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Once Upon A Time

Poulomi Chatterjee is an intern with Open Magazine
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The most admired raconteurs from India and abroad gathered at Kathakar, to remind us of the power of stories

Families huddled together to brave a cold Delhi November evening, clad in shawls and sweaters, while some warmed their hands on hot cups of coffee. Children and young adults, the old and the young milled around, it seemed like age didn’t matter. Godfrey Duncan, better known by his alias Tuup, started beating a drum on stage. Once he had everybody’s attention, Duncan wove a story adapted from a Guyanese folk tale. The tale was about an old lady called Betty White who is teased and ridiculed mercilessly by the children in her neighbourhood until she decides to take revenge upon them. Everyone sat rapt. There was an occasional giggle at Duncan’s gestures but attention did not waver. It was a rare opportunity to revisit our childhood using the effective tool of a good old ghost story. But at Kathakar 2018, it was also far more than that—it was a slice of Guyana.

Founded by three Dehradun-born sisters, Shaguna, Prarthana and Rachna Gahilote, the eight edition of Kathakar—International Storytellers Festival—recently concluded at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), Delhi. Being a rare initiative of its kind in the country, Kathakar attracts storytellers from the United Kingdom, Greece, Iran, Africa and Russia apart from within India. Due to this multicultural mixture, there is richness to the narratives that unfold in front of the audience. London-born Duncan, who originally hails from Guyana, is also a musician. At time he sounded as if he were not speaking, but rapping instead. At other times during the evening, there were no words at all.

Sudip Gupta of the Kolkata’s Doll Theatre used contemporary puppetry and elements of Bunraku, a kind of three-person puppetry from Japan for their show titled, Taming the Wild. Gupta’s majestic show might have appeared to be child-like, but the underlying message of environment conservation remained on point.

Kathakar preserves our historical tradition of folklore by allowing us to access it. The event opened with a performance of Pandavani—a form of folk theatre from Central India, by Ritu Verma and her troupe. Hailing from Chhattisgarh, Verma was trained to perform all the granths of the Mahabharata in song and dance. “I know what to perform to a crowd just by instinct,” she says. At Kathakar, she knew it would have to be something definitive and powerful, so she decided to go with Draupadi Cheer Haran. Verma’s full-bodied emotional portrayal oscillated between the characters of Bhima, Dushasana and Draupadi and ended with the warning of war.

It wasn’t just Verma who evoked the feminine in stories. Xanthe Gresham from the UK, a teacher from East Sussex also told stories that revolved around women in mythology like Aphrodite, Athena and Persephone. Gresham had turned to the art of oral storytelling once she realised that no matter what she taught in class, the stories were what stuck the most. Gresham felt that the more she performed around the world, the closer her material came to home. She says, “It’s like they say, ‘Sometimes you have to go around the world to come home.’”

The night concluded with actor Pankaj Tripathi of Stree-fame who regaled the audience with ghost stories from his home in Patna. Intentionally or not, the event had grown to become an oasis for storytellers from different ethnicities whose voices are seldom a part of the global mainstream culture. “These performers are not really ‘underground’. They are truly the best in the business and the stars of our show,” Shaguna Gahilote, one of the founders of the festival said. Gahilote, who herself presented Ekatma, an excerpt from the biography of freedom fighter and politician Deendayal Upadhyay, explains why she prefers storytelling over the written word; “Reading a book doesn’t let you instantly connect like this. Kathakar has now become an event for families to come and listen to stories,” she says.