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.