From demure housewife to bloodthirsty goddess, gurgling infant to elephant man, meditating sage to cosmic fire-eater, Hindu mythology came to life as British storyteller and performer Emily Hennessey began her storytelling session at the recently concluded Kathakar — International Storytellers Festival held at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.
Emily, who holds a master’s degree in drama, has also studied at the Kattaikkuttu School of Theatre near Kanchipuram, and learned the pandavani tradition from Chhattisgarh. She explores the ancient traditional art of storytelling within a contemporary context. “Like every child my first storytelling performance was as a young kid participating in a competition. But after that I never took serious interest in the art until I started pursuing my theatre studies,” ahe shares, adding, “While studying drama and theatre at the University of Kent I met Indian storyteller Dr Vayu Naidu. The stories and tales she narrated captivated me. Later, I did an apprenticeship under her.”
According to Emily folktales are more interesting to narrate. She says, “In my session I generally include stories from across the world — Nordic legends, fantastical tales from India, folk stories from Africa — in a playful and imaginative manner. My work and research trips in rural India, from Ladakh to Tamil Nadu, have also infused a great love of Hindu myths and epics.”
The experience in Kancheepuram fuelled her interest in stories about Hindu mythology, gods and goddesses. “I love Indian folk tales and mythology. I love the stories of Shiva and Parvati, the transformations of Parvati and the birth of Ganesh. It is completely enchanting to see her in different forms — sometimes demure as the homemaker Parvati and then the raging Kali who can destroy. I always look for stories that help me speak to the contemporary audience. It has something to say or something to ask,” she says.
With over 10 years of experience, Emily aims to build a strong bridge through storytelling with communities worldwide. Talking about the art of storytelling, Emily says, “Storytelling is about communicating a story in a way that is both live and alive. It’s about taking the story off the page and retelling it through a process of visualisation. Rather than memorised text, the storyteller creates an internal world of imagery and through the telling, converts that imagery into language.”
She adds, “The retelling of a story becomes something personal, told in the storyteller’s own words. The same story will change with every telling, responding to each different audience. As a storyteller the focus is to convert that imagery into language and encourage flights into fantasy world. It empowers both the teller and the listener, stretching their imagination and broadening horizons. It also offers a deeper understanding of different cultures as well as the immediate world around the storytelling workshops.”
Performing a story from a different religion is a tough task, points Emily. “It is very difficult to judge to what extent you can improvise a story from a different region and religion. I ensure that I add a little element of mine in the story. At the same time, it is very interesting to see how viewers react to the story.”
She is very excited about her upcoming performance based on the epic tale of Kali. She says, “For this performance I have collaborated with an Indian sarod player. I am very excited to share the story of the demon-slayer goddess with the audience back home in England. I hope to bring that narrative to India in the latter half of the year.”