MUMBAI: There is a moment in the 2013 film ‘The Lunchbox’ when a withdrawn Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) tells the lonely suburban hausfrau Ila (Nimrat Kaur) through one of their written exchanges, ‘I think we forget things if there is nobody to tell them’. In the next scene, Ila is seen at leisure with her adolescent daughter playing with her stuffed doll, while recounting the story of a similar time in her life when she played houses with her brother.
Stories and memories form an unsullied reservoir of facts that drive us. They are also a way we experience each other and help “pass down tradition and culture,” said Amrita Somaiya, trustee of Somaiya Trust and Somaiya Vidyavihar, and director of Kitab Khana.
Many years ago soon after they were married, Amrita and her husband Samir, while on a month-long road trip in Canada, stopped by Whitehorse, on the Alaska highway in northern Canada, to drop off a young hitchhiker. The unplanned route led them to a destination that would spur Amrita into creating an ambitious project: Gaatha — Mumbai International Storytelling Festival, many years later.
“The young girl, not more than 18 or 19, was headed to a festival of storytelling that had been a tradition in this town. Tents were set up everywhere, each hosting a distinct style of storytelling – from native American, to stories about laughter, mystery, horror and folklore,” recalled Amrita. The Somaiyas were at once taken aback and pleased to find that people came from afar, and many had marked the event on their social calendar way ahead in time.
Gaatha, a first such initiative, will be held between February 17 and 19, 2023, at the Somaiya Vidyavihar University campus. As Festival Chair, Amrita has partnered with Mumbai Storytellers Society, helmed by Usha Venkatraman, who is Gaatha’s curator.
Participants include both international and Indian storytellers – prominent among them are Dan Yeshinsky, from Canada, who set up the Storytellers School in Toronto, and has received many honours for his contribution towards enhancing Toronto’s cultural life with stories; Salil Mukhia Koitsu, well-known shamanic storyteller, from Kiranti, an indigenous community of the eastern Himalayas, popular for his many workshops on healing through storytelling; Shaili Sathyu, a Mumbai-based theatre director known for her plays with children; Dr Nina Sabnani, an artist and storyteller, who uses film, illustration and writing to tell her stories, among many others. “She will conduct a workshop with artisan designers from Somaiya Kala Vidya, in Kutch, while Sherline Pimenta, design educator, storyteller and experience curator, will work with students from Nareshwadi Learning Centre, in Dahanu, to conduct a workshop for kids,” said Amrita.
Apart from English, Indian folk storytellers will engage in Marathi, Sanskrit, Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu.
“People want to be heard as well as hear,” said she. “Everyone likes discourse and discussions. While the pandemic had pushed us into isolation, at Kitab Khana these days I find more young people coming in perhaps to discover themselves or to gain a different perspective by meeting people. Similarly, storytelling is a fabulous way to learn and give.”
What is the draw expected from a session in Sanskrit?
“You will be surprised,” said Amrita. Rangaparva, a Sanskrit Theatre Festival organised at the school campus in August this year, saw a packed house, she said. “The shows had a humongous response from the audience, which consisted of Sanskrit scholars and theatre connoisseurs spanning across all ages. People are getting immensely interested in the rich treasure of literature. It forms an important part of oral as well as written culture of India. The response of Rangaparva is a sign that a new trend is setting in.”
“Stories can give life and happiness. They preserve the culture and beliefs of a tribe or community and pass them down to the next generation,” said Usha Venkatraman, extending Amrita’s thought, while underlining the significance of oral traditions. “And I would like to think I am a keeper of this tradition as I sing and narrate my stories passed down by my grandmother.”
In the midst of all the rapid and unrecognisable change that surrounds us, India’s lore, culture and heritage are distilled into an even more precious evocation of times past, she added. “It is our duty to convey the voices of the past to the ears of the future.”
Indeed, the most powerful way to persuade people and stoke their curiosities is by uniting an idea with an emotion. “The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story – where you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener’s emotions and energy,” Usha said.
Curating an international festival is a detailed, planned process, which requires much research. “Gaatha took me a year to plan and curate,” said Usha. “The featured storytellers were selected for their unique contribution, for example, Ragas and Kathas — a bespoke event – will attempt to make classical music accessible through stories to a wider audience. Our featured storytellers will include classical music and paint visual pictures through their stories.”
As the storyteller weaves the narrative, the song will express a similar ethos. It is a musical presentation with commensurate drama; the songs will be in the Carnatic and Hindustani idiom.
Similar attractions will be the rendering of the mystical story of Gajamukha, presented through a kaleidoscope of five art forms — poetry, dance, storytelling, classical music and painting. Two musical bands will blend an iconic style of classical music and progressive rock in Mersha. On one of the days Dayro and Bharud performances by folk artistes from Gujarat and Maharashtra will be presented.
To borrow from Margaret Atwood, “You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built in the human plan. We come with it.”