How Is Ramayana Part of the Great Storytelling Tradition?
Connecting Communication Arts and Social Studies
Focus Question #2: What is the Relationship Between Oral and Written Literature?
- Written texts and oral texts of the same story can coexist.
- Storytellers have developed an oral story structure that is passed down which reflects the
interests and traditions of their region.
- Storytellers are often aware of the written texts but expand and supplement them, create
dialogue between characters, and comment on the meaning of the text.
Student Performance Objectives
- To identify and briefly describe the major characters in the Ramayana.
- To utilize the written text as a frame for a loose script which can be used in improvising a
- To discuss the continuum of levels of improvisation found in different performances, e.g.
- Shakespearean plays, Biblical re-enactments, TV shows such as Living Color and Saturday
Night Live, and informal narratives such as jokes and family stories.
Our emphasis on the primacy of written literature has led us to believe that it has complicated
structures, complex sentences, and the like. But recent work by sociolinguists, looking at
examples of real human speech in context and at oral narratives, shows that while the rules are
different, oral language is also bound by complex rules. Moreover, we speak according to the
rules of the situation. Most of us know how to speak a number of different "styles" of speech: we
can speak to parents, babies, teachers, the telephone operator, etc., all using different styles of
speech with rules appropriate to the situation. Comedy, satire and irony are based on breaking
these rules, rules that are not rules of proper grammar per se, but of proper grammar for that
Many traditions present their stories in a variety of modes, both written and oral. Anyone who has
seen or been part of a Nativity play knows that each production is different from any other. Some
adhere more closely to the Biblical verses than others. The same is true of the Ramayana. There
are many written versions of the Ramayana and some performances are based on reciting these
written versions. Others are less closely tied to a written script. What do they think the
relationship between written and oral is?
- How do people learn about religious stories such as the Bible? (Possible sources: ceremonies,
sermons, family re-tellings, readings, TV, movies, study of Western art, Bible school or
Hebrew school, church and elementary school pageants.) Cecile B. DeMille made a movie of
the New Testament called The Greatest Story Ever Told. Show clip if it is possible.
- What part of the script came directly from the Bible, what parts were improvised, what parts
could he have created from imagination, and what aspects would he want to keep historically
- If you were playing God and Jesus how would you feel? Which TV shows use the most
improvisation and which use the least?
For homework the night before, students will read The Ramayana: A "Telling" of the Ancient
Epic and identify the major characters. Students will use this version of the Ramayana as a frame
for a loose script which they will use in improvising a performance.
Directions for Developing an Improvisation
- Divide class into 5 groups. Assign each group an episode of the Ramayana and indicate which
lines of summary are relevant to their episode.
- Within each group, students choose a character role that they would like to play. Students
share their descriptions of each character and discuss how they will write a loose script to
perform the episode. The decide whether or not the will want a narrator and/or a commentator.
- Students decide who will begin the improvisation. This student records paper his/her
character's name, description, and dialogue. The student who thinks their character should
follow takes the paper and records their character and dialogue. The loose script is written as
the paper is passed around. Continue until the episode is complete.
- Students in each group will read their "script" and prepare their character's dialogue for the
performance. Instruct students not to write a formal script. Performances are not to exceed
five minutes per group). Student groups will perform episodes without loose script or notes.
- Using a chart on the board, students discuss the differences between the performances.
- Students compare what they have heard in the performances with their reading of the
What parts of the Ramayana were essential to each performance?
Where was improvisation possible?
Why were those particular parts improvised and other parts maintained?
How do the answers to the above question compare with the answers given about the movie
version of the Bible?
Return to the previous activity.
Proceed to next activity.
Return to the American Forum's On-line Materials Index page.