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Posted at: Jan 7, 2018, 1:34 AM; last updated: Jan 7, 2018, 1:34 AM (IST)

Stories on the loop

A new breed of storytellers is making people stop, sit back and listen to tales unheard

Neha Kirpal

Who has the time for a story, you ask. Well, there are those who still believe that stories open the minds and let the imagination soar. And these people have been telling stories to their audiences — in small towns and swanky corporate houses, hosting them in auditoriums with patrons who pay to hear them and in classrooms where attention spans are as varied as they can be.

Shaguna Gahilote is one of them. She travels around the world telling stories from Indian mythology and folktales, interspersing them with wit and humour. An oral storyteller, she uses her voice to convey the various twists and turns in a story. “I refrain from using excessive gestures and movements, unlike some other storytellers. So, my storytelling will be closer to how our grandparents used to tell us tales late into the night,” she says. Shaguna’s first book of folktales, Curious Tales from the Himalayas, released recently.

Besides, Gahilote also curates the Kathakar International Storytellers Festival that takes place in the Capital every year. The festival is replete with activities on reading, storytelling, creative writing, illustrations, puppetry, etc. from a wide range of writers, illustrators and storytellers, from both India and abroad. As the only oral storytelling festival in India, it is part of Ghummakkad Narain, a travelling literature festival started under the aegis of UNESCO in 2010. The recent seventh edition reached over 6,000 children and adults. Its highlights were filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj and musician Mohit Chauhan coming together for the first time to share folk stories through music.

Initiatives like Kathakar are attempts at preserving the art of telling stories. Another such notable example is revival of Dastangoi, a tradition of Urdu oral storytelling that originated in the pre-Islamic Arabia and thrived in North India between the 16th and 19th centuries. In the early 20th century, Dastangoi died due to new forms of theatre and cinema as well as changing tastes. It was revived several years later, in 2005, due to the efforts of the famous Urdu poet and critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, his nephew Mahmood Farooqui and his wife, director Anusha Rizvi of Peepli Live fame. “When we revived the form in 2005, after years of study and practice, we made significant changes to it. We brought in two performers instead of one (as was the tradition), adapted new costumes, and a new style of telling to suit the modern times,” says Rizvi. Today, it has been firmly re-established as a significant performance form not only in India but also in Pakistan.

Danish Husain too has spent a decade helping revive Dastangoi. The last one year has been especially dedicated to experimentation. His theatre company, The Hoshruba Repertory, has invented a multilingual storytelling project called Qissebaazi. Under Qissebaazi, stories are performed not just in Urdu, but in all the Indian languages. Besides the core language in which the story is written originally, the performer chooses a bridge language—Hindi or English—and performs the story in both these languages. “As of today, we have a Sanskrit, a Marathi, a Punjabi, a Bengali, two Malayalam, and scores of Hindi and Urdu stories in our repertoire. These stories are either from the written or from the oral literature traditions of our country. The idea is to make our own literature accessible to audiences through engaging performances,” he says. 

There are various other smaller groups across India that are trying hard to keep their art forms alive. The Chaya Nataka Brundam group practices Tholubommalata or leather puppetry, from Andhra Pradesh. Their form is a fusion of fine art, music, dance and literature. In it, natural and chemical dyes are used to accentuate the character traits of the puppets made of goat hide. The troupe has worked hard to bring the art not only to other parts of Andhra Pradesh, but also to the rest of India and the world. 

“We have been doing shadow puppetry as was taught to us by our parents. This art needs exquisite skills as it makes use of both the hands. A lot of strength is needed to hold these big puppets for long and one needs to be deft enough to swing them into action as per the need of the story,” say the members.

And then there is nautanki from Mathura. It has been the biggest medium for entertainment in villages and towns of northern India since ages. Its musical compositions are rich and full of humour. But with the popularity of television, the internet and cinema, the art is dying. To save these traditions, the least we can do is listen to a story.

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