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‘Foolish student character’ in ‘Paramananda Shishyula Katha’: Unique tale types and pedagogical significance


From the generic significance of folklore and its study, this paper directs attention to the popular folklore stories from Telugu literature ‘Paramananda Shishyula Katha’. Locating folklore within the spectrum of oral traditions, and referencing the AT types of tales and motifs index to identify the type of this tale, the paper makes a case for the ‘foolish students and their teacher’ as a unique tale type, both in terms of character and relationship between the protagonists. It further highlights how this type of tale is reflective of and represents pedagogical considerations that evidently acknowledge the ‘ignorance’ of the learner while also offering guidance to the educator on compassionately yet wisely accommodating the consequences of this. ‘Asking foolish doubts’ and ‘making silly mistakes’ are among the popular recurring themes. Thus, examining this unique concept of the set of folktales revolving around ‘a teacher and his seven foolish students’; further probing into the unravelling of insights about the complex ‘journey of knowing’ that ‘Paramananda Shishyula katha’ offers is here in the focus of exploration.

Folklore: Traditional tales

“Traditional stories have a rich tradition of being passed on from one generation to the other in the oral form. There are four types of interesting formats of traditional stories—folktales, fairy tales, myths and fables. Their appeal lies in their oral form and their ancient heritage.” Mahanand, A. (2021) Out of these four traditional formats that are mentioned, we look at stories from the people, of the people, and by the people: the timeless folktales that have been transmitted down the ages. What often differentiates these from the modern literature is the authorship, which is sometimes unknown, or often involves multiple authors over generations, or includes an uncountable number of retellings. With specific reference to folklore, A K Ramanujam expounds on the need to study folklore as it permeates his childhood, family and community. “It is the symbolic language of the non-literate parts of me and my culture.” (Ramanujam, 1990). The lore, the folktales by being alive and amongst the folk even today, speak to us of the immense possibilities for learning language and life lessons both of which lie within the stories and their ‘oral transmission’. For the purpose of this paper, our focus is on the ‘stories’, their unique type, and the lessons herein for educators. 

As a storyteller and story-arts-based educator, my experiences of over two decades of working both with students and teachers have often reaffirmed my faith in including folklore in the learning environment. These are situated in the socio-cultural context of the learner and hence more relatable. There is motivation to engage with these. Folklore plays the role of not only entertaining the audience but also educating in more ways than one.

Tradition as Knowledge

I would like to extend Tonkin’s observations and questions set in the context of oral traditions in African history to that of Indian oral traditions and socio-economic-cultural context. “Oral tradition is often in reality an explanation, in quasi-historical terms, of existing or of currently relevant past social or socio-political relationships.” (Tonkin, 1986). Investigating the landscape of oral traditions in African history, Tonkin pushes towards a pertinent reflection on what happens when in the context of such study, the word ‘tradition’ is replaced with ‘knowledge’? What becomes the purpose of these bearers of tradition? What does one get to learn? How is this knowledge transmitted? What are the social limitations?

Extending this to the context of India, let us ask…What if we replace the word tradition with the word knowledge in the context of oral traditions in Indian history? “India has a rich tradition of storytelling known as the Katha tradition. Indian texts such as the Jataka tales, Suka Saptati, Kathasaritasagara, Dasakumaracharita and Panchatantra are narratives rich in this form. Even the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.” Mahanand, A. (2021) One then perceives this exhaustive spectrum of traditions as “knowledge”. Seen from this lens it is evident how stories become powerful storehouses of learning and for learning. Folklore can thus leave a deep imprint that influences the language and the trajectory of holistic growth of an individual as well as the society. 

A unique folk tale type

“Paramananda Shishyula Katha” is a unique, much-loved folklore series from Telugu language; popular even today. The many online video versions with many ‘likes’ indicate their continuing contemporary fame. The story revolves around 7 students of a teacher, a Guru called Paramananda who wishes to learn from him and live with him. However, they are absolute numskulls who have the most ridiculous doubts in their mind, and unabashedly ask them and further botch many a happy situation, only to eventually meet with a good end to the episode. All along their teacher does get irritated with them and sometimes even scolds, yet we find he has compassion for their ‘foolishness’. He constantly attempts to educate them by answering their silly doubts and being accommodative of their blunders and misadventures.

What makes ‘Paramananda Shishyula Katha’ unique? Referencing the basic “ATU tale-type index”, or “the ATU index” which is a standard reference in folklore studies, where each tale type is assigned a number identifier and a title; we find that ‘Paramananda Shishyula Katha would fall under the broader tale type of numskulls. 

