The Tale of Re­vival

Pro­fes­sional sto­ry­teller Ulka Puri talks about the na­ture of her craft and its many in­spi­ra­tions.

India Today - - COVER STORY - Pro­fes­sional Sto­ry­teller ULKA PURI

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.

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