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Yen for yarns

Telling a tale: Elly Stuart enthrals her young audience — Pic. by R. Ragu

Telling a tale: Elly Stuart enthrals her young audience — Pic. by R. Ragu  

Elly Stuart's workshop, organised by the British Council, proved that everyone is a storyteller and every picture tells a story

"ONCE UPON a time, long, long ago, there was a castle built in a wild place," she says in a hushed voice, as she solemnly lays down the string of little bells that herald the fairy tale. The children gathered around her lean closer, "the Queen pricks her finger, and her red, red blood falls upon the white, white snow."

As Elly Stuart tells the story of "Snow White", the sighs, whispers and curses woven into the tale ring out powerfully. And as they echo across the Lalit Kala Akademi, a small group of mesmerised children huddle closer, while the wicked queen stirs her cauldron and cackles evilly — via Elly.

Elly Stuart is a storyteller. A professional, wandering storyteller.

"How do you become one? Well, you go to the school of storytelling," she laughs, her dramatic earrings bobbing as she throws her head back. "Yes, there actually is a school of storytelling! It's at Emerson College and has students who come from all over the world, each bringing in the storytelling traditions of their own culture."

Storytelling, by the way, isn't just about plonking yourself down with a big book, cookies and two snub-nosed kids in pyjamas, although that too is a dying art. "The school teaches storytelling as a performing art and as a healing art."

Stories can heal

For stories, she insists, can indeed heal. "Every culture does it, in its own way," says Elly. "It's about learning how a body speaks, the characteristic of each organ."

And then, they weave stories that have parallels to the patient. "It's about seeing a way out without saying, `you should take a pill'. For example, a friend of mine was working with a four-year-old autistic child, so she crafted stories about his situation using a family of dinosaurs. She gave him an episode every time she saw him, and a few weeks later his mother came to her and said, `I don't know what you are doing, but it's doing wonders for my son'."

Storytelling has always been a way of connecting, in practically every culture, for the longest time. Then came television. Followed by computers, the Internet, video games and play stations. "TV and computers have a lot to answer for," says Elly, ruefully, "Now people stay indoors and sit in front of the TV all evening, every evening. This removes the sense of community that used to exist."

Besides, parents have no time to read to their children any more. "But kids just love being told stories. They hang on to your every word," says Elly, who regularly goes to British schools to captivate their children with stories of fiery knights and scaly dragons, blushing princesses and flamboyant fairy godmothers.

"I think there's a spiritual need to tell, and listen to, stories. We need to connect with our past, and not just through history lessons. Stories need to be put back in people's minds."

Making connections

It's not just the children who are missing out. "For adults too, stories can make strong connections. A friend once told a group of adults about fishwives in Scotland who would throw bread to the seagulls on the pier, believing that each one was a lost husband, neighbour, or son. When she finished, a woman in the audience, who had lost her husband, was in tears. The story enabled her to mourn again; it created a catharsis and helped the healing. That's what you need to tap into — the universal psyche."

At the Lalit Kala Akademi, surrounded by the cheerful Magic Pencil exhibition, Elly has the children wide-eyed and giggling as she tells `My Uncle is a Hunkle'." "What do you think a hunk is?" she asks the kids. After a lot of thought, one little man puts up his hand triumphantly and says, "When you can't stand straight?" "Um... no, that's a hunch," says Elly, adding, "A hunk's a man who's rather Ok... He's a bit of an all right!"

The kids thought so too. They spent all morning listening and telling each other stories at Elly's workshop, organised by the British Council to prove `Everyone is a storyteller and every picture tells a story.' And nobody missed their cartoon shows.

"In a sense I have complete faith that storytelling is going to win," says Elly smiling, "Because, its such a human art form. People want that sense of community again... that sense of connection."

SHONALI MUTHALALY

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