It started as many stories do: with a charming setting, a splash of characters, a dash of humour, a bit of mystery about what the evening held and the promise of a good time ahead. The amphitheatre at the central lawns at Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts in New Delhi filled up as day light dimmed, and all manner of adults and children trouped in, wrapping their woolies close against the deepening evening chill.
It was Saturday evening at the sixth edition of Kathakar, the travelling storytelling festival, a three-day affair in Delhi (November 11-13) before it left for other cities, open to everyone who wanted a good story or two, or three, or even a dozen. There were storytellers from far away lands, from Japan to UK, and closer home, shadow puppetry from Kerala, traditional tales from Rajasthan, poetry and folklore by the ever popular Dastangoi. Lured on a weekend evening by the promise of powerful retellings of extraordinary bird adventures, a reinvented Greek myth with a crowd-sourced ending, and a short narration of Deendayal Upadhyay’s life in Ekatma, the crowd settled down, pulling their kids close and shushing them into silence.
To cut a long story short
On stage, Alok Kumar, from the RSS’s Delhi unit, began recounting Deendayal Upadhyaya’s life and journey, all sombre and earnest in a grandfatherly way. He kept a part of the audience considerably engaged by pulling out a quick succession of anecdotes, telling us how the boy, born in 1916 near Mathura, was admitted to formal school only at age 11 but went on to top every important exam there was. All this, he added, while staying fully dedicated to whatever little family he had left after his parents passed away when he was very young.
Even when summoned by the Maharaja of Sikar and GD Birla, who asked him to claim any reward for his academic brilliance, Upadhyaya, stressed Kumar, asked only for blessings. By now, the younger members of the audience were unwrapping their stash of glucose biscuits and taking swigs of an unidentified orange coloured beverage in Milton bottles, possibly as-old-as-a-good-story Rasna. Or was it Tang? Soon after, they had dug out their parents’ mobile phones to make up for the lack of activity on stage.
That’s not to say that Kumar proved to be a storyteller of inferior calibre. It’s just that for a mixed audience expecting him to wrap up in 15 minutes, which was the time allotted to him, he overstayed his welcome. Chugging along behind Upadhaya’s journey into the ranks of the RSS as a college student, and later, in the newly founded Bharatiya Jan Sangh, Kumar was so taken up by his subject’s rejection of every job offer in pursuit of his ideals as a social thinker and political leader that he didn’t quite notice the growing impatience in the audience. He was interrupted, just as he was getting into the final years of Upadhyaya’s life, by a lady in the front row who let him know, loudly and clearly, that his story had gone on too long and it was unfair on the kids who had been waiting for the next session to begin.
“I will wrap up in 4-5 minutes,” he said, surprised, but was shot down by another lady who cut in: “It’s already been 50 minutes!” His story suddenly found itself in a downward spiral, but if was any consolation to him, it was going that way anyway – considering Upadhyaya’s sudden death at 51 in real life. “Ok, I can finish abruptly, right now,” said Mr Kumar…and just like that, Upadhyay was assassinated.
It took not a moment for UK-based veteran storyteller Katy Cawkwell to lift the awkward moment as she hopped onto stage with her take on Extraordinary Birds. The mobile phones were promptly tucked away and ears perked up, and everyone – kids and adults alike – was suddenly, magically energised. Cawkwell, in a shimmering blue outfit, eyes shining, voice ringing sweet and clear through the considerably chillier outdoors by now, spun a tale so wondrous about a blue dove and a hunter that the minutes slipped by, the hour turned to seven, and no one really noticed until she was done.
Cawkwell’s two retellings, one long and the other very short, were rooted in old fashioned tropes: kings and queens, brave hunters and magical forests, with the motif of birds – wise, magical, glorious birds – lending a fresh perspective, all of it effortlessly treading the fine balance of the never-fail formula of true blue storytelling, forging human connections and letting loose boundless imagination.
The blue dove who turned into a beautiful woman, another who became a little boy’s biggest life lesson – these feathery creatures came alive in Cawkwell’s performance, as she glided across the stage, using her hands and body and voice to infuse just the right dose of drama and wonder into the tales.
The stories that unfolded over the evening were not new, certainly, but they clicked – even in a time of a serious deluge of media and all manner of entertainment. This is because the magic lies in how it’s retold, how the tales create themselves afresh in the physical space shared by the teller and the listener, and the vibe between them. It’s this vibe that goes missing when the teller is in a device, or even in the pages of a book.
Rooted in a different tradition, but following similar storytelling principles, is Jaishree Sethi, who came on stage next. The head of an organisation named StoryGhar and currently working on a PhD in storytelling, she matched Cawkwell’s energy in her short, snappy performance of familiar folktales, usually a hit with the old and the young. Her Rajasthani story about a merchant who leaves 17 camels to his three sons when he dies, played up with bits of trick math and folksy tempering, egged the audience on to remember bits of the tale and pitch in with the telling as it went on. The smartest of smartphones wouldn’t have matched the connection between the kathakar and the enthusiastic audience.
Pygmalion for grown-ups
The pièce de résistance – at least, for the adults in the audience looking for a more complex experience – was Giles Abbott’s reinvention of the Greek myth of Pygmalion. Remember the sculptor who fell in love his own creation, a statue of a gorgeous woman he carved out of stone? It’s one that has famously inspired many, including George Bernard Shaw, who named his play after Pygmalion (which in turn sparked the film My Fair Lady).
As Abbott – the UK’s only professional blind storyteller, who took to telling story when he lost much of his sight – told it, he made the story distinctly his own, buttered with dry wit and sharp pop observations. The audience was told, early on, that the ending would be theirs to choose, a storytelling device that makes every performance quite memorable as each listener becomes a part of the telling.
When the love of his life comes alive, but things don’t go as perfectly as he had imagined they would with the perfect woman he had created, what should Pygmalion do? The answer lies in your hands, the storytellers all seem to say, because the stories lie within, and among us, alive as long as we continue to tell them.