Have you heard the story of how a famous bird got its iconic plume? My daughter’s eyes became wide with excitement when I told her that she will be hearing this tale, and more, at the upcoming Gaatha Mumbai International Storytelling Festival. This immersive event will be held between 17-19 February at the Somaiya Vidyavihar University in Mumbai. Shalini Bajaj Surve, a member of the Mumbai Storytellers Society, hopes to bring something more to the tale of the bird. “As part of Abhinaya Katha, my story will combine the spoken word with a little bit of Kathak,” she says. “It follows the pourquoi format of stories and is a self-written tale.” Pourquoi stories are origin tales that explain why certain events happened.
Surve, who is a member of the festival’s organising committee as well, will also narrate a story about the origin of the Sindhi folk song, Ho Jamalo. “My parents came to India as young kids after the Partition,” she elaborates. “We don’t have a state that is Sindhi. We are spread all over and our connection to our roots is through stories and songs. They give us a sense of who we are.”
The Gaatha Mumbai International Storytelling Festival is a collaboration between the Mumbai Storytellers Society and Somaiya Vidyavihar University, and promises to be a smörgåsbord of words, stories, languages, and traditions.
Usha Venkatraman, the director of the Gaatha festival, founded the Mumbai Storytellers Society in 2019 and has a rich experience in curating storytelling festivals such as the Scifari, India’s first science storytelling festival in the country. Venkatraman, who is an award-winning storyteller, multidisciplinary artist and a self-taught puppeteer, was keen to promote Indian stories, artists, and indigenous art forms through the Gaatha festival. The upcoming edition will feature several international storytellers as well, including Dan Yashinsky, a renowned storyteller from Canada, and Sita Brand, a storyteller and theatre performer from the UK.
Amrita Somaiya, chairperson, Gaatha festival, chanced upon storytelling festivals in other parts of the world, and was impressed by the way they gave a platform to oral traditions. “My husband and I chanced upon a storytelling festival in Yukon, Canada, when we gave a ride to a hitchhiker, who was going there. Ever since that day, I was keen to have a festival like that here in Mumbai. Stories—with their interpretations and impact—are so vital for our inner growth,” she says.
So, what can you expect at this edition of the festival? Gaatha promises to be a story carnival, an immersive experience that also features song, dance, and theatre, and has sessions for children and adults.
My daughter and I are especially keen to attend Ragas and Kathas, a series of storytelling sessions that hope to make Carnatic and Hindustani music accessible to a wider audience. The festival will feature stories in different languages, including a Hindi-Sanskrit adaptation of a 2500-year-old Sanskrit play performed by Prasad Bhide, a professor of Sanskrit at the KJ Somaiya College, and the students of Somaiya Vidyavihar. My daughter is particularly curious about this play because it narrates the Ramayana from Kaikeyi’s perspective, an angle that has always intrigued her.
We are also keen to be part of Savita Vij’s participative storytelling session called Cultural Collections, which will give children the opportunity to play detective and explore colonial history through museums, art galleries, libraries and India’s public heritage. Children can also attend Janaki Sabesh’s Paati’s Rasam, a kitchen tale that involves the ultimate comfort food, the rasam, and the ingredients that make it what it is. For children and adults, there are story slams, story swaps, and even a Kathakshari, or a story anthakshari! The festival’s grand finale will be Gajamukha—in which one story is presented through a kaleidoscope of five art forms such as poetry, dance, storytelling, classical music and painting. Gaatha features a whole range of genres within storytelling---ranging from healing and heritage ones to stories of sarees, sculptures and spooks. “I'll probably share a story that was told in Toronto by a ten-year-old boy from Jamaica,” says Yashinsky. “It's one of the best spooky stories I've ever heard!”
On bad days, my daughter always bounces back when I told her a story. Stories help us grow and move forward as human beings. The energy exchange between the teller and the audience is a transformative experience for both, and probably explains why this ancient art form will always have an important place in our lives.
You can register for the Gaatha Mumbai International Storytelling Festival at https://www.gmisf.org/
Shweta Sharan is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist