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The simple glory of the spoken story

A storytelling festival in Udaipur becomes a site for Russian, Urdu and other regional Indian spoken word traditions

Salil Bhandari and Sushmita Singha, co-founders of Udaipur Tales. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Salil Bhandari and Sushmita Singha, co-founders of Udaipur Tales. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

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The story we are about to tell you may or may not have happened. It may be partially true, partially fabricated, completely true or completely invented. Centuries ago in Madhya Pradesh, a Gond hamlet surrounded by forest remained barren. No birds chirped; no cicadas stirred the night; there was no children’s laughter or rustling of leaves by animals. One night, a man dreamed of a bamboo tree. The next day, he planted one. As time went by, slowly, the birds began circling the bamboo tree; animals began gathering. Soon, children began coming out to play. Laughter filled the land. The village thrived.

At the first Udaipur Tales—International Storytelling festival held in Udaipur last year, this patchwork of reality and fiction was narrated by the acclaimed Gond artist Durga Bai and her husband.

“These are the kind of stories—the hidden folklores—that we want people to know about,” says Sushmita Singha. Delhi-based Singha and Salil Bhandari are the founders of the oral storytelling festival.

The festival is a billet-doux to the raconteurs of the world, inviting participants to indulge audiences in India (children and adults alike) with tales of their land. To be held from 30 November-2 December, the festival will also feature performances by home-grown oral storytellers. Speaking to Lounge, Singha, who is also the president of MA: My Anchor Foundation, an NGO that works in the social sector with a focus on water, sanitation and education, is an ebullient narrator herself. She skips from one story to another, laying out the vast canvas of performances (23 to be exact) which will be held this year.

The festival has stories from Russia, Tibet, Bhutan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and the south, among other places. “We have tales of love, valour, horror, history, as well as environment and women-oriented stories,” lists Singha. There is a performance by journalist Shantanu Guha Ray, which explores the murder of liquor tycoon Ponty Chadha, a Dastangoi performance by Syed Sahil Agha, Kabir folksingers from Madhya Pradesh, a Russian performer with spellbinding children folklores, and an environment-centric Bhutanese act.

Although still in its embryonic stage, the festival is a haven for the spoken word. Bhandari believes that as humans, we have a natural predilection for stories, which is why their preservation and perpetual narration is crucial. “Stories have a great influence on our lives, especially as children. It makes us who we are. However, parents and grandparents are no longer telling stories. We need to bring that love for oral storytelling back, for kids and for grown-ups.”

Each of the performances has been carefully handpicked with a conscious effort to select those which are not only are engaging, but also say something meaningful. “The stories need to give a message —that’s the aim of Udaipur Tales. We want our audiences to go back home with a piece of history or a crucial takeaway which will stay with them,” says Singha.

Udaipur Tales will be held at the Park Exotica Resort, Udaipur. Ticket prices start from 100 for a day pass. For details, visit

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