“Those who have no power over the story that rules their lives, the power to retell it, reconsider it, deconstruct it, joke about it and change it over time, are really powerless because they cannot think of new thoughts. ” – Salman Rushdie
When we were kids, reading and storytelling was just as important as breathing. An oral storytelling tradition existed before books were written and published. Mothers sang songs to their children to lull them to sleep, and stories of adventure, bravery, romance and valor fed our imaginations.
Enid Blyton’s “Malory Towers” was devoured and “The Famous Five” were our undercover agents in crime solving. ‘The Panchatantra’ made us lament the naivety of monkeys hoping to ride crocodiles unscathed, and ‘Aesop’s Fables’ made us cheer on the turtle and reject the hare’s arrogance.
These stories ignited our imaginations and caused burns in our souls.
Is there a moment when we don’t tell a story? Our body tells a story. How we sit, how we walk, how we eat, how we interact, how we dress, tell a story. As we grow up, we read, we watch films, we hear each other’s stories, and through living those stories, we make them our own.
The artist combines and processes existing material to create something new. Every work of art is related to another work. It is then remixed, processed and combined, and new stories and fresh ways of working emerge.
Shakespeare, despite the imperial and classical baggage, was primarily a storyteller. I remember hearing about a game that children played. One child starts a story, the other adds or subtracts, and the rules of the game are that the story must never end. As the myth says, this story became the Mahabharata. Right or wrong, I don’t know, and does it really matter? I was interested in the fact that no story has a single authorship and that several voices can be interlinked in the narrative.
To tell a story you have to say something. You need craft and passion. When I think of a storyteller, the image that immediately springs to mind is BV Karanth who was the ultimate narrator. “As long as I live, I do theater, and I only stay when I do theater,” was his refrain.
He embodied the radical zeitgeist and reshaped modern Indian theater through tough questioning, rigorous training and storytelling. It is important to share your story as stories are lost if they are not shared across language barriers, with cultural details being carried over and transformed as the narration takes place.
Who Was Karanth? Was that him or was that him? I would say he was the freest man I had ever known; a nomad. Like all nomads, a little distant and suspicious.
It is important to tell his story as he taught us that the main purpose of theater is to “bring a story to life” for itself, the audience, a character, for the story or simply as a conceptual thought. He also pointed out to us that “bringing to life” requires instinct, patience, creativity, knowledge, and most importantly, effort. Theater, he said, wasn’t flimsy, bizarre nonsense.
For Karanth, people, milieu and moment merged and enabled the emergence of regional voices, genres and local impulses. Education at most drama schools in the late 1960s and 1970s was derived from Western forms. But a decade later, concepts, ideas, and training tools changed. Popular and traditional forms began to be explored and valued, based on the assumption that there was a theatrical vocabulary within these forms that enabled the urban theater to relate to its past.
He believed that Indian culture was a conglomerate that could trace its roots back to various sources and enrich itself in the process. “Indian realism must be redefined and for this a dialogue must be conducted between contemporary theater makers, folk artists and traditional practices,” he was convinced.
Karanth’s influence on modern Indian theater cannot be measured independently of its relationship to musical compositions. He called his music “sound plans”. He loved noises – from the chirping of birds to the human voice, sneezing, burping, gurgling, laughing, whispering and calling. The sound of mourning and chants, the loud shouts of street vendors selling vegetables and other goods, and sports commentary on radio and television became inspirational instruments turned into a theatrical moment.
Karanth’s music was never performed by a soloist, but always with group singing alongside various instruments; Bottles to bamboo sticks, metal bowls, and any object that made a sound was a valid and effective musical instrument.
His constant instruction was: “Speak as if you are singing and sing as if you are speaking”. In his theater he combined the past with the present, the urban with the rural and creatively articulated contemporary realities, taking into account local educational instruments, popular roots and regional sensitivity.
A Karanth story that always fascinates me was his passion for quark. It wasn’t uncommon for him to mix hakka noodles with a spoon of curd cheese. He scooped curd from a bowl, brought it close to his lap, doubled over and poured the curd onto his palm as he slowly sipped from the cupped hand. I was convinced that there was a story behind it.
“My family lived on the farm of a wealthy landowner. Once a week the family was given a bowl of cottage cheese and it was my job to deliver it. My mother would make buttermilk for our family of eight. I wanted to try the curd and would pour a portion and the rest of the curd was dabbed into shape, making the theft my private secret, ”he admitted disarmingly.
Stories have a strong influence on the human imagination and the strongest aspect is their fluidity. No two storytellers will tell the story the same way. When a story is shared, it carries part of its cultural context; it is also a traveling metaphor and new meanings emerge with each narration. And it’s not always enough to tell a story; there has to be someone who listens and carries it on.