Tale of the storytellers

Tale of the storytellers

By KARAN CHOUDHARY | | 13 February, 2016
(From left to right) Tim Ralphs, Emily Hennessey and Giles Abbott.
Few people realise that the art of oral storytelling, having its roots in certain Eastern traditions, has over the years attained an international reach. In Britain alone, around 100 storytellers are today part of a small but growing circuit of professional raconteurs. Karan Choudhary meets with three of UK’s top storytellers.

All the rapid advances made in technology in the last century have redefined how humans spend their leisure time. If someone manages to invent a time machine, a traveller to the year 1916 would be most surprised by the very different way in which people used to entertain themselves.

This surfeit of novel forms of entertainment led to a lot of the old ones dying out. The circus, travelling performers and vaudevilles are among those which have become almost extinct these days. The music hall and the theatre are now preserves of the elite for the most part, and do not permeate the lives of ordinary people. If there is a field in the social sphere where Darwin’s aphorism of “survival of the fittest” has played out fully most effectively, it is in the entertainment business.

One such traditional form that seems to have fallen out of fashion is the art of storytelling. Giles Abbott, one of the few remaining exponents of this art opines, “There may be only about a hundred people in the UK who are professional storytellers.” That works out to just about one storyteller for about 6,60,000 people. It would take a prodigiously enthusiastic performer to cover a demographics so large.

Knowing this, it was quite a surprise when I heard the compere at the makeshift auditorium on the lawns of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts ask the audience to make some more room for the new people who were showing up – people who had come here to see performances at Kathakar – International Storytellers Festival.

The large crowd clearly dismayed one spectator, who declined to identify himself, but did say, “I thought I’d found something obscure, but it seems everyone knows about this show, now the point in my coming here has been lost.”

An attempt to revive the ancient tradition of storytelling, Kathakar has brought here both domestic and International professionals to perform and to acquaint the people with the joys of listening closely to an artfully told story.

Emily Hennessey, a storyteller from the United Kingdom, performed an oral rendition of the story of Kali on the stage. Her voice is barely a murmur as she relays the story, but then, suddenly, she inflects up to announce the presence of the goddess. This sudden change in pitch startles the enterprising tea seller, who has set up shop nearby, and he drops the cup he has in his hand.

“It’s all about energy, you have to make sure that there is energy in your telling, else the story becomes vapid” she discloses later. “Storytelling is a fine art, and the magic only happens if you capture the imagination of the those who are listening to you.”

I kept that in mind, as I heard my next story. I tried following Giles Abbott, another of the UK performers at the festival, as he performed his piece. The story had only just started when my mobile phone buzzed. Ooh! A message. In the time that I check it, I lost track of the story. I tried to locate the narrative again. But then I started day dreaming, imagining how I’ll surely make this artsy story into a masterpiece. I can almost see my Pulitzer Prize. My reverie was broken by the applause of the crowd as Abbott took leave of the audiences.

“Storytelling is a very personal art. It depends largely on how people imagine the story in their head. A performer only enables them to imagine the story. And this is where storytelling really shines. It allows the receivers to create a world for themselves,” said Abbott, explaining my inability to enjoy his performance.

And this is one of the reasons why storytelling is no longer a mainstream medium of entertainment. It requires effort to be enjoyed. “Stories are the basis of all forms of entertainment, but storytelling as a performance art is one form which needs the viewer to be engaged. It cannot be enjoyed passively, unlike, say television,” said Abbott.

The non-visual nature of the form compels patrons to imagine the stories in their heads, and play them out internally. The subjective nature of this visualisation though, also ensures that listening to these stories is a more personal experience for the audience. The teller can focus on bits on the story, explore themes, but the magic of the story comes from within the head of the listener.

“One place where storytelling really excels is that it creates this sense of community in the audience. There are few things more enjoyable than an audience which is fully in a story. You can almost see so many different versions of the story forming in the heads of audience, held together by the common words which the performer uses. This I feel is magic,” said Hennessey.

Unlike reading, the other narrative form where the user is as instrumental in creating the world of story, dramatic storytelling is a group activity. And unlike stand-up comedy, the entire story is a whole, and keeps the audience engaged longer. “A performance could go from anywhere between 20 minutes to three hours,” Abbott said. This creates a special atmosphere for storytelling.

“One place where storytelling really excels is that it creates this sense of community in the audience. There are few things more enjoyable than an audience which is fully in a story. You can almost see so many different versions of the story forming in the heads of audience, held together by the common words which the performer uses. This I feel is magic.”

The Kathakar festival, an annual one, had performances of various forms of oral storytelling. Beside the dramatic oral tradition which the UK-based group of Tim Ralphs, Emily Hennessey and Giles Abbott displayed, the Indian musical art of storytelling was also showcased here. This was through performances of “Swang”, a folk tradition from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where the story is told in song.

The large crowds bode well for the future of storytelling as a dramatic art. “I genuinely believe that it can recapture an audience, and become mainstream again,” said Hennessey. “There is a great experience for all those who come to the tellings and eventually we might see dramatic storytelling emulate stand-up comedy in popularity,” she said.

But not everyone is that enthusiastic. Rujul Bhatt, one of those who attended the storytelling sessions, said, “A little of the charm of this form is in the fact that it is so quaint, and if it becomes commercial, it may must just lose some of its charm, and some of its originality.”

This is a unique predicament, and raises uncomfortable questions. Is storytelling so fascinating only because it is somewhat arcane? Or does the appeal lie in the medium itself?

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