Kathakar is a Storytelling fest. Shaguna Gahilote, festival director of the festival talks to Saimi Sattar of the responsibilities of a raconteur.
It is one thing to read about Shivaji in a comic strip and visualise him within laid down references and contexts. But when a storyteller describes the valour of the Maratha warrior and the way his sword cut through the enemies like lightning, you embed a picture of him in your mind forever. That’s why folk ballads like Maharashtra’s Powada can popularise history and weave fantasy from our mythic traditions.
While the stories have been told over the years, it is only now that the content is being re-interpreted by a fresh breed of storytellers who have stiff competition from digital content and are trying their best to wean away an audience that hardly has any time to look up from their phone even while they are eating. Kathakaar, India’s only oral storytelling festival, which involves raconteurs from all over the world, has been plodding on for the past eight years and its latest edition is being held at the Indira Gandhi Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) from November 16-18. The three-day event, organised by IGNCA in collaboration with Nivesh, will witness immersive storytelling sessions focussing on India’s rare art forms as well as native tales from Africa, the UK, Greece, Poland, Russia and Iran.
Shaguna Gahilote, festival co-director, says, “At a time when even adults find it difficult to leave their phone, we ask the parents to bring their children minus the phone in the evening session. Once the storyteller starts telling a tale, you should see the expressions on their faces. Both children and adults are so involved. The connection that you make with people, if you can tell a story well, is amazing. They are looking at the performer but they are lost as they are visualising the story. It is playing on their imagination and they are building on it. If you start storytelling in school, you build on communication and improve it.”
Interestingly, the festival over the years has seen the audience span from ages eight to 80. And Shaguna says that in the long run this would ultimately revive and encourage reading habits among children. “We started the festival in 2010 around the same time as the Right to Education was introduced where in every annexure it was mentioned that all schools should have a library with books and newspapers. As part of UNESCO, we had been building libraries in underprivileged schools but not all children would run up and grab the books. Some would, out of curiosity but would not read them. Someone had to read out the books to them to make it interesting.” It was this realisation that led to a lot of brain-storming where she realised that there was no written word at one point of time. “We heard so many stories that were really ancient. These were oral stories that are told all over the world whether it is Russia, Africa or Europe,” she adds.
So along with her sister, she decided to get on board people who could tell stories well. “Of course, we needed very good storytellers to get the audience involved. And then you could tell them that if you want to find the story again, you can read it in that book. We knew that children are more likely to go back to books in this manner rather than when they are pressured to do so. A book becomes almost like a box where they can pull out these stories. It is getting children to read and if they read well, they will do maths and science better and when that happens, they are more likely to stay in school. It is a full circle and storytelling is at the beginning of it,” says Shaguna.
However, while initially the storytellers’’ festival started with the aim to preserve the old folk tales, somewhere along the line it also became a celebration of storytelling. “There are so many varied formats and forms in India. There is drama and performance. This gives the Indian storytellers an equal platform with the international ones as well. It also boosts their confidence as there is a newer audience coming in. Moreover, the next generation is more likely to pick it up and take storytelling further,” says she.
When the Gahilote sisters started out, it was initially difficult to get audience even though parents are always looking for activities to do with children. “We started with an audience of 250 people. It has grown slowly over eight years by word-of-mouth publicity and now we see footfalls of up to 10,000 plus for three days,” she says.
Getting the right people to tell the stories lies at the heart of the festival. “We are looking at brilliant performers. A lot of people tell you or write to you saying that they do storytelling, including publishers, who say that my writer also has that skill. But often they are just reading from a book. storytelling is no less a performance art. It is a stand-up, theatre, singing, playing a musical instrument all rolled into one to hold the audience,” she says.
Variety is of the essence. “We look for different stories that have not been told. Sometimes we get storytellers who tell Indian tales that are an adaptation. We get puppeteers from Kerala and also the Pandhwanis.” One of the highlights of the festival will include Sadhguru, founder of Isha Foundation, turning into a storyteller during a session with singer-songwriter and musician Mohit Chauhan who is also the patron of the festival.
Filmmaker Imtiaz Ali and actor Pankaj Tripathi will share their favourite tales and journey into the world of films and storytelling. Noted theatre artist Danish Hussain will present an adaptation of Qissa Urdu Ki Aakhri Kitaab Ka, originally written by Pakistani poet Ibn-e-Insha. Shaguna herself will dramatise the story of Mahatma Gandhi to mark 150 years of the Indian independence leader’s birth anniversary. International storytellers include Godfrey Duncan, the man behind the storytelling revival in UK, Michal Malinowski, who has helped keep the art alive in Poland and Xanthe Gresham, an Oxford University alumnus. They will narrate tales from Africa, Iran, Poland, Greece and India. Indian storytellers include the Phad storytellers from Rajasthan, Pandavani by the powerhouse Ritu Verma and more.
However, the festival tries to break out of the mould of the “moral of the story”. As Shaguna says, “Good folk tales or Panchatantra stories have social messaging in the end. But when every thing has a message, no one will like it. There are hidden messages and the audience is intelligent enough to decode it.”
So while relating a popular tale from England about a boy who goes shopping alone as his mother is unwell, Shaguna does not state the underlying message. “While selecting a pup, he picks a three-legged one and when the salesperson says that it’s useless, he raises his trouser to reveal a wooden leg. He says that he would understand the pup better. There is empathy involved but I never use the word. I do not have to ingrain it.”
Of course, the storytelling for children and adults is a bit different. “Sometimes completely different tales are told in the evening. If there is an entirely adult audience, you can even do a very sensuous telling of the story which is never done in the morning session. Or maybe the same tale is told to both while obliterating gory details for children. Vikram Betal is a nice easy tale for a child but may be when telling it to an adult, it can be related how he bled to death or how he was killed,” she says.
Writer: Saimi Sattar
Courtesy: The Pioneer