Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 436
Because “Under the Banyan Tree” celebrates the life and art of an illiterate storyteller, its underlying theme is the concept of art as divine inspiration. Nambi’s character embodies and exemplifies this concept. He represents the maker or magician who dreams up fantastic tales. Because he never learned how to read and write, he believes that his talent to weave enchanting stories in his imagination and then deliver them eloquently to his audience is a gift from the goddess. Being a staunch and self-effacing devotee, he regards himself as only a medium through which the goddess speaks. His isolation in the sanctum, his deep meditation, and his dreamlike inspiration before the commencement of each story all seem to support this interpretation. When he comes out of the temple in a trancelike state, he looks like an old wizard, with his forehead resplendent with ash, vermilion, and the white heat of imagination.
Narayan’s recurrent use of a number of images and symbols in the story further supports this interpretation. For example, Nambi attributes his creative powers to the goddess Shakti. The word shakti literally means power or energy. The goddess Shakti, as consort of the god Siva, represents the creative energy of the universe in Hindu art and mythology. Further, every time Nambi tells a story, he lights a small lamp and keeps it at the trunk of the banyan tree. A lamp, which illuminates, projects, and transfigures ordinary objects, is an established symbol of romantic imagination. Also, Nambi tells stories only during moonlight. In Indian mythology, moonlight is regarded as the counterpart on Earth of amrita, the heavenly drink of the gods. Finally, Nambi’s deep meditation in the dark sanctum symbolizes his plunge into the deep reservoirs of his collective unconscious to bring out material for his narratives.
Narayan seems to subscribe to the view that because the art of narration or any other artistic creativity is a divine gift, the artist should use it for the pleasure as well as moral and spiritual exaltation of all humankind. That Nambi uses his narrative gift for the entertainment and moral uplift of the villagers is clearly seen in the impact his stories have on them. As the story points out, “the village folk considered Nambi a sort of miracle, quoted his words of wisdom, and lived on the whole in an exalted plane of their own, though their life in all other respects was hard and drab.” Overall, the story reinforces the theme that all creative art is generated by an inexplicable force, not through a person’s learning a craft or receiving academic training.