She is clad in a bright salwar kameez and sports a silver bindi. Taking the stage to narrate a series of stories for children and adults at the British Council, UK-based performance storyteller Emily Parrish is braced to engage the audience. No props, no costumes, or any accompaniment, she begins with the story of the three princes and the king, before she veers to a Norse Mythology and later a tale on Shiva and Parvathi. She moves across the varied landscape, capturing its various features with just the tone of her voice, descriptions and a few gestures.
Chennai or Tamil Nadu for that matter, is not a new place for Emily, who is on the last leg of her India tour.
Emily, who attended the inauguration of the Chennai Storytelling Festival 2015, remembers with great fondness the time she spent at Kattaikkuttu school near Kancheepuram, almost seven years ago. “I was there to teach the kids, but I learnt so much from them. They used to perform stories from the Mahabharatha and it was through dance, music and the rasa. It was easy to follow, despite the language. Storytelling is something you should keep on learning. I still have so much to learn despite being into storytelling for 14 years,” she says.
The experience in Kancheepuram had fuelled her existing interest in stories about the Hindu mythology, gods and goddesses. “I love Indian folk tales and mythology. I am creating a performance piece about Hindu gods and goddesses. I want to focus on the stories of Shiva and Parvathi, the transformations of Parvathi and the birth of Ganesh. It is completely enchanting to see her in different forms — sometimes demure as the homemaker Parvathi and then the raging Kali who can destroy. I always look for stories that help me speak to contemporary audience. It has something to say or something to ask,” she says.
Emily’s repertoire includes several kinds of stories from her travels across the UK, South America, Scandinavian region and India.
With a Masters in Drama from the University of Kent, Emily studied storytelling under Vayu Naidu, later trained with Abbi Patrix, Ben Haggarty, and recently learnt Pandvani from Ritu Verma, who taught her the storytelling form from Chhattisgarh.
She observes that while the rural areas in India still hold fort when it comes to the culture of storytelling, urban India is slowly trying to revive it. “In the UK, in the last 25 years, there has been a revival. There are around 70 storytelling clubs and in places like Scotland, the tradition is still strong. Rural parts of India continue to keep the tradition alive, as I have seen during my trips to Ladakh and in my travel in Tamil Nadu and Delhi to Kolkata. In urban India, I have noticed that there is a greater desire to understand the need of storytelling and the realisation that it can’t be replaced by TV or the Internet. I had come across many professional storytellers during the recent trip. I have been conducting workshops and they are fantastic,” she adds. With myths aplenty about storytelling, she says, one must go ahead with it and show what potential it has. “Many tell me that it is wonderful that I am engaged with kids, but then you just got to do it and tell them what it is,” she says.