Jashn-e-Qalam brings Hindi writers to the forefront through storytelling

What is it about storytelling that still holds the audience's attention despite several sources of entertainment available to the masses today? Old grandma’s tales of kings and wars, of mythology and magic, of epics and folklore, command people's imagination even in modern times.

And so as the storytelling session unveiled at a small café in Delhi last weekend, people from all age groups sat mesmerised as they savoured four stories from classic Hindi literature enacted by four solo performers. Titled Ek Baar Ki Baat Hai, the stories by Rajinder Singh Bedi, Sa’adat Hasan Manto, Kamleshwar and Mohan Rakesh were enacted by Shashwita Sharma, Manjeet Mahipal, KC Shankar, and Vicky Ahuja, respectively. They are all television and film artists and members of Jashn-e-Qalam, a group founded by Shankar in 2014 in Mumbai.

“I was part of an English theatre company in Mumbai for seven years where we used to perform solo literary pieces. I found those performances to be extremely liberating," states Shankar, who has starred in the television show, Jamai Raja. "This theatre company was my learning board. The idea of picking up classic literature for solo performances was very exciting. And so I decided to start a group of my own where we would delve into such vast repertoire of stories and treat people to storytelling."

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Manjeet Mahipal, Vicky Ahuja, KC Shankar and Shashwita Sharma

And so Jashn-e-Qalam was conceived in November 2014 with Shashwita as part of the initial team. In December of the same year, the group came up with their first performance on the stories of Manto in Mumbai. “We started with dramatic readings as live events. Gradually, the entire process of performing one story solo before a select audience became a huge challenge," says Shashwita, who was seen in the TV show Doli Armaanon Ki. A trained kathak dancer, Shashwita uses her voice and body to bring out the quirks of the characters in every story.

“The beauty of storytelling is that you are not restricted by space," says Shankar, “It is more like the old days when theatre used to come to us. They’d set up a little structure and some props and perform.” The Jashn-e-Qalam team reads one Hindi writer each month and then picks his or her stories to either read as a narrative or include some theatrics for a solo performance. This could be anywhere – in classrooms in academic institutions, in parks, slums, black-box theatres or even a café. Each story session is followed by an interactive session with the audience. “People share their views on the story. When they hear words, they get transported into a world where their mind creates a visual image. The audience becomes a part of the story. That is the beauty of storytelling,” Shankar states. “Not only are these stories engaging but they are also relevant to today’s times.”

Manjeet, who has also been a part of Jashn-e-Qalam since its inception believes, “Storytelling is the oldest and purest form of theatre.” The group performs four to five shows in a month. At times, they use writers who weave a context around the story. Sometimes the performance could begin with a poem or a little speech. But of course, there are no costumes, no make-up, no props and no supporting actors. “The absence of everything that supports an actor makes it difficult. The eyes and ears of the audience stay fixed on you. You alone have to capture their attention," explains Shashwita. There is definitely a certain kind of skill required, agrees Shankar. “It is very demanding and at times terrifyingly difficult, though it is not important to give a flawless performance. It is more important to give an honest performance.” He asserts that being open to mistakes is what makes the performance endearing.

Is he planning to perform stories of regional writers as well? “I am looking at regional translations. There are brilliant writers of Punjabi, Malayalam, Tamil and Bengali literature. But my first preference would be to stick to the original language. The essence of the original is lost in translation,” he explains. He does have actors who can perform in these languages and has earlier performed three stories in Punjabi that were well received by audiences in Mumbai. Shankar is looking at working on folk tales and stories from tribal backgrounds as well.

Jashn-e-Qalam's performances are available on Sound Cloud.