Let us hear a forgotten story: Reviving the ancient art of storytelling

The ancient art of oral storytelling is swiftly fading away. Its revival and preservation are crucial.

By Shubhangi Shah

Most of us have grown up listening to stories narrated by our parents and grandparents. Legends from Ramayana and Mahabharata, folk tales, religious stories, those about ordinary people, animals—listening to these were enough to take us to a fictional land so engrossing that just one short story wasn’t enough to satiate our creative instincts. Sadly, with the increasing popularity of other mediums, such as TV, social media and OTT platforms, this art of oral storytelling is swiftly fading away.

A festival for storytelling

“When we started, it was very difficult to find Indian storytellers,” said Shaguna Gahilote, a writer, professional storyteller, and one of the three organisers of Kathakar: International Storytellers Festival, the other two being her sisters Rachna and Prarthna. The festival, an annual affair that started in 2011, held its 14th edition this year on May 20 and 21 at New Delhi’s Sunder Nursery opposite the towering Humayun’s Tomb. “These were traditional storytellers whose styles were very ancient. You brought them to a modern stage, and they were unable to connect,” she said. Hence, the idea behind Kathakar, meaning storyteller, was “to preserve this art form, as they were probably the last generation of artistes practicing it,” Shaguna explained. Documenting it was not an option as you again “box it up”. “Instead, we wanted to build a platform,” she added.

Herself a writer, Shaguna’s tryst with stories began in her childhood when her parents not only got her books but also narrated them. She and her sister Prarthna work in culture. “We did several workshops with children who didn’t remember any folk tales. They generally narrated stories like Cinderella and Snow White,” she said.

A slice of desert

Like Shaguna, actor and theatre artiste Sikandar Khan also grew up listening to stories, especially from her grandmother. “At night, she narrated stories for hours. Even when she narrated the same story several times, it seemed interesting. We got something new out of it with every passing narration,” he said.

At Kathakar, Khan, who has worked in the hit Amazon Prime series Mumbai Diaries 26/11, narrated an 82-page-long Rajasthani folk tale by Sahitya Akademi Award-winning writer Vijaydan Detha. The story, originally written for reading, was 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 immensely in that.”

Tales from faraway

“In India, oral storytelling is fading away. But in Europe, it saw a revival as far back as in the 1980s,” said Shaguna. Bringing stories from his land was Michal Malinowski, a professional storyteller from Poland. His performance was such that the audience sat in the rain, some holding umbrellas, some not, as the performer performed, himself drenched in the rain.

Bringing stories from the Himalayas was celebrated music composer Shantanu Moitra. Human-animal co-existence featured prominently in his narration.

Entertain & educate

That’s the thing about this ancient art form. It isn’t just entertainment. Stories performed often have a learning or social observation embedded in them, which aren’t just to entertain but also to educate.

Another thing is that storytelling cannot be consumed in a silo. “This isn’t like reading a book, which is an isolated affair,” said the event’s organiser. “Storytelling, on the other hand, is social,” she added. And rightly so. This art form can entertain an eight-year-old and an eighty-year-old at the same time, hence, binds the listeners. In a way, it contributes to cultural cohesion too. Not just that, as it is passed from one generation to the next, it can act, to a certain degree, as a record of the past.

Preservation is the ‘need’

“It’s because there is a need,” said Shaguna on why the effort in preserving this fading art form is worth it. “Folk tale 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 a long one. But it can begin by simply listening and passing that story to the next generation. It’s that simple.

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