Numskulls AT 1201- 1349 has a variety of foolish protagonists who bumble their way through situations, mostly creating chaos and at times unexpectedly generating lucky circumstances for themselves and those around. However, while the protagonists/ central characters include: an apparently foolish man (like Naseeruddin Hodja), a silly woman, a set of foolish people AT 1243 – in which an entire group of foolish folks carry a log down the hill only to realize it would have been easier to roll it down and so they go up all the way again to roll down with it, or a foolish manservant AT 1260 B who lights each match when sent to buy the best matches, just to make sure they are each the best!. There is no reference of tale types of “foolish students and their teacher”. There is a Numskull tale type AT 1287 – where a set of people think one of them is lost as each forgets to count himself, until another comes along and they are relieved to “find” the lost one among them. This story finds resonance in terms of being one among the many plots in the ‘Paramananda Shishyula Katha series’; however, contextualizing this in a student-teacher relationship remains unique to this series. The unclassified tale types (Types 2400-2499), while inclusive of tales of married couples and even random tricksters, do not have any basis on ‘teacher-foolish students’ relationships. ‘Paramananda Shishyula Katha from Telugu language folklore is thus a unique tale type of ‘foolish-student and teacher relationship’. 

Foolish-student and teacher relationship: Pedagogical significance

The pertinent role of folklore as not just tradition but as a storehouse of knowledge of the community and the equally noteworthy ease and effectiveness of its transmission and dissemination to the public at large, not just to the ‘literate’ has been recognized. Furthermore the distinctiveness of ‘Paramananda Shishyula Katha‘ tale type, referencing the ATU Tale Type Index has also been established. By probing this tale type and delving deeper into the socio-cultural resonance and reflection, we can conclude that the creation of such a unique ‘foolish students and their teacher’ of pedagogical considerations which were prevalent in those times. “Furthermore, when I started reading in the domains of anthropology and folklore, I found that for many tribal societies, folk narrative was a major vehicle of instruction by elders. (Narayan, 1989).

A Sample Story from ‘Paramananda Shishyula Katha’ collection 

  • My retelling based on English translation by Shreya Sharma

Once the Guru Paramananda (teacher) and his Shishyulu (students) were returning to their village on a bullock cart. The Guru was tired and informed the students “I am tired and wish to sleep for a while. Meanwhile you stay alert and keep a watch for any of our things falling out from the cart. Alright?” After giving these instructions he went to sleep. In some time the cart bumped into a stone and the Guru’s kamandal, in which he carried the holy water rolled out onto the road. The students watched. The cart moved on and after a while when the Guru woke up and asked “Is everything alright? Are all our things safe?” The students merrily updated him about the fallen kamandal. “What? Oh God! Why didn’t you inform me earlier?”. “Because you only asked us to watch Guru ji” came the prompt reply. 

“Why did you not pick it up? What will I do without the kamandal now?” the Guru asked his students angrily. “But Guru Ji, you only asked us to watch, not to pick up!” they insisted. “Oh! Alright. I am telling you now. Whatever falls from the cart pick it up. Okay?” After this clarification, rest assured the Guru dozed away and the bullock cart moved on. Soon the bullock dropped dung on the ground and on seeing this, one student promptly picked it up and quickly threw it back into the cart where it landed onto the Guru’s face”. He woke up shocked and even more furious now “What’s going on?“ he demanded in exasperation. “Guru Ji, you asked us to pick up whatever falls and so we did as you told us!” the students replied.

After a long thoughtful silence, the Guru came up with a plan. He made a list of all the things in the cart and told them “Dear students, if any one of the things in this list falls down out of the cart then you must pick it up. Alright?” And he returned to rest. In a while the bullock cart was on its way up a steep hill and the dozing Guru slipped right down the cart and into a stream flowing nearby. “Help! Help! Come and save me“ he shouted to his students. They stopped the cart, got down and remembered what the sage had instructed about the list and they started diligently reading the list. They searched for the Guru’s name and could not find it in the list of course and so they got right back onto the cart and moved on. 

Watching them leave, the Guru yelled out anxiously, “Stop! Come and save me. I am drowning. I am your teacher”. The students were confused but then being good-hearted they eventually stopped and saved their Guru. “Why did you leave? Why did you not save me then?” the Guru asked in absolute shock. “Guru ji we were only following your instructions. Your name is not on the list Guru ji. How could we pick you up? We were obeying you”

“Obeying me? You have been simply following my instructions without thinking! You have not even tried to understand what I have been trying to tell you” the Guru said to them. Relieved and safe, they all headed back home after another misadventure that thankfully ended on a safe note.

Folklore as a reflection of the pedagogical culture

My first premise is that a society in which there existed a pedagogy that duly acknowledged ‘ignorance’ and its role in the trajectory of knowledge acquisition could only have produced a literary work with such characters and situations in the storyline. While ‘Paramananda Shishyula Katha’ has clearly defined ‘foolish-students and their teacher’ and is popular given the elements of humour also richly woven, there are many other texts which are reflective of this primary and significant understanding of ‘ignorance’ in the path of learning.. Sanatana Dharma itself is focused on the exposition of the nature of truth and consciousness. And the pursuit is in a manner that does not demand ‘blind believing’ rather encourages ‘doubting’ – samshayam or shanka as part of the search. It welcomes, acknowledges and places ‘doubting’ centrally within its narratives moreover without judgment. The intended message for the educator here is to stay in awareness of ‘ignorance and curiosity’ being the root of ‘doubt’ , as well as remind the educator to cultivate a learning environment that finds ways to work around the “foolishness” and engage with the learner in order to guide effectively.

