Next month, The Festival of Indigenous Storytellers at Windmere Hotel in Darjeeling will be a bit about losing and finding things — finding origins of folklore in tribal traditions, and losing inhibition in front of an audience with a glass of chi (fermented millet beer), for the first-ever session on drunken storytelling.
Salil Mukhia Kwoica, the 33 year-old co-founder of Acoustic Traditional, a Bangalore-based organisation which has been promoting oral storytelling in mountain-based communities since 1999, has organised the festival. He promises that folklore will be told the way the shamans did it with the local tribes — Lepcha, Rai, Limbo and Kwoica — in the Eastern Himalayan regions centuries ago. “We began researching this form of storytelling early this year, and are ready to tell people about it. Drunken storytelling is a sacred ritual among tribal communities in the Eastern Himalayas, and we plan to keep it that way.”
Traditionally, the shaman meditated before telling stories to the locals and sipped on chi as he regaled them with fascinating spiritual stories. “As a storyteller, I will do the same — meditate for many hours before the session, drink chi and tell stories accompanied by tribal musicians,” says Kwoica.
Next year, January 2013 onward, through his eight-city tour, Kwoica plans to bring this novel form of storytelling, and others, to Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad, Pune, Ahmedabad, and Kolkata. Many tribal traditions, he says, are shrouded in misconceptions, and the country wide tour will help form a healthier perception in the ‘mainstream’. “It would be interesting to see how the audience in metros engages with indigenous tribal cultures in the Himalayas.”
Mumbai-based storyteller and puppeteer Usha Venkatraman, who will attend the festival in Darjeeling, is working out a plan and programme to bring Kwoica’s work to Mumbai in January. “There is much humour and wisdom in stories and we in cities are sadly bereft of the experience. It is important to know our past — even the aspects and ways of life we may not directly be connected to.”
Kwoica plans to bring more — both to the metros next and to the festival next week. “Our previous storytelling sessions were focused on spreading awareness on vanishing tribal traditions. Though that’s important in itself, it is time we got closer to the origins of the traditions, and take our audience along. The storytelling sessions will go beyond the act and tell the audience about where a story’s roots lie, what instrument was used to accompany it — it is more like a course in itself, not a mere storytelling workshop.”
Kwoica plans to introduce the vanishing tradition of Gaine at the festival and in his forthcoming 2013 tour. The Gaine, he explains, are what the wandering minstrels are to the West. The storytellers belong to the Gandarba tribe, which lives in the Eastern Himalayas. Most Gaine travel across Nepal, Tibet, Darjeeling and Sikkim and tell stories accompanied by tribal music.
“As the Gaine community shrinks, we will lose their stories, too. There are about 15,000 Gaine left in Nepal and India. They travel on foot, sometimes for a year at a stretch — no one knows these regions better than the Gaine.” Their music is melancholy, but packed with wit and wisdom, and accompanied by a rather high-pitched instrument whose notes “can be distinguished from a mile”.
“Even in Darjeeling, when the Gaine settle down on the streets for a storytelling session, we notice that kids don’t really grasp the richness of the whole ritual simply because their parents never told them anything about it. We want to change that by taking the Gaine across the country next year.”
No moral lessons
In April this year, Acoustic Traditional began the One Tribe Tour, a project started in Zdongu in north Sikkim, which works at programmes that highlight the unity in tribal traditions to locals. Demystifying the legend of the Yeti is part of the One Tribe Tour. “Our information and perception of the Yeti comes from Western sources — that of a mythical aboriginal snowman — but if you speak to the Lepcha tribe in Sikkim, the Yeti is a hunting god and a spiritual guide for those who venture into the snow.”
Kwoica talks about his recent interview of a 98 year-old Lepcha shaman. “He spoke about how the Yeti whistles to communicate and is a ‘small human being with red hair’. Female Yeti, he added, are very kind and helpful. It is the male Yeti — ferocious and destructive — who you must be careful of,” says Kwoica.
Kwoica isn’t doing this to dispels myths. “I want the audience to understand the layers and flavour of the Yeti’s stories. There are no morals or lessons here.”
Kwoica says he isn’t wary of bringing even the most unusual tales to the audience at his tour next year. “I’d love to see what, say, a person from a corporate background does during a drunken storytelling session-, or what a child thinks about the Gaine.” Venkatraman agrees. “I am a puppeteer and I would love to throw them in during, say, the drunken storytelling sessions here and have a bit of fun at the result!”
Geeta Ramanujam, founder of the Bangalore-based storytelling institute, Kathalaya, is heartened at the prospect of introducing people to newer forms of storytelling, but admits it is a tricky proposition.
“Many indigenous tales are, by nature, repetitive and could be boring for an audience that has had no previous exposure to them and their intricacies.”
Ramanujam also wonders what the next step to this kind of experience is. “The motivation behind introducing an urban audience to, say, the wandering minstrels is clearly to preserve the latter’s culture. But how do you ensure that through a performance? I think storytellers can make indigenous artistes relevant by taking the performances ahead.”
She explains, “In 2009, I worked on training the women farmers from Orissa’s Santhali tribe in storytelling, because we found that their children had no access to their history and education. More than 200 training centres were set up in the area and gradually, the women began travelling to tell their stories.”
Ramanujam says she also works with the Yakshagana puppeteers and accompanies them to cities across the country. “Fortunately, their art is supported by the Orissa government. But you do need a translator who could decode its charm to the audience.”