Do mythologies really precede science? In the expansive play of imagination that they allow, the number of possibilities they remain open to, do they enable us to think of perhaps a better future? For without thinking of a better future, there is no better future; all the comforts we enjoy today exist because someone somewhere imagined them into being first.
Do we thank, therefore, the multiple creators of the multiple epics; the storytellers who carried the tale far and wide, and across time, impregnating it with possibilities every time they narrated it; the audience who latched on to episodes and made them a part of collective memory; and language, which despite its ever-changing nature managed to let the tale be told? Do we thank all these for cold water that gushes out from an underground tap on a hot sunny afternoon? The water that soothes our nerves, quenches our thirst and reinforces life itself on a day when even leaves seem dazed in the heat?
If many beings in many places had not imagined, narrated and reserved to memory the act of Arjun shooting an arrow to bring forth a jet of water from the depths of the earth, to quench a dying Bhisma’s thirst, whom he himself had killed, would we have water gushing forth, intermittently, from hand-pumps and tube-wells today?
The story of Arjun and Bhisma repeated itself many times in the course of the last week, when I was in Midnapore, interacting with patachitra artists. It was narrated by many among the older practitioners of the traditional art form, when I asked them whether they preferred to work on patas on mythological or contemporary themes; the latter, it must be mentioned is what sells, and enables the patuas to earn a livelihood and much more.
Mythologies are timeless, they said. They allow for a play of imagination that nothing else can match. They precede modern science by centuries. The patuas sing of Ravan’s Sita-haran, their evocative scrolls marking a visual journey into other worlds and other spaces, and ask: did the modern aeroplane not come from here?
Was Sita-haran earlier, or the aeroplane? Was Arjun shooting an arrow to bring forth a jet of water first or the modern tube-well? Was the pata song (pater gaan) on Krishna’s “raslila” earlier or Runa Laila’s “Bondhu Teen Din”?
‘The problem is people don’t acknowledge the sources they draw from’, said a 70-year old patua. And so, Bondhu Teen Din stays ensconced in people’s memory as Runa Laila’s tune. The violence of memory—its erasure begins. Tradition is replaced by the modern, the hip, the upmarket, the simplified, the commodified, the aspirational—the roots are shorn off, and the residue is made to appear like the new. Novelty is born.
If you’re looking for a logical connection, none exists. Instead, conversations with older patuas seem to run in a loop. Stories repeat themselves, in different times, and different places, narrated by different people. The distinctions of past and present fade away, history and myth get entwined in a manner that it becomes difficult to tell what is what. What stays is the feeling that we are all part of stories—of our own, of someone else’s; of someone near, dear or far away from us. We all populate the landscape of imagination, turning ourselves inside out, making, unmaking, creating, re-creating.
Shifts in tradition do not go unnoticed by sharp storytellers. But what happens when this shift threatens the practice of storytelling? Does it allow mythologies to live? And science?