The long and short of storytelling in India

Hindustan Times | By
Dec 07, 2018 10:02 PM IST

With professional storytellers taking centre stage at literary festivals, private gatherings and other events, narrating stories to an audience has moved beyond being a bedtime activity for children

Around 20 years ago, when Jeeva Raghunath used to tell people that she was a storyteller, they would often respond with, “Yeah, but what do you do?” From that phase to becoming a professional storyteller who has travelled to 23 countries to narrate Indian folk tales, it’s been a long, tough journey. “You have to understand that back then, the scene was not as happening as it is now,” says Raghunath.

Left to Right: Vicky Ahuja, Jeeva Raghunath and Syed Sahil Agha during their performances at Udaipur Tales International Storytelling Festival, 2018.(Image courtesy Udaipur tales)
Left to Right: Vicky Ahuja, Jeeva Raghunath and Syed Sahil Agha during their performances at Udaipur Tales International Storytelling Festival, 2018.(Image courtesy Udaipur tales)

Listening to stories and passing them down over generations is part of Indian culture. But in the last 10 years, storytelling has come to the fore as a craft, with professional storytellers taking tales of different cultures, histories and ideologies to audiences. Oral storytellers such as Ragunath are increasingly finding new audiences through private gatherings, government events and cultural festivals.

She was one of the participants at the second edition of Udaipur Tales – International Storytelling Festival. The three-day annual event held last week celebrates the oral storytelling tradition.

Raghunath specialises in folktales. She started with stories for children before graduating to telling stories to adults. “I cannot remember names and too many facts. That’s why I don’t try narrating mythological stories. I prefer folk tales and I add a bit of humour to them,” says Raghunath, who is also foreign director of the Federation of Asian Storytellers (FEAST).

The Udaipur festival had authors, artistes and professional storytellers from India, Bhutan and Russia, all of whom experimented with different formats and genres of storytelling: Actor Vicky Ahuja performed Premchand’s story Badey Bhaisahab; theatre actor and director Vaishali Bisht presented the story A Woman Alone written by Italian playwrights Dario Fo and Franca Rame; Syed Sahil Agha collaborated with opera singer Kabuki Khanna for a musical narration of Vijayadan Detha’s story Duvidha; and Marathi actor Smita Tambe performed jogwa (the story of young men and women who are traditionally married off to local deities in parts of South India and Maharashtra).

“We wanted to conserve cultures which are vanishing every passing day. We identified storytelling because stories remain in our subconscious. Stories go into our souls and change us in ways we are not aware of,” says Sushmita Singha, co-founder of the festival.

Raghunath points out that storytelling, as we see it now, started taking shape across the world 30 years ago. The effect was visible in India too. People in different regions began performing tales from mythology and other genres. While Raghunath was honing her craft in Chennai, Geeta Ramanujam established the Kathalaya academy of storytelling in Bangalore. Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain, among others, popularised the art of dastangoi in north and central India.

“Initially, a majority of storytellers catered to children. Then storytelling moved to corporate houses. Literary festivals followed suit, taking the art form to their audiences. It is not a struggle anymore to be a storyteller,” says Raghunath.

FEAST’s latest conference was in Singapore in November. Its 2019 meet is scheduled in Bengaluru where the theme will be myth, legends and epics.


Dastan-e-Amir Hamza
Tales of Amir Hamza, from the 9th century Persian epic which travelled to India
Short stories by Premchand
The master of the Hindi short story, Premchand’s works like Badey Bhaisahab, Boodhi Kaaki and Shatranj Ke Khiladi are in great demand among storytellers
Manto’s short stories
His numerous works never fail to fascinate readers, critiques and narrators alike
The saga of Amir Khusrau
The great medieval poet Khusrau’s coming-of-age as a soldier, poet and music maestro
The story of 15th century mystic poet, saint
The story of the origin and evolution of Urdu language in India and beyond

“What we see now is part of a larger trend of going back to our roots or culture. There was a period, in between, when there was no talk of it. Now, we see college students reading Manto, Bulle Shah and Kabir,” says Delhi-based dastango Syed Sahil Agha, who learnt the skill by observing his grandfather as he recounted tales of Partition to relatives and guests.

Every story does not lend itself to storytelling though . Neither is there any trick to finding a tale worth narrating. Says actor Vicky Ahuja, “Mostly, the story chooses you, and not the other way round. The story has to talk to you, do something to you. That is the one worth sharing. But the same story can work for me, and not for someone else.”

While selecting a story, the only thing a storyteller must ensure is that it’s well written. “Then the story works even if the performance is not up to the mark,” adds Ahuja.

Almost every storyteller has come across at least one story which is a gripping read but not easy to perform. For Ahuja, it is Sadat Hasan Manto’s short story, Naara . “It is about a wealthy seth abusing a poor man. It is an internal story. I tried but could not execute it. It is brilliantly written though,” says Ahuja, who routinely attends storytelling sessions of Naseeruddin Shah and Ashish Vidyarthi in Mumbai.

Sahil Agha says that story selection is organic process. “From a wide collection, one particular story grows on you. It tells you, ‘share me with people, I have many secrets within me, let them unravel me’.”


    Danish Raza is a special correspondent with the Hindustan Times. He covers gender, identity politics, human rights, conflicts and online speech.

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