Friday and Saturday I found myself plugged in to what, for me, is the utter joy of a storytelling festival. It still exhilarates me that such numbers of people will devote their attention and commit time to hearing stories.
The festival is modest in size, being new, with only one stage and one performer at a time, but what a stage and what performers. A stage and performance apron is spread beneath the shade of a peepul tree. The audience sit in tiered, semi-circular rows, and it holds about 300. In the morning, I told stories for a younger audience, then sat back, thrilled to listen to England’s Emily Hennessey and Tim Ralphs, both brilliant tellers. There was, from India, a family of musicians. Bloody amazing! Two men sang in raw, gutsy, incredibly soulful voices whilst behind them two others beat out mind-bending rhythms on dhol and another drum I didn’t recognise, and a third skirled wildly on harmonium. The two singers seemed to be adversaries. Then, to the delight of the audience, next entered, clad in rich red salwaar kameez and a fine red chador, a woman. Only this woman was a young, slender man playing the part of woman, just as would’ve been the case in Elizabethan theatre. Next to me, Indian storyteller Usha Venkateraman, herself a very poised, witty and skilful teller, told me the story was a kind of Romeo & Juliet. It seemed a hell a lot funnier! The whole story was sung and acted and, performed as it was under a peepul tree, I could so easily imagine this performance under similar trees in rural villages stretching back hundreds of years. Stunning.
The audience was wonderful, intelligent, attentive and with a deep knowledge of and engagement with traditional storytelling. And the organisers and the British Council worked wonders with publicity. I kept missing performers because I needed to give interviews for TV, for radio, for print media. That seems a touch more switched on than Blighty.
I had the honour of closing the festival on Sunday night. I told East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon. My telling might not be to all tellers’ tastes. It’s a serious story, Norwegian, from the Ancient Greek Eros & Psyche, and chronicles the journey of the Soul to Love, but the Norwegian version is so intrinsically funny! Talking bears, old ladies bearing impractical gifts which turn out to be just the thing that’s needed, and trolls so bad at handling frustration that they inflate and detonate? Now, you could tell this reverentially and solemnly, but, to a sassy, sophisticated & urban audience, who doesn’t believe
in trolls, why on earth would you? I play the straight bits straight and the wonky bits wonky.
As you know, I can’t see my audience, not really, but can sense their attentiveness. I got to the end, a quiet, a low-key close, because the end is serious, and the applause engulfed me. It took Blind Pew a while to realise, but the entire audience had risen to their feet! They stayed there until they were quite clapped out.
And thereafter surrounded me for selfies, photos, autographs and handshakes. A woman declared, loudly, that I was “A rock ‘n roll storyteller! I’ve never seen a storyteller mobbed like this!”
So, I became a storyteller because I lost some sight. Do you believe me now when I tell that, even though sight-loss was my first real experience of grief, I honestly can’t now regard it as a misfortune?
Chandigarh tomorrow, an entire city planned and designed by Le Corbusier. India continues to astound me.
So, with quite a wrench, we left Kolkata on Friday morning & flew to Delhi. I have heard on UK radio, again and again, how terribly polluted Delhi is. Checking the weather on my smartphone when in London, I saw descriptions such as “Fog”, “Smoke”, and fully expected to land in a right pea-souper an’ no mistake, Mary Poppins. Wrong again. The day we landed was clear & balmy. The sky was blue and the air, compared to London seemed, well, the same. Does this mean that pollution in London too, and our acceptance of it, has got beyond a choke?
Next morning, I could see what they meant. Delhi, in the early morning, looks like this:
Sure, looks grim, but to my London nose it FELT perfectly fine. I’ve never had so panoramic a view over London at that time in the morning. How do I know it doesn’t look just the same? I do know that, on cold, low pressure mornings, I smell soot & petrol in the semi-basement of my East London flat. Like I said, beyond a choke, and we have no reason, as far as I can see, to be smug.
As we drove from airport to hotel we met other strange echoes of England. Addresses like Connaught Square. New Delhi is a thoroughly modern city with sky-scrapers which could be anywhere, chain restaurants which are everywhere. Our driver pointed out the Presidential Palace, home to the President of the largest democracy in the world. It is impressive, designed by Lutyens, and is as British a lump of Victoriana as you could ever hope to see. Pausing at stop-lights, junctions, young men in skinny jeans, with angular haircuts and hipster beards chat with young women in jeans and tee-shirts. Pausing alongside a beautiful, tree-studded park, our driver indicated a group of small, grey, furry animals. Squirrels? No, monkeys.
We checked in and, after a nap, walked to a vast shopping mall, searched for food. We had an Indian.
Tomorrow is my first day’s work at the Khatakar International StorytellingFestival.
