India is a treasure-trove for storytellers with each region in India possessing its own tradition of storytelling. These traditions include oral storytelling, dance, music, painting, Kolam, puppetry, and more.
Let us take a look at oral storytelling. Most of us have grown up listening to our grandparents narrate stories at bedtime. In school, we have watched short plays at annual day programs. As we grew, we began attending storytelling sessions, also known as Kathakalakshepams, where an individual would take us through a bunch of stories while also providing the real essence to those stories. Today, most of us listen to audiobooks; it is easier than reading one yourself, and on the other hand, the story is better received when it is narrated.
CSP had the pleasure of speaking to a singer-storyteller duo from Bangalore, who have given a wonderful outlook to storytelling. They brought two traditions of storytelling together and this blend is fresh and definitely addictive to many young audiences. The duo - singer Vivek Sadasivam and storyteller Vinay Varanasi took us through their journey of storytelling with music.
Vivek Sadasivam is a Carnatic singer who began learning music at the age of five under his grandfather and grand-aunt in Kolkata. “I come from the direct Shishya Parampara of Shri Muthuswami Dikshitar. My great-grandfather Shri Ananthakrishna Iyer learnt under Shri Ambi Dikshitar who happens to be the great grand-nephew of Shri Muthuswami Dikshitar,” Vivek told us.
After being in Kolkata for generations, the family moved to Bangalore. Vivek continues to learn under his father and under Shri Rudrapatnam Thyagarajan and Shri Sanjay Subramanyam. Prior to taking up music full-time, Vivek pursued an engineering degree and also worked for a few years. However, he decided to dedicate himself to music thoroughly and has been performing for the past fifteen to twenty years.
Vinay Varanasi called himself The Jack of All Trades. An architect by day, Vinay has been in the field of architectural and design education. He set up a start-up that looks into ways of adding value into the way architecture is taught. They conduct immersion programs which has been their flagship focus in terms of taking architects and designers on rural journeys, and exposing them to how our design is present in the grassroots and the complicated layers around this. Vinay also studied design education with a focus on how to design better education. This happens to be his professional side. CSP delved into his passion side- storytelling.
“I do not think I am a storyteller per se, because I do not have the boxes to check, saying I have formally learned it. This is just something that has come by intuition to me, and I am grateful about that. But I think my strong interest in all things Puranic goes back to as long as I can remember, and I think the explanation comes in terms of both storytelling - orally and visually - comes through art,” said Vinay.
Vinay wants to create an experience for people, such that they leave with a feeling; neither they have to leave with facts nor do they have to remember anything. Vinay also writes lyrics and a few pallavis. Hence, ‘Jack of All Trades, Master of None’
“For as long as I can remember, I have been growing up on stories. Amar Chitra Katha was a big part of my childhood and I collected, I think, issue by issue, number by number, every single one of them. I realized that the visuals from some of the books I owned from when I was five or six years old stuck and they're reproducing themselves in my art after almost 25 years. Amar Chitra Katha has definitely played a role in this journey.” reminisced Vinay.
Vinay later realised that there is more than a surface-level retelling of a tale. The stories are not just about an external world, they are about what is happening inside, and when Vinay started to realize it for himself, that is when the passion in him came to say- can I share this experience with other people as well.
Vinay and Vivek met through a common friend at one of the concerts and when they got to talking, an idea struck. “We have many Carnatic music concerts, but there was an opportunity to do something special, so we thought of mixing stories and music to see where this takes us. People want to listen to stories and my initial thought was, when you are listening to a concert and if there is somebody to tell you what it means and what are the stories associated with the songs, that would make the concert more enjoyable,” Vivek explained.
Vinay added, “Just as Vivek mentioned, we wondered how we could make Carnatic music an experience and accessible to everybody. This was one angle. The other was how do we make stories accessible to everybody. Those who relate to music do not necessarily relate to the stories, so I think when we came together, the one thing we felt in common very strongly was that this is not stories interjected with music, and this is not music interjected with stories. They are both coming together, such that it is overall tightly woven as one experience.”
For Vivek, storytelling has been a new journey. It was early February 2020, when the duo had their first performance. In India, there are Kathakalakshepams, Harikathas and other forms of storytelling via music. They are very spiritually charged and according to Vivek, the power of storytelling when combined with something like music, can take people onto a different level, wherein they can connect better with the stories.
“For instance, when I narrate a story on Shiva that you have read recently, and when those words are connected somehow in the form of great composers or compositions, or ragas that bring out that essence, different people feel it in different ways. Music is a kind of medium that is very hard to explain but somehow people are able to relate to it,” Vivek expressed.
Apart from music, there are other artforms that can take storytelling to another dimension. However, music is one such artform that people feel and connect to better. It has a melody to it and when this melody entwines with the words from stories, it is a magical combination.
Vivek and Vinay have brought two different themes- Dhathri and Parva. We asked them to take us through their theme selection process. “Vivek already holds a knife to my head because not only will I choose an obscure theme but I would also find deeply buried compositions that no one has performed for a century. I would then make Vivek learn the lyrics and tune it,” Vinay jokingly expressed.
Jokes apart, for the two, it is all about relatability. Even if they were to choose a story that was unfamiliar to many, they look at ways to add concepts to make the story relatable to their audience. These concepts can be characters, situations, music or a specific aspect that people are already connected to.
