Storytellers, professionals and performing artistes gathered at a village near Thanjavur to listen to traditional tales as part of the Chennai Storytelling Festival

There is no dearth of traditional stories in our country. But with the electronic media overtaking our lives and changing societal mores, the oral tradition could become a thing of the past. And this is in danger of happening very soon, if we don’t do enough to preserve the vast bank of stories built up and handed down over the generations by storytellers in our villages.

For the motley crowd of storytellers, professionals and performing artistes who travelled to Thanjavur and past lush paddy fields and idyllic villages to neighbouring Panayakottai (as part of the Chennai Storytelling Festival), it was magical to sit under a leafy canopy and be transported to times past. While they were treated to fascinating stories in which truth and justice always triumphed, they were also exposed to a uniquely local style of storytelling — the seven local storytellers, who doubled as coaches and mentors, interspersed the narrative with song.

Speech and song

Says Dr. Eric Miller (PhD in Folklore) Director, World Storytelling Institute and Chennai Storytelling Festival: “In city cultures and in cultures that lay emphasis on reading and writing we learn many things. But we may also forget many things such as the different ways of telling stories. We were specially searching for stories that had the storyteller breaking into song about the story or role-playing the characters who sing their thoughts. Alternating between speech and song is a very effective way of attracting and holding the attention of listeners and we wanted to learn this. We chose Thanjavur because two Folklore professors there — Dr. C. Sundaresan, head of the Folklore Department, Tamil University, and the former Head of the Department Dr. A. Ramanathan — have for years been gathering and recording tellers of folk tales.”

For Kamini Ramachandran, professional storyteller, and co-founder of Moon Shadow Stories, Singapore, and artistic director of the Singapore International Storytelling Festival, the field trip “reinforced the truth that most folk tales are adapted and modified by the story tellers themselves and given new twists and turns, relevant to the location and situation

She heard so many variations of one story in a single sitting. It was also a surreal experience for this writer to sit in a village and listen to the same stories she had read in A. K. Ramanujan’s books being re-told by the women storytellers.”

Stories that heal

For Magdalene Jeyarathnam, director, Centre for Counselling, the trip helped provide a framework to compose stories for healing and therapeutic purposes. “It was comforting to hear stories where metaphors were used to convey painful situations (for instance, my house is falling down when someone was dying) and others in which even Nature came to one’s rescue as a witness when injustice was being meted out.”

As Ilanjiamma, one of the storytellers observed, with television and cinema making inroads into the rural areas even the children did not want to listen to traditional stories anymore. But with English-speaking, mouse-clicking city folk, documenting stories and putting up a storytelling performance for the village school children, a sense of pride was perhaps rekindled in them about the vast wealth they didn’t know they possessed.