After visiting the structures built by the Mogul Emperors (1526-1707) in Jaipur and Agra (see my photo gallery), I couldn’t resist looking at the picture book, The Foolish Men of Agra: And Other Tales of Mogul India, retold by Rina Singh and illustrated by Farida Zaman (Key Porter Books, Limited 1998).
Touched by the splendor of these buildings, I was curious to see what tales were passed down from such an artistically beautiful time period.
Like many of the Indian authors who write for the North American market, Singh was born in India and later immigrated to the western hemisphere. Singh is an accomplished children’s author, poet, photographer, and artist.
Her retellings focus on the relationship between Emperor Akbar and his close friend, Birbal, a Hindu courier who later became one of Akbar’s ministers. Singh demonstrates the tension between Birbal and the other ministers and the wise counsel that Birbal gave to the emperor.
Zaman, a well respected British trained artist, uses colorful pictures to illustrate the outfits worn during this time period and to highlight traditional Indian patterns. The adjacent cover design is an example of her style while her website provides a comprehensive overview of her talents.
This anthology includes 10 stories that average 1-4 pages of print plus coordinating illustrations.
- The Reward-(Dishonesty and bribes) Birbal uses his wit to outsmart one of Akbar’s palace guards who was extracting bribes from unsuspecting artists who wanted to visit the emperor.
- The Punishment-(The opposite of what you’d expect) Birbal uses his wisdom to outsmart Akbar’s ministers and courtiers. Finding the culprit for a crime became the rationale for the punishment.
- Birbal’s Khitchri-(Achieving a goal can be obtained by focusing on the objective) Birbal shows Akbar that strong beliefs cannot be measured by distance.
- The Eggplant (Following the leader) Birbal’s actions and words show Akbar how a leader influences other people’s opinions.
- The Foolish Men of Agra (Everyone can have a streak of foolishness) Akbar and Birbal realize that their actions and words can be just as foolish as others.
- The Man Who Brought Bad Luck- (The acceptance of superstitious beliefs is based on coincidences) Birbal shows Akbar that there are different levels of bad luck.
- The Journey to Heaven (Poetic justice- the instigator gets his due) Birbal outsmarts the people who are trying to do him harm.
- List of Fools (The effects of being gullible) Birbal illustrates how Akbar’s gullibility caused him to be foolish.
- Whatever Happens, Happens for the Best (Sometimes a bad event will end up with positive consequences) Akbar’s ministers try again to oust Birbal. This conflict ends up being a good lesson for both Akbar and Birbal.
- The Never-Ending Story (An undesired cycle can be stopped). Birbal shows Akbar that he doesn’t have to rely on others. He can solve his own problem.
Possible uses for the stories:
- compare/contrast tales from different cultures
- identifying the main idea of one or more stories
- character analysis
- to teach ethical values
- conflict between characters
- supplement a social studies unit on India
- relationship between emperors and advisers
This book is still available online and can be found in libraries. Let me know if you add this book to one of your lessons or share it with a child. I’d love to hear how kids connect to Indian folktales and their reaction to the colorful pictures.