries are hard at work to develop a written language for the people so that they can read the Bible in their own languages. Their motive is purely religious as they try to convert the heathens to Christianity but perhaps the written language can bring in changes that are beneficial to the tribes in Amazon or in the Borneo where they have 50 words for treachery and not a single word for loyalty or honesty.

In India we used to hear the stories of Alha Udal who were two kids who were so brave that they gave their life to protect their loved ones. The bards sang their stories for generations but now the times have changed. Now kids do not know the stories unless it is in their school books. We used to remember the lines of the songs sung in the honor of the Queen of Jhansi who died fighting the British but now the kids do not know it.

The village bards used to sing to children such songs and tell the story of Alha- Udal or Queen of Jhansi but sadly the bards are disappearing everywhere.

Now the trend is mass literacy so the governments build new schools in villages and towns, provide the students free meals, free bicycles and free books so that they have no reason not to attend the schools. Girls go to schools in large numbers now and become college graduates and get good jobs. If you go to Haiti which is a very poor country, you will see hundreds of children in beautiful school uniforms going to schools.

But the mass education comes at a price. In countries where despotic rulers prevail, they tell the writers what to write in the school books and what to omit. This has always been so and I am afraid it will continue in the future.

The bards depended on memory only so they told the stories as they had memorized without any changes or additions but now the history is written by people who want to suppress the truth and teach only what is favorable to them.

Source : Google photo

So it is a great loss to see the village bards disappear. It is one thing to read something in a book and quite another to hear from a bard under the baobab tree the stories about the past glories and great events.

When I was in Mali in West Africa, I used to sit and enjoy the village camp fires until the wee hours of the morning and watch the bards dance and sing their stories playing their one string guitars entertaining everyone.

Alas the baobabs will live a thousand more years but not the bards.