Some stories stay with you. They live in your imagination and become a part of you. One such story was Goopi Gayne Bagha Bayne, a delightful tale I first heard from my aunt, Prabha Atya.
She would read to me from Marathi storybooks we would buy from the local stationery shop, slim offset printed books with two-colour illustrations. The book-buying was a ritual I looked forward to, we would go to the tiny shop on the busy road opposite my grandfather’s old four-storied Wada. One couldn’t enter the shop but had to stand on the street and ask for whatever one wanted. Dhumne Master’s store was painted blue and he had many jars of sweets and candy, pencils, erasers, notebooks, small diaries, schoolbooks, storybooks, sharpeners and little plastic toys.
We would ask for storybooks, they were called Pari Katha or fairy tales. A bunch of books was laid out on the counter in front of us and we picked out the ones that had illustrations that struck us. Along with those we would get a candy treat, stuck on a stick, wrapped in colorful metallic paper with star and dot patterns. These trips were as strong a memory as the stories we heard. All these wonderful stories stayed in indelible images in my mind playing out plots, sometimes fantastic, sometimes adventurous, sometimes hilarious, sometimes dramatic, but always transporting me to lands of vivid imaginings and dreams.
A bunch of books was laid out on the counter in front of us and we picked out the ones that had illustrations that struck us.
Prabha Atya would read these stories to me at bedtime, while I cuddled up next to her, she would read in her soothing voice a to me and I would drift off to sleep and sometimes she would too, in mid-sentence, leaving mirages hanging in the air and in the mind’s eye to then become imageries and visions that took a life of their own as they continued playing on in my sleep, taking on twists and turns the authors and illustrators had possibly not intended. The stories we shared became ours.
My regular interjections during the course of telling the stories had to be answered and Prabha Atya would add her own interpretations to the story, giving characters complicated backstories sometimes or adding detail the author might have missed, or retelling the same story from another character’s point of view, sometimes going beyond where the story ended to take it to a nicer place.
Among all the books we had read together Goopi Gayne Bagha Bayne stayed firmly etched in my memory. The illustrations in the book were arresting; they were woodcut drawings and had the rich texture of woodblocks. Much later I discovered that this was a story, which was 100 years old and had been retold by many authors from the original Bengali story, and re-illustrated by many artists.
This was no wonder, the story was so compelling, appealing and warm, it immediately hit a chord with all who had come across it. Also, it had been enacted as plays and even made into a live-action feature film by one of India’s greatest filmmakers, Satyajit Ray. I learned that his grandfather, Upendra Kishore Raychowdhury, wrote the story. I wondered if Ray had heard the story from his grandfather, much like I had heard it from my aunt.
Among all the books we had read together Goopi Gayne Bagha Bayne stayed firmly etched in my memory.
Each retelling had added layers to the original story; it had lived through the collective imaginations of many generations of people, each adding nuances, detail, interpretations and something of themselves along the way. The essence of the story, though, remained the same.
The story was always about Goopi and Bagha, two musicians who loved to sing and play the drum but were unfortunately not good at either. The villagers had them banished into the forest abutting their villages of Amloki and Chimkoli. Lost in the deep dark forest they met each other and struck up an instant strong friendship, their love for music brought them together and they burst into song. The Bhoot Raja, or Ghost King, and his band of forest spirits heard them and fell in love with their music.
The Bhoot Raja was so pleased he gave them four boons. Goopi and Bagha asked for their dearest wish; they wanted people to appreciate their music. The Ghost king granted them this wish and told them that their songs would mesmerize people. They had been wandering in the forest for so long that they were really very hungry and asked that they be able to eat whenever they wished for food. They then asked that they be able to travel wherever they wished in a trice since they loved to go to different places. All these wishes were granted and they didn’t know what else to ask of the Bhoot Raja. They inquired if they could keep the last wish in safekeeping to use when the need arose. The magnanimous Ghost King agreed and left with his merry band of ghosts.
Goopi and Bagha woke up the next morning and felt they had been dreaming and such things couldn’t ever be true. Goopi as was his usual practice broke into his morning song, Bagha’s jaw dropped when he heard the mellifluous notes, he began to play along and they made the most wonderful music, all the creatures in the forest were transfixed. Their dream had come true.
From there on they went on a roller coaster adventure which took them to two neighbouring kingdoms of Shundi and Hundi where they helped to avert a war, brought two bickering twin brothers back together, marry princesses and help the people of the two kingdoms, squashing the villainous general and the evil sorcerer and finally calling upon the Bhoot Raja to grant them the saved-up fourth boon.
Some years ago I got a version of the story to illustrate, it brought back a flood of memories from my childhood, of listening to the story; of the tiny book I had and of the film I had seen. It dawned on me that I was now going to be a part of the long legacy of this story and that I had the responsibility of bringing it to life for young children today. It seemed like a tough burden to carry and I revisited the many versions that had been done before. I reread the story in its many avatars and relooked at the accompanying imagery and wondered what I could bring to the story that would be fitting for such a classic, and yet be unique.
It was then that I drew upon the time I had spent listening to my old aunt telling me the tale in her own way and the images she had conjured up in my mind that had stayed through the years in my mind’s eye. I decided to mirror these and drew what I had seen. I so enjoyed articulating these images that I found I could now see the entire story playing out in my head, I had to make an animation film out of it. Then began a long journey of bringing the images to life, of giving them movement and rhythm, life and voice, dance and music, word and song. What struck me was how the words in the little book read out to me got life first through the voice of my aunt then through the dreams I had and the pictures I could make out of them and then the movement I could give them.
When I looked at what I had made I realized that what was unique about my retelling was that it reflected the many years the story had lived in my imagination, the precious moments of vivid storytelling that had set off the sparks of being able to see the story. I realized that the original story had three wishes that the Ghost King had given Goopi and Bagha but mine had four wishes!
Stories have lives of their own but they never grow old, they only mutate and change and travel and evolve.
Was it something my aunt had made up or was it something I had invented in the hazy spaces between waking and sleeping and dreaming. One can never be sure where a story takes birth, is it in a memory, a fantasy, a daydream, a recollection. Stories have lives of their own but they never grow old, they only mutate and change and travel and evolve.
The delightful story of Goopi and Bagha has lived with many generations and will live on well past all those who told and retold it, in every avatar it assumes a new guise but its soul remains intact and in its wisdom sings to us of all that is truly precious; love, peace and comradeship.
For more on my film and to view it here.
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