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Traditional oral storytellers go online for an audience

From online workshops to uploading performances from home, some traditional storytellers are finding new ways to stay relevant

T Kalaimagan with his parents have been uploading videos of Villupattu from home during the pandemic.
T Kalaimagan with his parents have been uploading videos of Villupattu from home during the pandemic. (Subbu Arumugam Fine Arts Centre)

Every month, T. Kalaimagan prepares the stage for the videos to roll. No, he’s not a social media influencer. The 28-year-old is a storyteller who is trying to ensure the traditional storytelling art form that he practises isn’t forgotten in the pandemic.

Chennai-based Kalaimagan, a third-generation practitioner of villupattu (bow songs), has been releasing a series of villupattu performances on social media where he is accompanied by his mother Bharathi Thirumagan, an acclaimed performer of the form, and father. The storytelling, accompanied by a stringed instrument shaped like a bow, incorporates music, drama and narration of stories from literature and mythology. Among the 10 videos so far is one that went viral in September—it used villupattu to wish Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his birthday.

Not only did the PM’s office take note, during his weekly Mann Ki Baat discourse the same month, Modi made particular mention of the Tamil storytelling art form, emphasising the need to revive traditional storytelling cultures.

Many of these traditions, often a mix of songs and paintings, were already fading when the pandemic hit, striking another blow at the livelihoods of storytellers. A handful of them, tech savvy like Kalaimagan, have been able to leverage the virtual platform. Others have not.

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In an effort to reach a wider audience, Kalaimagan has also been experimenting with narration in English and Hindi. “Last year, we translated an old written story from the Tamil community in Singapore in English. We then added Hindi as well in Delhi and Assam, and did a performance in a mix of Tamil, English and Hindi to create a connection in those regions,” says Kalaimagan, who is a trained Carnatic singer and a faculty member at the Kalakshetra Foundation, the arts and culture academy in Chennai. His grandfather, Subbu Arumugam, is a pioneer in reviving the art form and re-popularising it in Tamil Nadu.

In Bengaluru, Varshini Vijay, whose ancestors have been harikathe (oral stories of Lord Vishnu) performers, too has been leveraging technology. “Earlier, temples, religious associations or rich patrons would invite harikathe artists to perform, especially during the festival months. Even I have performed in pandals,” says the 27-year-old entrepreneur.

She stopped the performances a few years ago, hoping to take the storytelling art form to stages in theatres, beyond its deep religious and spiritual associations. “I want to attract the young audience. It doesn’t mean not touching mythological stories, but perhaps choosing those that resonate with current times,” she says. So, she’s experimenting with puppets and lighting to create a visual as well as an auditory experience.

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With no bookings for performances this year at sangeetha sabhas, temple trusts and pandals, Varshini has created an app, Sabhankosh, to live-stream harikathe performances. “I have only done one till now as it has been difficult to coordinate with musicians and accompanying singers for a performance during the pandemic,” says Varshini, who runs a startup, Prabhath Auditoriums, which manages five auditoriums in the city. The app has seen 1,000 downloads so far.

Not everyone has been able to adapt to the virtual world. Residents of Purba Medinipur district in West Bengal, patachitra artists and singers Probir and Laila Chitrakar have been struggling to sell their works since the lockdown in March. They don’t know how to promote their work—where they compose a song and then visualise it on canvas—online and have been forced to survive on government ration and savings.

“In the last few years, exhibitions and sales have reduced. Online, too, people copy our art and sell it at a lower rate but these are not authentic. An authentic painting takes a few weeks to make as we make natural colours from scratch. Since the pandemic, there have been no programmes or anything where we could display our work,” says 32-year-old Probir, whose family has been practising the storytelling art form for eight generations.

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Their plight is similar to that of storytellers whose art form involves collaboration between two communities—that of the singing storyteller and the painter. Rajasthan, for instance, now only has a handful of old Kavadias, who bring the kavad (travelling temples) to life through stories sung in Marwari in villages.

“For them, this is not a performance but a sacred ritual of narrating religious stories,” says Akshay Gandhi, a theatre artist who has researched Kavadias and is among a new crop of storytellers who are trying to imbibe the style and technique of the art form in their work.

Phad artist Vijay Joshi has been busy conducting online workshops for audience from varied backgrounds and nationalities.
Phad artist Vijay Joshi has been busy conducting online workshops for audience from varied backgrounds and nationalities. (Vijay Joshi)

The painters have fared better than the singers, since they have adapted the kavad form to non-religious themes. Dwarka Prasad Jangid, a maker and painter from Chittor district, has created kavads on girls’ education, the English and Hindi alphabets, Panchatantra tales, Durga Puja, even the ongoing pandemic. People buy these as decorative items. “Earlier, only Kavadias would have the kavads. Now, neither do people have time to listen, nor do they pay them well. How will Kavadias make their living?” says Jangid, who comes from a long line of kavad creators. For a few months, the pandemic brought everything to a halt—fortunately, over the last two months they have started getting some orders.

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In Shahpura, Rajasthan, Phad artist Vijay Joshi is trying to bring together a team of musicians and bhopas (the oral narrators of Phad painting) during the pandemic. “This is the only way to encourage bhopas from completely dying out,” says 44-year-old Joshi, who has been narrating the stories as well as painting them. Joshi has stayed afloat by creating a website, promoting the works online and doing virtual workshops in partnership with NGOs and art consultants for varied audiences like art students, working professionals and foreigners. His workshops have become popular—he spends at least three-four days every week conducting 1 or 2-hour Phad art workshops.

Like Kalaimagan, Joshi too wants to experiment with narrating the stories in different languages and incorporating contemporary themes to create greater awareness of the art form. “These art forms are labour intensive and I don’t know if anyone will do so much work in future,” says Joshi, who wants to pass on the legacy to his two children.

Traditional art forms run the risk of fading away unless they adapt, says Eric Miller, director of the World Storytelling Institute in Chennai. “Traditional storytellers are dwindling as they can’t make a living as old habits have changed. Storytelling is a very local process, which uses local dialects. You can’t preserve the old ways of storytelling in a jar; as society changes, storytellers have to keep pace,” says Miller, who has studied villupattu.

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Meanwhile, Kalaimagan as part of Subbu Arumugam Fine Arts Centre is discussing a certificate course for villupattu with universities. “It will not only encourage youngsters to learn it but also give it some seriousness,” he says. He hopes the government will look more favourably on promoting, and providing financial support to, villupattu artists.

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