Kathakar: The eighth edition of the festival brings together vast array of stories from across the world

Imagine huddling together in a crowd of hundreds, fighting the chill of a Delhi November fog to relive the rage of a mother separated from her daughter by Hades, the loneliness of a Polish boy with all the money in the world, but no one to share it with, and the scorn of a woman ostracised for her old age in a Guyanese village. This is what attending the 8th annual international oral storytelling festival, Kathakar, was like. An initiative of the Gahilote sisters, this year’s Kathakar took place on the lawns of the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts from 16-18 November. It featured performances of Polish, Indian, Guyanese, Iranian and Greek legends, as well as old and modern Indian tales. Panels on the importance of storytelling and performance closed each night, with celebrity guests the likes of Sadhguru, Imtiaz Ali and Mohit Chauhan.

In contemporary imagination, oral storytelling is often restricted to events for children, sitting in libraries or bookstores listening to centuries-old legends that are often mistaken as childish. Kathakar distinctly tries to make oral storytelling relevant to adults, as well as children. “We can’t forget storytelling is for adults, which means we have to talk about the incest, the murder, the rape that exists in these classic stories. Otherwise, we are denying the adults that remembering, that we are all universal children,” says British-Guyanese storyteller Tuup (Godfrey Duncan).

Tuup (Godfrey Duncan) performs narrates a Guyanese legend on shooting stars

Tuup (Godfrey Duncan) performs narrates a Guyanese legend on shooting stars. All images courtesy of Kathakar festival.

Tuup performed on all three nights, and his ultimate performance was a stunning, dark Guyanese legend of how shooting stars are made. An old and wise woman in a village is ostracised because of her age, believed to be a vampire. Fed up of the villagers’ abuse, the woman begins feasting on children’s blood at night. She is caught by the villagers, but turns into a ball of fire, shooting into the night, before they can kill her. Throughout the performance, Tuup described the process of the woman disrobing from her skin to become a vampire spirit with the addictive cadence of a spoken word artist. He also acted out, with sound effects, the woman drinking children’s blood. While a little graphic, Tuup’s final story was advertised as scary, and in the context of the culture and world of the narrative, his choices made sense.

Similarly, Xanthe Gresham told the tragic Iranian story of Sohrab and Rustum, where a father mistakenly kills his son in a war, and the story of Hades abducting Persephone. Unlike Tuup, Gresham was a little anxious about telling violent stories to crowds with children. Although not a conscious choice, Gresham let slip the word rape when speaking of Persephone’s abduction. As an audience member, I was hung on the word rape, not because I found it inappropriate in a crowd full of children, but because the violence in Persephone’s tale is rarely named so clearly. “The important thing is that terrible things can happen but the children need to get out of the forest — the forest is anything that is unbearable and terrible. If we don’t tell these stories, these children won’t get a roadmap,” Grisham says of performing slightly darker stories. However, Grisham is adamant that no matter how dark the story, it has to end with hope, to show children how to cope with tragedies.

Persephone narrated by Xanthe Grisham

Persephone narrated by Xanthe Grisham

While Grisham and Tuup were largely unflinching in their approach to the reality of violence, for other storytellers, there was a greater need to be a little withholding. Navin Pangti found it more appropriate to perform a story about environmental violence, rather than the story he had originally intended to perform, on the violence of colonisation. Kathakar was Pangti’s first paid event as a storyteller. He is a farmer based in Uttarakhand, and uses fiction as a means to mediate in issues that are made populist by vitriolic discourse. “If you go and debate about anything, if it’s a radical person, he will get very angry. Today, when I was telling the story of a dam, and I mentioned Pancheshwar, nobody said anything. If I say Pancheshwar anywhere else, they will kill me,” explains Pangti.

Sudip Gupta’s dolls theater show ‘Taming the Wild’ also showed the impact of human ‘progress’ on the environment. The silent shows featured a family of fish and the impact of fishing on their lives. The second one featured a farmer trying to tear down a seemingly indestructible plant, only to be run out by the bees and birds that flock around the plant. The puppets used were minimalistic, but mixed both modern and traditional elements with mechanics. For example, the farmer rides a tractor with wheels that actually roll across the stage like a toy car.

Dolls theater by Sudip Gupta

Dolls theater by Sudip Gupta

The festival also saw moments of classic storytelling, dealing with the great moral questions that usually exist in fables and tales. Michael Malinowski’s Polish tale of a boy who is granted riches without the ability to share it, had some relatable contemporary moments, like when the protagonist tries to escape his loneliness with video games. Eventually, the boy gives up his riches, as he can’t help anyone he loves, and is isolated. In the middle of Malinowski’s performance, the power went out. At that moment, the audience and Malinowski, plunged in darkness, debated whether they should keep going. Then, the crowd erupted into cheers and applause, and Malinowski began his story again, his voice louder than before. Instinctively, we all came a little closer together. Perhaps we did so to hear him better, or perhaps because the darkness was reminiscent of the essence of storytelling — sitting in a circle and sharing familiar, beloved tales over and over again. There was a certain universality to Malinowski’s theme — a deep desire to stay connected and share what we have with the ones we love.

Michael Malinowski narrating a Polish legend on witches and demons

Michael Malinowski narrating a Polish legend on witches and demons

Other storytellers echoed the thought that good storytelling is universal. “I really believe that stories do not have any passports, and the more you are a storyteller, the more you see that they repeat the archetypal truths within the same story structure,” claims Grisham, who told an Iranian story as a British storyteller. Even Tuut performed a story out of Vikram and Betal. When asked about the danger of cultural appropriation at the second-day panel, Tuut and Grisham both said that the stories which were not from their cultures were gifts. Although the two storytellers did profit monetarily from narratives outside of their culture, they acknowledged their outsider status, provided context and background for the cultural specificities in the stories they told, and referenced the original storyteller, making claims of cultural appropriation dubious.

Cultural appropriation or not, the performers’ ability to sing and act, and then convince a crowd of strangers to be the chorus to your dramas without enjoying the renown of rockstars is the work of some magic. Perhaps the celebrities who did endorse the festival drew the large crowd that showed up every day of the festival, but the audience stayed for the feeling of community created in specific moments, like when responding to Tuup’s call for honour with the reciprocal chant of respect, or snapping one’s fingers to create the fire that freed spirits trapped by Hades in the underworld.

At the end of her final performance, Grisham turned to the children she had called on stage, and asked them “will you take a vow to re-tell these stories?” They bowed with her on stage, a moment shared between current and future storytellers, holding the crowd for one of the final moments of the festival, to the pain and hope and love of powerful storytelling.

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Updated Date: Nov 26, 2018 14:54:28 IST

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