The Tale of Revival
Professional storyteller Ulka Puri talks about the nature of her craft and its many inspirations.
Somewhere in Bengal,
there lived a learned pundit, who preached that god is everywhere and is in everyone. After attending one such sermon, one of his devout disciples happened to go the market. The disciple found that the market was in pandemonium with people panicking about a mad elephant on the loose. When the disciple came face to face with the elephant, the mahout warned him to move away, but he stood firm thinking of the divine in the elephant and was hit by the animal. Later, wounded and frustrated, the disciple went to the guru, fuming and refuting the pundit’s belief. The pundit chuckled, ‘I had said that god is in everyone. You saw god in the elephant, but what about the mahout, who was warning you all the while!’
Interestingly, this parable threads a pervasive element in two oddballs—an uncontrollable elephant and an anxious mahout. I can imagine a thousand stories here, how the man and the animal met, how their kinship was forged and what happened after that moment of derangement. From a literary point of view, there may not be any extraordinary leaps in such stories, but in everyday life, stories are about shaping experiences and memories. Thus, stories prevail in every moment. Stories are omnipresent. They are in everyone and are everywhere. Paintings, hoardings, movies, dance routines, travel shows, video games and Facebook updates. The list is endless, and reminds me of Muriel Rukeyser’s line: ‘The world is made up of stories, not atoms.’
While narratives shape forms of art and pop culture, the storytelling tradition itself is ancient. Due to the advent of other forms of entertainment, the popularity of the storytelling art had receded but world over, in the last three decades, there has been a renaissance of storytelling. While the regeneration of stories has been a bit delayed in India, it is slowly making waves. When I started working as a professional storyteller in 2010, I faced two prejudices—stories are for bedtime and are for children. It took persistent efforts to bring home the fact that stories could be told to put someone to bed and also to awaken, and the understanding that irrespective of age, human minds are wired to enjoy a well-told story. For a professional storyteller, storytelling is not simply about recounting a tale vividly, but it is a performing art, that requires voice modulation, expressions and kinetics. It was important for me to find my signature style of storytelling. While elements of theatre and dance layered my performances, I started focusing on interaction with the audience. In a way, I have approached storytelling shows like rock concerts, wherein I leave scope for my audience to participate or to take a story forward. Having told countless tales to varied groups of people, I thought of creating a play, which was all about storytelling. So, I wrote and directed Tik Tak
Tales, which has a magical storyteller as the protagonist and stories are narrated, enacted and recreated within the play. After each show of Tik Tak
Tales, I found many people walking up to me and telling me stories about their childhood when they heard stories and thus in turn, they became the storytellers. This reminds me of the ubiquitous nature of stories again. We all have stories and we all want to share stories. The whole world is a stage for us, be it a street, a market, a coffee shop, a salon, or an Internet blog just like our ancestors who enjoyed their storytelling spaces like chauraha, farm or the chaupal under a banyan tree. But this storytelling is not a performing art or rehearsed presentation; it is about connecting and sharing an experience.
While the regeneration of stories has been a bit delayed in India, it is slowly making waves.