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The art of storytelling: How to enact an epic without props or a set

UK-based artist Emily Hennessy teaches how to perform tales from the Mahabharata

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Feb 11, 2016 19:07 IST
Poorva Joshi
Poorva Joshi
Hindustan Times
Storytelling,HT48Hours,Emily Hennessy
Emily Hennessy has been a performance storyteller for the last 10 years.

A performer enters the stage, dressed in a long coat and trousers, holding a wooden staff in his hand. “I have a story,” he announces loudly. “It is set on a mountaintop, on a hot day. A pack of hunters approach, riding their horses. The party of hunters is led by a handsome prince called...” A djembe in the background provides a drum roll. As he trails off, three women in unison start chanting Arjun’s name accompanied by a harmonium and a string of ghungrus.

The story is from the Mahabharata, but it isn’t a rendition by an Indian folk troupe. The group — Pandavani 108 — comprises four UK-based artists. “We wanted to perform stories for the people of England,” says Emily Hennessy, co-founder of the group and a performance storyteller by profession. Pandavani is inspired by the traditional storytelling form of Chhattisgarh, which elaborates on the stories from the Mahabharata.

For those of you who are wondering what performance storytelling is, Hennessy breaks it down: “Don’t confuse it with theatre, for they are aided with sets and props. The audience can see the story unfold in front of their eyes. A storytelling performance is devoid of props. It is only the performer on stage, who through his narration creates visuals in the audience’s imagination.”

An internationally acclaimed artist, Hennessy has staged stories from Indian mythology as well as Russian and Scandinavian folklore. She has performed at prestigious theatres including the SoHo Theatre, London and at the Kathakar — International Storytellers Festival, New Delhi. Hennessy is now set to conduct a workshop on performance storytelling in Mumbai, this weekend.

Tales of the past

“We all grow up on stories. For entertainment or for imparting moral values, stories are an integral part of the human cultural fabric,” says Hennessy, who performed her first story at the age of nine. “My two best friends and I had prepared The Little Red Riding Hood for a Christmas event. They backed out at the last moment, and so, I performed the entire story all by myself,” reminisces the 33-year old.

Since then, Hennessy has been hooked to the art. A drama major from the University of Kent, Hennessy was first introduced to performance storytelling by her professor, Dr Vayu Naidu, in 2005. Naidu is the founder of The Vayu Naidu Storytelling Theatre, a UK-based production house that stages mythological stories in collaboration with jazz musicians. “In her first class with us, she created the entire world of Hastinapur in our minds with nothing but her words. I knew then that this was my calling,” says Hennessy.

Over the last 10 years, Hennessy has shared many stories with her audiences, but her favourite remains the Ramayana. “It weaves in love, drama and many different emotions. Most importantly, the story leaves behind so many unanswered questions that it keeps inviting me to revisit it time and again,” she says.

Taking the story forward

Despite the fame she has garnered, Hennessy is still in awe of the power of stories. “The medium of sharing the stories makes all the difference. Be it cinema or theatre, each have their own strengths. But stories are most impactful when shared with a small audience bound by the same imagination,” she says.

To inspire people to take up performing stories as a profession, Hennessy will now educate Mumbaikars on the different approaches to a story. “Some storytellers distinguish the characters in a story through voice modulation and physical traits. Others perform the story uniformly as the main narrator. I will discuss both the formats,” concludes Hennessy.

Listen in

What: Emily Hennessy will conduct The Art of Storytelling, on February 13, 10am onward.

Where: British Council Library, 9th Floor, Tower 1, One IndiaBulls Centre Senapati Bapat Marg, Elphinstone (W)

Call: 6748 6748

Entry: Rs 3,000 onward

First Published: Feb 11, 2016 00:00 IST