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Reviving Interactive Narratives – Storytelling Traditions

Written by Ria Iyer,

November 14th 2020,

At age 8, whenever I tucked myself into my warm bed sharp at 10 pm, I would always squeeze into the top right corner to leave as much space as I could on the single bed for my amamai to lie next to me. In her saccharine voice, she would narrate tales of kings and queens, gods and demons, battles and triumphs, hate and love. My favourite stories, however- were never the grandiose tales of kings or demons or battles. On special occasions, when my parents joined us at the foot of my bed, amamai would begin with my favourite tales. Here, the protagonist was often a young, ambitious princess with an undying love for horses (just like 8 year old me), would have my name and like all the food I did. These ‘bedtime’ stories always kept me wide-eyed and awake- not only because of the excitement, but the constant stream of questions directed towards me, each response of mine akin to a puzzle piece in the jigsaw-esque story my amamai was weaving. 

The unique timelessness of storytelling as an art form lies in precisely this- the opportunity for the audience to be a part of the narrative, sometimes even control the narrative. Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian novel by American writer Ray Bradbury, through descriptions of book burnings and historical erasure, has accentuated this very timelessness. The lead character, Guy Montag encounters “the book people”- a group that has travelled the country and memorised the stories and works of the places visited- bringing those stories back to their children and orally narrating it to them. The interactive aspect of storytelling, combined with the intimacy integral to the art form, has established a foundation for communal culture-building- defining how we “create and recreate our world”. 

Va, kataikaḷ neram ayyecha!” (Come, it’s time for stories!), my amamai would call. Before launching into the narration, she would always reminisce a bit, telling me about her mother and grandmother’s fascinating stories, how they too would break into song now and then and scold her for the numerous interruptions she made. Her stories originated from an ancient oral storytelling tradition of Tamil Nadu, kathaiyyam paatum– famous for its interactive stories and incorporated songs, and extremely popular in my amamai’s native village in Palakkad. Although usually narrated at home for the kids, it was also grandly executed on stages with elaborate decorations and extravagant costumes adorning the performers and the set. 

While kathaiyyam paatum belongs to a more informal style, catered towards teaching children about morality through entertaining songs and stories, religious and spiritual themes are central to Hari Katha and Kathakalashepa. These genres incorporate music, dance, drama, anecdotes and poetry into their form. Magic finds itself intertwined within several storytelling traditions, specifically in the kawad bachana of Rajasthan, and dastangoi, which originated in Turkey and found its way to India in the 19th century. Storytellers of the Burra Katha of Andhra Pradesh used it in the fight for independence and the struggle for caste liberation. The musical art form Villu Paatu of Tamil Nadu incorporated a debate-style structure to discuss the prevailing social issues of their times. 

Darain Shahidi & Mahmood Farooqui, Renowned Dastangoi Performers

In today’s digital age, with a single pre-recorded voice accessible to anyone, oral, face-to-face storytelling seems like a thing of the past. But, to form hegemonic narratives and discourses, to build empathy and pave the way for social justice- what better than an art form that involves the audience in its stories? The performer’s ability to create a personal connection with their immediate audience enhances the ability to empathise- catalysing the process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The absence of this active involvement in various other modern forms of art, typically involving passive consumption, makes this goal harder to achieve. 

Dan Yashinsky, contemporary storyteller proposes that storytelling is an old tradition turned avant-garde art form that has recently seen a resuscitation of its intimate, interactive nature. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a performance by two of the storytellers from the troupe Jashn-e-qalam, dedicated to the revival of the art of storytelling. Vicky Ahuja and KC Shankar performed, in Hindustani, stories penned down by brilliant writers of South Asia. Vijaydan Detha’s Fitrati Chor and Asad Mohammad Khan’s Ma’i Dada came to life before our eyes, enchanting us with its startling, strongly enunciated dialogues, and captivating enactments. Dastangoi, characterised by themes of sorcery, also found it’s way back to modern contexts through individuals such as Mahmood Farouqi, Danish Hussain and Ankit Chadha. They have revolutionised the art form by infusing it with contemporary language nuances and themes, creating a mystical narrative that also prides itself on its aural felicity and relatability. 

Ankit Chadha, along with a few members of his storytelling team, even performed during student protests in 2016 on the JNU campus. The performance piece was called Dastan-e-sedition, and a member of the team commented that “When certain people bestow meanings on the idea of nationalism, stories remind us that everything is meaningless if it conflicts with the idea of humanity. Stories cannot amend unfair laws or provide food to the poor. But they give voice to what many want should remain unseen.”

Geeta Ramunujam in Performance

Several festivals have also celebrated this revival of storytelling that’s taking place in the Indian context. For instance, Kathakar was a 3-day event that invited storytellers from around the world, facilitating interactive oral storytelling sessions. Similarly, the Udaipur Tales Festival served as a reminder of the relevance of storytelling in today’s contexts, celebrating several storytellers and their art through performances. Geeta Ramunujam, founder of the Indian Storyteller Network, has been integral to the revival of this art, bringing the storytelling community together in an unprecedented manner. A big believer in the subversive power of storytelling, she set up numerous storytelling institutions like the Kathalaya in Bangalore, as well as the globally recognised Academy of Storytelling. 

Storytelling could slowly but steadily make its way back into our cultural spaces. This revival of non linear narratives integral to Indian history has possibly alluded to a future, a time that exists as an amalgamation of the tranquility of the past and the innovations of the present. 

Experience Further: The rawness of Mai Dhai’s verses contrasted with Atif Aslam’s smooth vocals in this song is what initially grabbed my attention. Every time I give this Coke Studio rendition of an old Rajasthani folk song a listen, I find myself completely wrapped up in its story. Writing this piece often brought this somehow simultaneously soothing and rousing song to the forefront of my mind

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.


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