How to Tell a Tale


Imagine you are marooned in an island like the one in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Before the rescue team arrives you have only one way to keep thought of any danger at bay: To erect a tent, take shelter in it and keep each other occupied by telling and performing stories created on the spot!

Keeping in mind such a scenario, a story teller’s tent was put up inside Quad Hall at Woodstock International School during the 5th Mussoorie Writers’ Fest held on 17the & 18th Sep’12 to hear a story told, to see a story unfold through dance and music, and to learn the art of it all.

A decorative cloth-canopy was raised overhead to give the hall a camp-like look. Pillows and cushions were placed on the floor where the student participants sat. At the back skirting the floor in a semi-circle fashion chairs were kept for the teachers and the guests. The boys and girls who acted out the role of performance storyteller on the stage were togged out in fantastic costumes with matching make-up as each character in the stories demanded.

The Dalai Lama who came to Woodstock the day before the fest began was reported to have said: ‘You can’t find true happiness with technology’. So technology was largely set aside, and even the use of microphone on certain occasions was done away with.

The stories chosen for adaptation were from countries like Yemen, Qatar, Korea, Nepal, India … There were actually no proper scripts as such and the students often improvised on the stage. Each performance ended with a meaningful moral like ‘Parents should think twice before they scold their children’ and on each occasion peals of laughter rang out from dim corners of the tent.

Every boarding school has the perfect setting for a M3 (mystery, mayhem, murder) storywriter to grow. There’s spooky stuff all around. Going to loo at night can be quite an experience. The shadowy depths that you encounter along the way can unleash your imagination and help you think out of the box. You can brood a lot sitting by the window, conversing with the spectral species before putting them down on paper. That’s exactly what Pune-based writer Sonia Chandrachud did growing up in a boarding school with Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories always on her bedside table.

She urged the students to snoop around, interact with the locals, be on the prowl, make the effort stand out from the crowd, for there’re mysteries right under one’s nose. It’s also important to develop a kinship with the gifted authors if you want to become one. Sonya read out from her book The Potion of Eternity and from DOA Detective Stories, held workshops and took questions from the students.

Neela Venkataraman’s presence at Woodstock was electrifying. Neela is a intrepid traveller, writer, studio potter and film director who has a deep insight into art, nature and people. A couple of her films are on You Tube. Two of her documentary films: Living Stories and Sound Check were shown at Quad Dining Hall and the Parker Hall.

In Living Stories the authors who took part in the Jaipur Literary festival last year (2011) were interviewed. They gave their expert comments on the technique, style and approaches of the wonderful yet not-so-well-known artists from different parts of India (Bauls, Kathakali and Rajasthani Dancers, puppeteers) who still bring to life myriad epic characters through the form of dance and music. What made the film vibrant is the live performance by the folk singers accompanied by a group of musicians whom M. Farooqui called ’the custodians of History’, depicting ‘a whole range of emotion’ (Gyan Prakash), ‘essentially interactive’ (Githa Hariharan).

Sound Check on the other hand is about the contemporary bands in India. Here a group of musicians representing different genres of music talk about their art. They give live demonstration composed of both traditional Indian and western instruments, taking the best of all and making a whole. It’s a mixture of folk, rock, jazz, reggae. It’s rooted in India but global in appeal.

Neela Venkataraman also held a workshop on making documentary films. Films like The Story of India ‘rushing headlong into the future’ and another film based on the miracle of life after the Big Bang were shown to the students to make them understand the essentials of documentary film- making. Every film like a book starts with an idea. Research follows. You do the script before you start to shoot at random in order to get the footage. You don’t shoot sequentially or in a linear order. Then you pick the right image, cut the flab and edit before putting the clips together into a half hour movie which is called packaging. She talked about narration which can be background or ‘in the frame’. Music as an element really adds to the story but not strictly required. She pointed out the ‘ambient noise’, the sound that already exists while you shoot. It gives the film kind of real feel, and it can be controlled.

Subhadra Sengupta, a well known writer, illustrator and freelance editor, met the students in the classroom and provided them with a few ideas like ‘an alien lands in Landour’ etc. and asked them to imagine it like a movie script and then draw. The students came up with a few striking and innovative drawings.

Tapas Guha, the internationally acclaimed self-taught artist gave a live demonstration to show how illustration and writing go together. One has to track the movement of a story and accordingly break it up to be able to successfully illustrate. He asked the students to be aware of the images appearing before them while they read any story. Tapas Guha happens to be one of Ruskin Bond’s favourite illustrators.

Joshua Gray, the Poet from USA, recited from the Epic Anglo Saxon poem Beowulf, which is a poetic retelling by him. He made the poem readable by reducing it to one verse adapted as a tale for children. The book has been illustrated by Sean Yates.

Vibha Raizada (Consultant at OUP) from Mother’s International School, Srila Basu (Associated with Sri Aurobindo Ashram) from Mirambika Free Progress School, and poet Meenakshi were present on the occasion. This popular festival was as always very well looked after by Mrs. Mark, Woodstock teacher Kim and Anjali among others.

The moral of the 5th Edition of Mussoorie Writers’ Festival was aptly put by Sonya Chandrachud, dubbed as the J K Rowling of India: For anyone yearning to be a teller of tales, writing on a daily basis has no substitute even if it initially turns out to be rubbish.

First published in The Statesman

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