Reviving oral traditions in digital boom era

By Rajiv Theodore

New Delhi, Oct. 31, 2018: In this era of a digital boom and media blitz, the spoken word still is the most frequently used and important mode of communications.

The spoken word contains subtleties that the written word – even with emojis – cannot convey. Perhaps, because talking is so easy (once we have mastered it), we speak often without considering closely the words we choose and their impact.

If we are careless about the spoken word it is no surprise that we undervalue the oral tradition. It is a great shame that we do not teach children how to speak, and listen, effectively with the same thoroughness that we teach reading and writing. For some of us, the immediacy and finality of the spoken word may seem to be an enormous handicap, because it cannot be polished and reworked.

This is not so with folktales and legends, for the stories are worked and reworked, polished and adapted to varied places and times in a way that is not possible for the written word. Storytelling not only teaches you lessons or entertains you, it goes beyond that– to offer you a ray of hope.

Traditional stories can, in the oral versions benefit from flexibility, emotion, pacing, emphasis and audience participation. Stephen Bertman, the historian, speaks of the advantage of classical times with myths “their numbers… winnowed by tradition, the precious residue preserved in memory and passed on orally from generation to generation … the storytellers were the keepers of the legacy, and the telling and retelling of treasured stories ingrained them in the hearts of the listeners.”

Many people think that the oral folk tale, reflecting cultural beliefs is outdated. But here lies a danger of people not only losing contact with their roots but losing the possibility of understanding the roots of their neighbors and colleagues from other cultures if folktales are no longer heard. Folk tales are thus our links to the past. India’s storytelling traditions are as diverse as the culture of the country.

In other words, telling stories is more than just a fun activity– it is a way of preserving the culture and beliefs and passing them down to the next generation. Speaking of this backdrop Matters India recently attended India’s only oral storytelling festival at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi.

Called Kathakar, the festival was a mélange of Indian and foreign raconteurs who brought alive a bouquet of global folktales, myths and contemporary stories, rooted in native traditions, through an intriguing and absorbing recount, sweeping the exuberant crowd into raptures.

The renditions at ‘Kathakar’ bore testimony to the fact that the oral tradition is still alive. There were powerful and diverse storytelling sessions from India, the UK, Africa and Poland. Performances were highly dramatized, involving gestures, physical actions and voice effects by artists, with a lot of audience participation. The audience included a large group of school children too. ‘’

The power of storytelling is such that everybody is glued to it, when you almost know that it is opening an imaginative world. And the success of the festival, therefore, lies with the listeners, who keep returning to the festival asking for more,” said well-known storytelling artist Shaguna Gahilote.

“This is that kind of storytelling where you naturally get in to a place where there is suspension of disbelief, what is logical and magical get mixed up. The idea of the storytelling is you are not trapped (in your logic), your life touches some magic,” renowned spiritualist Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev who attended the festival said. The ‘Bapu Ki Kahani’ (Story of Bapu) session offered insights into the life of Mahatma Gandhi through simple anecdotes that amplified his lifelong tryst with honesty and empathy.

A pièce de résistance of the festival was TUUP’s narration of a Creation tale from South America. Born to Guyanese parents and raised in London, TUUP, which means ‘the unorthodox, unprecedented preacher’, held the audience in spell through his acts of unmatched improvisation and mimicry. He made the story of a young boy from the rainforests of Amazon come alive through outstanding charisma and spontaneity. Being a creative lyricist, poet, percussionist and vocalist in an earlier life, he recreated the Amazonian rainforest through bird songs, flowing rivers and other primal sounds of the jungle.

Michal Malinowski, a museologist and founder of The Storyteller Museum, which is dedicated to the traditions of oral and intangible heritage, urged the audience to renew their ties with oral traditions to fight contemporary adversaries. Godfrey Duncan, the Guyana-origin artist from London, re-adapted the story of mythological duo Vikram and Betal, virtually transporting the audience to a graveyard inhabited by a ghost who also happens to be a storyteller.

Organised by NGO Nivesh, with the Himalayan Hub for Art Culture and Heritage (HHACH), ‘Kathakar’ is India’s only oral storytelling festival that has revived the dying artform in different states of the country, through a series of dramatized storytelling sessions. “In our eight-year-long journey, we have introduced nearly 200 storytellers to the people of Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Shillong, Dehradun, Mussoorie. We have revived a dying art form, but it pains me to say that some of what we are showcasing are the last of the performers in their respective areas or genres,” said festival organiser Rachna Gahilote Bisht.

Film actor Pankaj Tripathi spoke about his experience as a storyteller. Known for his underplayed performances, which are laced with dry humour, the Bihar-born actor held the listener’s attention with tales that were both spooky and hilarious at the same time.

“Storytelling is very important. We have everything meant for the purpose of storytelling—eyes to see, a tongue to speak and ears to listen. That is how stories travel. And what we are today is because of the stories that we have heard,” the actor said, while reminiscing about his childhood days when his mother would put him to bed every night as she narrated a story.

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