Stories to nurture your soul

Stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata fascinated U.K-based storyteller Emily Parrish. Combining it with the Pandvani form of epic singing, she’s created a new mash-up way to tell myths from the world over.

Updated - February 05, 2015 09:30 pm IST

Published - February 05, 2015 09:25 pm IST

Children, as young as four, lucidly telling stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana and acting it out in the Kattaikkuttu tradition all night in the villages of Tamil Nadu fascinated U.K. based storyteller Emily Parrish. “For the first time I heard the Mahabharata told in a context where it felt alive; the children told the stories with such passion. They would perform all night, and the audience would eat and dance with the storytellers. It was part religion, part performance. I was fascinated with its energy,” says Emily.

She spent many months with them, learning from them in a village near Kanchipuram, just as she had spent time in Ladakh where she spent two months during the harvesting season, learning Tibetan Buddhist folktales.

But this is somewhere down the road in the story of Emily’s journey.

It began way back at the University of Kent, where she was studying drama and was disillusioned with her course, when she chanced upon a workshop with Vayu Naidu (the famous UK. based storyteller and children’s author). “Till then I had thought that storytelling was for kids. Vayu told us this story from India and she created this whole visual world without any props or costumes. I still remember ‘seeing’ everything she described.” Emily went on to work closely with Vayu Naidu after her graduation, completing a storytelling apprenticeship (where she performed in schools, on streets and in refugee camps) and later worked as an education officer for Vayu Naidu Storytelling Theatre Company.

“I had seen a Bharatanatyam performance telling the story of Krishna. I had been in Nepal, where I was surrounded by stories of Shiva. I was getting drawn to Indian folk tales. I came across wonderful stories from Tulika Publishers. I finally decided I needed to spend time in India to inhabit these stories.” She came down on an eight-month sabbatical. From Kanchipuram, Ladakh, Delhi and Kolkata, and Chattisgarh, Emily picked up many storytelling techniques, influences, and Indian myths surrounding Kali, Ganesha, Shiva-Parvathi.

Along with these, she performs folktales from her homeland, Scandinavia. In Bengaluru recently to teach through The Art of Storytelling India Tour 2015 organised by The British Council, Emily was also in Delhi, Hyderabad, and Chennai.

Trying to pinpoint what it is about Indian mythology that intrigued her in the first place, Emily says: “Between the Mahabharata and the Ramayana…everything in the world is in these two stories. everybody.” As a storyteller one has the techniques and skills to make a story work — “pick a story, tear it apart, find its heart, put the bones together, add the flesh, and finally breathe life into it with rasa” says Emily. You need to appeal to the audience’s inner child; not patronise them. “You want them to ask questions. And give something for them to take away.”

She was particularly taken in by Pandvani, the epic-singing performance from Chattisgarh, made most famous by Teejan Bai. Emily learnt from one of the more contemporary practitioners, Ritu Verma, and went back to create a group called Pandvani108, a high voltage mythological mash-up where the stories and short myths come from all over the world (including stories of Parvathi and Draupadi), where the ektara was replaced by a stick and used as a prop to dramatic martial-arts-like effect. Live musicians (including harmonium, drums and saxophone) are played ad hoc in the background; her group right now has four storytellers and two musicians, including an Indian sitar player! “It’s multicultural. We have built a relationship between the storyteller and the ragi, (used as a sutradhar) who spurs the story forward with his interjections and questions. We look at how music and story can express rasa and bhaava. I’ve been studying it for two years now and there is so much more to learn!”

She traces how the oral storytelling tradition and the travelling storyteller gradually gave way to the radio and TV, then the Internet, with its charm of instant communication. “There is something about listening to a story. Once again people are starting to look for something human and alive; I’ve seen the change in the last decade of my travels. The Internet and TV cannot nurture your soul. People are looking for shared experiences; something that is real and immediate in a way the Internet can’t be.”

She will soon be back in the U.K. where she very quickly will script her next show to be performed on February 13, called Travels With Kali , based on this leg of India travel, woven in with a story of Kali.

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