A few days ago during the Bengaluru Poetry Festival, I was almost done for the day when the Master of Ceremony announced that the next event was going to be a performance by Padma Bhushan Teejan Bai. Only the mention of Padma Bhushan made me stay back. When Teejan Bai began with her Pandavani, I was happy that I stayed back. Although I barely understood the language, she was so fascinating and inspiring with her songs. It was one of those moments when you realize that certain arts are so powerful that they appeal to you breaking through the barriers of language. The irony of our times is that this was happening in an air conditioned room of Leela Palace, Bengaluru. I am not complaining, I am rather glad that the hall was full to its brim.People were seated on the floor cheering for her while she performed in a voice so compelling. It was indeed a sight to behold.What impressed me most about the whole performance was how creatively and humorously she advocated for breast-feeding while actually narrating Kurukshetra. The impeccable narration of an epic tale molded to suit its audience while staying relevant to the time we live in was something admirable about her show.
I was still recovering from the spell of her splendid performance, when a dear friend invited me to his kid’s birthday party. Having known him I did expect something more than the customary cake cutting ceremony. But I was in for a pleasant surprise when I entered the party hall. I felt a strong nostalgia seeping into me reminding me of a very memorable school annual day celebration. That was the last time I watched a puppet show. It was more 15 years ago and a bunch of my classmates had performed it. The memory of the show is so fresh that I still remember the song that was played in the background, the act that was done, the boys who did the act and even the teacher who trained them. Such is the power of storytelling. However the puppet show that was performed at my school was different from what was happening at the party. My friends at school wore gloves in their hands but the artists in the party had puppets with strings attached to them. I did a little research to quench my curiosity and I was amazed to learn about the various kinds of puppetry that was in practice in India. Puppet making was also another great form of art in itself apart from being a source of employment for the rural population.
These happenstances in the last few days got me thinking about the various forms of storytelling. As a child I loved listening to Villupaatu which is a very famous traditional form of storytelling in Tamil Nadu. The jingles tied to a bow, the big earthen pots for music, the story teller with a captivating voice, the troupe of supporting artists, their witty gimmicks and last but not the least their stories and songs used to keep me glued to it for hours together.
There are thousands of such arts across the country which play a very significant part in the social, political, economic and cultural history of the country. Every region had a unique storytelling technique paired with distinct musical instruments, interesting accessories and also an outfit that stands out during the performance. Each one of them even have a very beautiful story behind their techniques, instruments and attires. Above all these artists treated their art with the greatest reverence only next to the almighty. These folklore got people out of their houses, brought them closer in real open spaces. These folklore which once belonged to the common people are now surviving under a closed roof with an elitist crowd as their patrons. No, I still am not complaining. I do understand that every good thing must eventually come to an end. Everything old invariably gets replaced by something new or transforms into something else. The inevitable did happen in due course of time making the idiot box and the mushrooming multiplexes to take over all forms of traditional story telling.
Nevertheless history does seem to repeat itself. There seem to be a revival of the culture of storytelling but now in a newer form. Today the cities are buzzing with a lot of activities promoting storytelling as a skill, from kindergartens to corporate offices. While this is an absolutely great turnaround, I believe we must also look back into our own treasured art forms and take inspiration from our traditional storytellers. While most of these artists already have an alternate job as a means for their survival, these arts today persist only because of the perseverance of a few passionate souls.
It is going to be a difficult task to get our kids out of the addictive gadgets and enable them to appreciate a folklore, but I am sure it is not impossible. I watched this stubborn kid who was wanting to go home to play, jump in joy as the puppeteers came out with the puppets and let him play the strings. He made me believe we might still have the chance to preserve at least some of our folk arts if not all. So the latest item on my bucket list says learn a folk art. I shall strive hard to strike it off my list, but I believe it would be more fun to do it together as a society and even more rewarding if we do it as a nation.