A brand new initiative recently staged at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi was ‘Wari, a collection of stories from the pages of life’. It was produced by the Octave Foundation, which aims to connect the Northeast with the rest of India through the medium of art and cultural exchange. Five modern storytellers from different parts of the country performed, bringing us a rich range of material: a folktale from Manipur, a story written by Phanishwar Nath Renu, some new material, and a powerful Russian folk tale about defying powers and seeking justice. Well conceived, neatly presented, with enough variety, the evening was an enriching experience. The show was curated by Nicky Chandam.
Traditional storytelling—whether they are kitchen kathas narrated by our grandmothers or public all-night sessions by itinerant performers—has a long and varied history. Perhaps the best known are those accompanied by a scroll painting, the Pattachitra of Odisha or the Pabuji ki Phad of Rajasthan. Though the Phad resembles a contemporary comic strip, the story of Pabuji is not painted in a logical sequence. Each one of these scrolls is large, typically 18-foot long and three-and-a-half-foot wide. The story is never completely narrated in a single night. As the bhopa plays on the ravanhatta and sings out the story, his wife moves with a lantern to light up the appropriate sequence on the scroll.
But there are several other powerful solo forms, reliant entirely on the genius of the storyteller. Pandavani from Chhattisgarh, known by its best representative Teejan Bai, uses Bhima as the central character. Bringing together acting, dancing and singing, the performer moves around the space retelling the Mahabharata stories. Another tradition Katha Kalakshepan—literally meaning ‘passing time with stories’—is a form from Tamil Nadu, now largely extinct. This probably came from Maharashtra in the 17th century, when the Marathas ruled over Thanjavur.
‘Wari’ opened with a brief but impactful performance by the experienced Ankit Chadha, who followed his own little spin on satya (truth) and kahani (story), the tale of two sisters, by the satirical story of four friends—Chatur, Chaalak, Chunt and Chaalu and their names say it all. The next performer Anuja Jaiman in a piece directed by Saif Ali narrated the powerful tale of a seven-year-old girl who challenges the Tsar of Russia. Anuja used movement, lighting and music to highlight this political satire. Rishabh Mittal, directed by Shruti Hasan, told the whimsical tale of a bird ‘Swar’, while Sabyasachi brought the evening to a close with ‘Lal Pan Ki Begum’ by Renu.
In the last 20 years, following the pioneering efforts by Devendra Raj Ankur to stage complete stories without any editing, often with more than one performer, many others have worked with this form. Nirmal Verma’s stories of the Indian abroad, Manto’s powerful political diatribes, Chugtai’s sensuous retelling of the world of women gone by have all come to life in the hands of masterful performers. To find a balance between substance and style, and to avoid self-indulgence is the real challenge before any storyteller.