Inside the Sea of Stories

There are hundreds of versions of Shahname and thousands of versions of Ramayana! Indian tradition calls this the sea of stories, the ocean where all the story rivers gather. In the case of these two epics the ocean is vast and it is very easy to feel at sea.

When I first started telling traditional stories I had the idea I could find the oldest, purest version of a story. I soon found that my research was not a linear thread leading steadily back in one direction to an original 'Ur-text'. Instead I found a tangled mass of threads - of stories leading to stories, leading to stories. The story threads moved backwards and forwards through time, across linguistic and geographic boundaries, incorporating oral and written influences. In the end, with traditional stories, there is no 'Ur-text', just versions of versions of versions.

Both Ramayana and Shahname can be traced back to collector/poets who shaped the story from a variety of sources and wrote it down. Their versions have become classic texts which have generated other classic texts. But both epics were, and still are, oral performances. These texts don't end with the page. They are part of living oral traditions, and even today some stories connected to these epics have not been written down.

When I was making a performance based on Ramayana, I read as many versions as I could, from as many countries as possible, then made my own line through the narrative. Together with a band of Indian musicians, I worked in rehearsals to create our version. The musicians were always stopping to tell me stories I had left out of my version. Sometimes I knew the story they were telling, and we would have a discussion about my choices and the consequences of leaving the story out. But most of the time they told me tales I had never come across. These were tales outside the corpus of the classic texts, they had survived in an oral form, deeply embedded in the culture of both the story and the life that surrounds it.

This is a different way for a text to exist, and is unusual for many of us who have been brought up in Britain. The written versions of Ramayana and Shahname are just versions. The performances of these stories, inform, create and re-create these written texts, making endless new versions, with endless new meanings.

I am used to being inside the sea of stories now. In fact I find it the most thrilling place. I don't worry about getting to the end of the ocean or finding the purest river. I love following one story and finding another. I love the creative process, that it seems most storytellers engage with, making my own version.

So the versions I have suggested for you to explore don't represent these stories. They are just versions. And like all storytellers you have to make your own way through the narrative, choose the bits you like, compare them with comic strip versions, TV drama versions, sculptures and puppet shows...Then bring them to life in your own version. You are, after all, the next link in the chain.

©Sally Pomme Clayton 2005