Thus dialogues between the doubtful listener and a knowledgeable speaker were often seen in the texts.

Example: In Tulsi Das’s Ram Charit Manas, a section begins with Garuda wondering why Vishnu, the great God, would require his help; he who is a mere bird! He expresses this doubt to the crow Kaagbhushundi who answers his queries with patience and wisdom.

Example: The Upanishads are conversations between the student and teacher with students asking their doubts and the teacher having an engaging response that guides them further in their path of knowing.

In ‘Paramananda Shishyula Katha,’ each time the students made errors the teacher re-evaluated his instructions, explored ways of modifying the same and attempted to give clearer instructions the next time. The first time his instruction was “Watch out for anything that falls from the cart”. The second time instruction was, “Pick up anything that falls from the cart”. And the third time it was, “Pick up only the things from this list that fall off the cart.”

The second statement I wish to draw attention to is that the aim of education included academic development of: language, mathematics, science and further extended to Vyavahara Vidhe – loosely translated as ‘ways of living in the world’. Vishnu Sarma’s Panchatantra is an apt example that employs stories as a pedagogical tool here, precisely for this purpose. The stories of ‘Paramanda Shishyula Katha’ offer the reader/listener the vicarious experience of ‘being a foolish student and their teacher’. Critical thinking skills are seeded and their development in the learner can be triggered by ruminations and reflecting on the characters and the plot. Growth of this critical thinking eventually translates into helpful changes in one’s own thoughts, words and actions. “By using stories we can develop learners’ higher order critical thinking skills. It is generally thought that folktales are meant for enjoyment. But one might have observed that some folktales present certain people in a stereotypical manner. Characters in stories are often presented as cunning, foolish or lazy” Mahanand, A. (2021) 

The skills and traditions of the students, which includes their languages and features of it like tales and proverbs, is to be employed as resource materials embedded in the text books; is part of the recommendations of the National Curriculum Framework (2005). Continuing and sustaining inclusion of culturally-contextualized materials and methods, and recognizing that the vehicle for transmission of culture and tradition is literature and the arts, the central government of India’s New Education Policy, NEP 2020 (para 4.7) states “As a part of the thrust on experiential learning, art-integrated education will be embedded in classroom transactions not only for creating joyful classrooms but also for imbibing the Indian ethos through the integration of Indian art and culture in the teaching and learning process at every level.”


The words of the educationalist from Gujarat, who was fondly known as Gijjubhai offers a fitting summarization of the richness of the folklores and its relevance in modern education. “The experiment is already on, Sir! It is my personal experience that the story is a wonderful magic pill that helps to establish rapport between the pupils and the teachers. Those very boys who were not prepared to listen to me on the first day and who had unnerved me with shouts and catcalls, have become quiet since I started telling them a story. They now have a sort of affection for me. They listen to me and sit as I ask them to. I don’t have to shout at them to keep them quiet. And they don’t leave the school even after it is over!” (Badheka, 2014, p. 7).

As a storyteller and story-arts-based educator, my experiences of over two decades of working with students and teachers have often reaffirmed my faith in the need for (1) Integrating contextualized resource materials like folklore for the language classroom, which makes it relatable and socio-culturally relevant for the learner (2) Cultivating a cooperative learning environment when the learner feels safe and comfortable to freely express their innocent curiosities, to ‘experiment and bungle things up sometime in the process of learning’. The scope for learning and true growth is higher in comparison to a restrictive and judgemental environment where doubts are written off and mistakes scorned at. 

To conclude, I return to where we began: making a case for viewing folklore as a form of knowledge, beyond its obvious status as a popular and easily disseminating literary tradition. The argument that ‘Paramananda Shishyula Katha’ is pivoted on the ‘foolish-student and their teacher’ tale type has no parallel in the ATU index, even on the category of Numskulls. Taking literature as a mirror of society, the paper proposes that the unique theme of this set of stories reflects a society that understood the space and role of ignorance in the journey of learning and knowing. It refers to parallels in the Indic texts which have conversations between ignorant seeker/seekers with transmitters of knowledge. Lastly, the paper attempts to highlight the possibility for developing ‘critical thinking’ latent in ‘Paramananda Shishyula Katha’ which establishes folklore as rich resource material for not only knowledge of language but also of the self and surroundings.


AT List AT Types of Folktales – The Gold Scales (

Mahanand, A. (2021). Role of Traditional Stories for English Language Education.

Narayan, Kirin. “Storytellers, Saints and Scoundrels. Philadelphia: U.” (1989).

National Council of Educational Research and Training. (2005). National Curriculum Framework (NCF). NCERT.

Ramanujan, Attipat Krishnaswami. Who needs folklore?: The relevance of oral traditions to South Asian Studies. Center for South Asian Studies, School of Hawaiian, Asian, and Pacific Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1990.

Tonkin, Elizabeth. “Investigating oral tradition.” The Journal of African History 27.2 (1986): 203-213.

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Conference on Pedagogy And Educational Heritage

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