By Shubhangi Shah
Most of us grew up listening to stories told by our parents and grandparents. Legends from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, folk tales, religious stories, those about ordinary people, animals – listening to them was enough to take us to a fictional land so captivating that a single short story was not enough to satiate our creative instincts. Unfortunately, with the growing popularity of other media, such as TV, social media, and OTT platforms, this art of spoken-word storytelling is rapidly fading.
A storytelling festival
“When we started, it was very difficult to find Indian storytellers,” said Shaguna Gahilote, writer, professional storyteller and one of three organizers of Kathakar: International Storytelling Festival, the other two being her sisters Rachna and Prarthna. . The festival, an annual affair that began in 2011, held its 14th edition this year on May 20-21 at New Delhi’s Sunder Nursery, opposite the imposing Humayun’s Tomb. “They were traditional storytellers whose styles were very old. You brought them to a modern stage and they couldn’t connect,” she said. Therefore, the idea behind Kathakar, which means storyteller, was “to preserve this art form, as they were probably the last generation of artists to practice it,” Shaguna explained. Documenting it was not an option because you are “boxing” it. “Instead, we wanted to build a platform,” she added.
A writer herself, Shaguna’s love affair with stories began in her childhood when her parents not only got her books, but also told them. She and her sister Prarthna work in cultivation. “We did several workshops with children who couldn’t remember any popular tales. They usually told stories like Cinderella and Snow White,” she said.
A slice of desert
Like Shaguna, actress and theater artist Sikandar Khan also grew up listening to stories, especially from her grandmother. “At night, she would tell stories for hours. Even when she told the same story several times, it seemed interesting. We took something new out of it with every narration that passed,” he said.
In Kathakar, Khan, who worked in the hit Amazon Prime series Mumbai Diaries 26/11, narrated an 82-page Rajasthani folk tale by Sahitya Akademi award-winning writer Vijaydan Detha. The story, originally written to be read, has been rewritten into 17 pages. “The whole act was prepared in six days,” he said, adding, “As an actor I have to portray a story and this art form helps me tremendously with that.”
Tales from elsewhere
“In India, oral storytelling is disappearing. But in Europe it had a revival as early as the 1980s,” Shaguna said. Michal Malinowski, a professional storyteller from Poland, brought stories from his land. His performance was such that the audience sat in the rain, some holding umbrellas, some not, like the performer, himself drenched in the rain.
Bringing stories from the Himalayas was the famous music composer Shantanu Moitra. Human-animal coexistence figured prominently in his storytelling.
Entertain & educate
That’s the thing about this ancient art form. It’s not just entertainment. The stories played out often have built-in social learning or observation, which is not only to entertain but also to educate.
Another thing is that storytelling cannot be consumed in a silo. “It’s not like reading a book, which is an isolated affair,” the event organizer said. “Storytelling, on the other hand, is social,” she added. And rightly so. This art form can entertain both an eight-year-old child and an eighty-year-old man, which binds the listeners. In a way, this also contributes to cultural cohesion. Not only that, as it is passed down from generation to generation, it can act, to some degree, as a record of the past.
Preservation is the “need”
“It’s because there’s a need,” Shaguna said, explaining why the effort to preserve this declining art form is worth it. “Folktale is a whole repository of culture in itself, and if you lose it, you lose your culture,” she said. “And if you don’t pass it on to the next generation, they will lose it,” she added.
The journey can be long. But it can start simply by listening and passing that story on to the next generation. It’s so simple.