It’s a strange paradox; because I can’t see your face across a table, I became a storyteller. Because I became a storyteller, I get to see the world. Right now, I’m seeing the world that is Kolkata, West Bengal, and what a world it is! So, after the longest day’s travel we arrived at 3am at our hotel in Kolkata. I’d been briefed to expect crowds, chaos, hurly-burly at Kolkata airport but at that time in the morning, there was no such thing, only very tired, very courteous airport staff. A car was provided by British Council and we drove, not through the fabled Kolkata snarl-up, but easily through dark & empty streets. Had we really arrived in India at all? But then we arrived at a palatial hotel and our door was opened by a tall & beautiful man, splendid in white kurta, black trousers & a scarlet turban. Every inch the Bengal Lancer from my grandmother’s Imperial picture books, he pressed his palms together, inclined his head. “Namashkaa!” he said. We’d arrived, no question.
The next day we were met at lunchtime by Maryanne Dasgupta, an American lady who, fifty years ago, married a Bengali & settled in Kolkata. A prominent educator & writer, at the cusp of eighty, the lively & elegant Maryanne has retired from teaching and now devotes her energy to her own charitable foundation which works to educate gifted children of the absolutely impoverished. “Houses with three walls and a roof,” she said, “forget about four, and illiterate parents. We have twenty students now studying at University and a number going on to take their MAs.” Brilliant example of what energy & focus can achieve. So, in this company I began to experience Kolkata.
In daytime the roads are jammed. Old and beautiful English models, Morrises, now made in India, not Oxford, and known as Marutis, jostle and nose their way through teeming traffic. Lanes don’t exist. Junctions seem ambiguous, traffic lights negotiable. One peep on the horn means “I’ve seen you, come on”, two means “I’m here, I’m coming through”. More peeps means alarm and standing on the horn means “Sir, I protest!!”. Sudden changes in direction from other cars, sudden stops, demand the reaction speeds of a fighter pilot. And for all this, motorists seem completely calm. I hear car horns and voices everywhere. In every road flows a river of pedestrians, flooding over, breaking over, uneven, torn up and rutted pavements. Slim, dark men in shirts and trousers, in robes, in shalwar kameez, in kurta and dhoti, move, talk, call out, or just stand and watch. There is an endless variety of things to watch. East London, we are told, bustles with pop ups. Compared to Kolkata, East London knows nothing of either pop ups or bustle. Here, every square metre of pavement is anthill industrious. We pass a building propped up at one corner by posts as the road falls away about four feet. The space beneath hosts a business; a man making shoes. Further along, a square hole in the wall makes an alcove, about 3ft x 3ft, in which a man sits. On the street he has a brazier glowing with coals. The brazier heats his flat-iron. Cross-legged, board on his knees, he takes in and irons shirts. Next along, a man stirs a pot, fragrant with street-food spices. Another crouches on the floor polishing the shoes of a long-robed/haired/bearded man. A man squats next to a banyan tree, a mirror fixed to its trunk, and from this, his barber’s shop, he washes, soaps, shaves his customers’ beards. Near him a man squats, his back to the road and next to him a young woman, her sari lifted neatly from the dirt, her iridescent black hair coiling across the bare skin of her upper back. Both are busy mending the masonry of a wall. Through all this ceaseless hive, women in parakeet-colourful saris contrive to glide down the street, elegant as fairytale princesses. Kolkata is without doubt one of the most fascinating and wonderful places I have ever seen.
We visited a private home called the Marble Palace. Once the home of the Molik family, who still own it and live in part of it, their merchant wealth has built what looks and feels, outside, like a Victorian fantasy of classical Greece and, inside, like a wing of the V&A. Classical sculptures gaze, marble-eyed, at Italian paintings in the style of Caravaggio. Baroque decor and styling surrounds dazzling marble floors, not made of tiles but of immense coloured slabs cut and fitted as fine as woodwork marquetry and parquetry. Just as, in Kensington, Leighton House is stuffed with the exotic treasures of the East, here, the Molik family have filled their home with the treasures of the exotic West. No photos permitted – you’ll just have to take my word for it. It is simply stunning. And as soon as you leave its gates, at one step, you leave its serenity and find yourself once more in the hubbub of Kolkata.
Now, as you know, I can’t have actually seen all this. As you know, I live in coloured shadows and, where my eyes should focus, see only a blast of colour which I can’t see through, as if I’ve been staring at the sun. So how can I have perceived all this? Well, I do have a tiny telescope hanging round my neck. That helps. But, much more than that, my companions, Sooz and, yesterday, MaryAnn, describe to me the details that I miss. I “see” what they say vividly, just like, when you listen to a story, you see the characters, the landscape, in your mind. Much of your visible world, to me, is a story narrated by people with better eyes than I. So, I ask you, is it any wonder I became a storyteller?
To see some photos of my trip go to Further Adventures In Pictures, all kindly taken by other people!