Web Exclusive: Culture

Once Upon a Time

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The Kathakar International Storytellers Festival brings oral storytelling back to the capital via the Silk Route
“If a story is narrated to you in your childhood, you’re bound to remember it even after years. Storytelling knows no language, no boundaries,” says Professor Panaiyagoundar Vettavarayan, an exponent in the storytelling form of villu paatu or the ‘bow song’, which comes from Tamil Nadu.

There are books, there are movies, there’s theatre and there’s storytelling. If you wish for an eidetic memory, there’s nothing better than a storyteller. Stories unite us. The same story travels from one country to another, from one storyteller and listener to another storyteller and listener, changing its beat as it makes its way into the world. Last month’s Kathakar: International Storytellers Festival, which saw storytellers coming together from UK and India—narrating tales from Hungary, Africa, along the Silk Route and Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Manipur—was a celebration of this quality. The three-day festival was created in the memory of Thakur Vishva Narain Singh, the first Braille editor of India in the publication section of the National Institute of Visually Handicapped in Dehradun. In its fourth year, it used the open expanse of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) as a platform for its storytellers. “It seems bigger this year,” says Kathakar-regular Shreyoshi Saha. “Last year, there were no gaddaas or heaters,” she adds, pointing to the seating arrangement made for the visitors. While the morning sessions held for school students saw a total of almost 500 children, the evening sessions open to the general public saw close to 300 visitors each day.

Despite the fact that Indian storytellers performed in their own languages, which not everyone understood, the response in terms of audience attendance was encouraging. Professor Vettavarayan and his troupe from Tamil Nadu began with their villu paatu. This form of storytelling developed in the 15th century, when a king is said to have wandered into the forest and wanted to entertain himself with some music. Since there was only a bow and a mud pot available, the art of storytelling called ‘villu paatu’ was born. Vettavarayan explained how the bow is usually made of iron, and while it rests on a mud pot, it is struck with a stick to yield quite an unusual sound. The other accompaniments are the harmonium, mridangam and kanjeera. While the main narrator sings the entire song, the others in the group repeat what he says.

The professor and his troupe performed the story of Raja Harishchandra and how he got to be named ‘Satyavaadi Harishchandra’. Vettavarayan began by describing how Harishchandra’s honesty had become the talk of the heavens. The sage Vishwamitra wanted to test the king and vowed to make him lie. However, no matter how hard the sage tried to make the king lie, he couldn’t succeed—the king even sacrificed his wife and son and ultimately sold himself. It was after witnessing this supreme sacrifice that Vishwamitra conceded defeat and the gods descended upon Earth, thereby giving Harischandra the title of ‘Satyavaadi’.

The second tale that the troupe narrated was that of ‘Bhakta Prahlad’, where one is introduced to the narasimha (half-man, half-lion) avatar of Vishnu. “I’ve been performing for over 40 years,” said Vettavaryan, braving an unusually cold afternoon. While he undertakes lessons and also teaches young students the art of storytelling, he feels youth “lacks patience as technology such as television and cinema are destroying our culture.” Some may have found the frequent English translations, narrated in between performances a hindrance; Professor Vettavarayan feels this is the only way he can maintain the interest of the audience.

And, if you think the villu paatu always revolves around ancient tales and epics, you are mistaken. They also narrate stories around general awareness, as was evident in one of the tales of Professor Vettavarayan’s troupe surrounding cleanliness. “You need the five elements of air, water, fire, earth and ether to survive—so it’s your duty to work towards preserving them,” he said, emphasising the message of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan campaign. “We all speak different languages, but we feel the same. Whether one is laughing or crying, it’s the same in every language. Storytelling is important as it covers every human being,” he added.

From Gujarat, Nayak Baldevbhai and his troupe from Kalol performed the Baithak ni Bhavai, a storytelling form associated with Goddess Amba. Baldevbhai says that the bhavai form of storytelling developed even before the country had the Ram Leela. While a typical bhavai runs up to four hours, the troupe performed for just an hour and narrated a humorous tale of a man and his wedding.

“One needs bhakti to perform bhavai, it’s a ceremony. And we believe we’re all blessed by Goddess Saraswati,” Baldevbhai said, as he went on to narrate the tale of how bhavai originated in the 14th century, with the help of a priest named Asai Thakur. The prominent instrument of a bhavai performance is a bhungal, a four-foot long copper pipe, played during dance sequences and also to indicate the entry of important characters. Baldevbhai believes that by playing the bhungal, “you won’t get any diseases”. And since the bhavai is related to Goddess Amba, it is believed that she arrives on stage to bless all those who are present. And that’s why, at the end of every performance, the audience is expected to stand up and seek blessings as well as make a wish. “It does come true,” says Baldevbhai, with a twinkle in his eyes.

A Padma Shri awardee, Nameirakpam Ongbi Ibemni Devi spoke to her audience in a language that not many of them understand, yet even the cold didn’t deter this storyteller. Armed with her dholak, Ibemni Devi narrated a story from the school of Khongjom Parba—a style of ballad singing depicting stories of the battle between the Manipuri and British forces during the 1891 Anglo-Manipuri war. The tale focussed on Major Paona Brajabashi, who led the Manipuri forces in the Anglo-Manipuri war of 1891 and died fighting the British forces. Despite Manipur’s loss, this struggle was seen as an act of valiance; a memorial in Imphal commemorates the freedom fighters.

Ibemni Devi was just 10 years old when she dived into Khongjom Parba, and has been doing so for over seven decades. Over 80 now, she continues to teach students back in Manipur. “Not anybody or everybody can become a Khongjom Parba performer. You need the time, the dedication and the patience, which kids of today don’t have,” she rues. As with most forms of storytelling, a typical Khongjom Parba performance runs over several days. Ibemni Devi is also the founder of the Khongjom Parba School, which conducts four-hour lessons six days a week, for those who are interested.

Every storyteller takes the visuals in their minds, in their imagination, to the minds of their audience. Rachna Bisht, the president of Nivesh, the organisation that brought together all these artists, places the emphasis on all age groups. “We felt unless the elders are taught in a certain fashion, we won’t be able to make a difference. It’s important for parents to know the importance of storytelling,” she says.

That was why it was encouraging to see children, young parents and grandparents, held in rapt attention as each storyteller performed.

Mangalam Swaminathan, programme director at IGNCA, reminds us, “The importance of live performances is more important now, at the risk of losing it.” Most of the storytellers perform in their home states, unless invited for a festival such as Kathakar. Occasions such as Holi, Dussehra and Diwali provide an ideal setting for these storytelling sessions.

As the sage Ved Vyas reputedly said, “If you listen carefully, at the end, you will be someone else.”

(All the performances were taped and are scheduled to air on DD Bharati. A second edition of the festival is slated for this September)