“During the pandemic, when everyone was stuck at home, we decided to look at something that takes us closer to nature. But when we say nature, it is a huge umbrella. We began looking at aspects of nature that people are somewhat familiar with or might have some preconceived notions about. We also looked at it from the musical angle. What are the compositions that people are singing or listening to constantly, but are not aware of what it means? We wanted to shed light on these aspects,” Vinay elucidated.
Apart from relatability, they wanted to not only make the stories accessible, but also bring out traditional arts forms through these topics. “Many artforms are a part of our culture and we wanted to impart that knowledge to people. We wanted it to be educational in nature in addition to it being an experience. The response we got from this project Dhathri was very heartening. Obviously, it resonated with everyone, and because we brought two different artforms together, the way they perceive the two, the next time they come across it, becomes very different,” Vivek expressed.
Apart from Dhathri, they performed a session on the lesser known festivals known as Parva. Everyone is aware of festivals like Deepavali and Navaratri and through Parva, they wanted to throw light on those that are not well-known among all. The two are always in search of topics that are appealing and educational.
Each of the themes that they work on take a certain amount of time to plan and practice. Firstly, they need to look at the overarching theme and what it is that they are trying to create. Depending on how detailed the sessions are, each episode takes its own time. When they did the series Dhathri, each episode lasted up to fifteen minutes. But even that required a decent amount of planning.
“For instance, when we were looking at the series of nature, we chose an episode on sarpa, the snake. It would have been easy to just pick two compositions on the snake and be done. But we looked at it from different schools of thought, or what is the snake’s approach from a yogic angle. As we spend more and more time figuring out the concepts, things just fall into place very effortlessly, especially during the last couple of days.”
The duo just did a show on Uma that was part of a six-part series for Aalaap Concepts, an arts consulting and management outfit based in Chennai, that focused on Shiva and Parvati, culminating in Gowri Kalyanam (marriage). A day before the performance, Vivek set some of the shlokas and compositions for it. Two very unique ragas that were part of the compositions and relevant for the story were Gowri Manohari and Rathipatipriya (Rathi Pati is Kama who plays an important role in bringing Shiva and Parvati together).
“The other aspect we are looking at is how we can take music outside of compositions. For instance, in several Sampradaya, we consider the Paramatma to be above the world. When he showers His love upon us, in Samskritam, this is known as Dhara (flow). Now, when we return the same love to Paramatma, that Dhara is reversed - Radha, the epitome of affection to the Supreme,” added Vinay.
These explorations are usually grasped very easily by an Indian audience. When asked about how they cater to non-Indian audiences, “When we have an idea of the kind of audience we have for our shows, we curate our content accordingly. People from different parts of the world understand Indian philosophy although they might not be familiar with religion and other aspects. Our content has a good mix of both. Some of my friends from abroad watched our shows and enjoyed it, especially when the themes were not related directly towards religious figures,” Vivek remarked.
“We do want to explore how we can take our concepts to Western audiences because one aspect of our stories are about the Puranas and Itihasas characters, but we also want to explore subtler aspects of the Divine from the Vedantic perspective. It becomes more relatable to people who are not necessarily familiar with the form but are familiar with the Nirguna aspect,” Vinay explained.
The duo definitely have a wide range of audience that they cater to. The India we live in now requires convincing about our culture and the traditions we follow. Apart from that, there are various interpretations of the Epics and Puranas that do not strike the right chord. Also, social media has somewhat decreased the attention span of many, especially with the introduction of reels and short films.
It is a challenge to cater to a huge audience with a constantly decreasing attention span and social media is such a platform where many are unwilling to have their opinions challenged. When Vinay first began his journey, he pondered over thoughts like “How are people going to receive my content?”.
Eventually, he overcame this challenge when he did not present himself as an authority stating that he was right and there is no other way to look at a concept. “During our performances, we do face resistance about understanding certain topics in certain ways because there are so many biases that people have,” Vinay said.
Vivek added that as per his observations in terms of storytelling, although the performances last for ninety minutes or more, people are willing to sit and listen to it. “We have been led to believe that the one-minute reels are what people want, but these are just algorithms. If the content is authentic, people will start listening to it.”
When there is music alongside, the audience is able to process it better, and it is definitely a breather from constantly listening to a talk. Music is such a powerful artform that blends borders and unites everyone. Apart from music, India is home to sixty-four artforms or the 64 Kalas. We asked the two to pick another artform they wish to collaborate with.
“Most of our Indian artforms would work. If I had to pick, I would pick something earthy, like pottery or anything related to natural materials,” Vivek said.
“I think multi-sensory spaces provide an experiential learning of sorts. Fundamentally, I think all Indian art forms are designed to help us evolve. I am curious to see how we can streamline this in the future,” said Vinay. A very interesting choice from Vinay was the use of Kalamkari.
When one looks at the art, there are birds, animals and humans with either a side profile or a full profile. There is never a 3D profile. When this is extended to Mysore or even Tanjore art, there is no concept of 3D, because in the Indian understanding of the divine, this does not exist. “These are not viewed from a man’s eye and hence it is not a third dimension to humans. We do not play a role in it. So, the whole premise here is that man is not supreme and the ‘I’ is not relevant. The basic thread is of spirituality. That is the basis of all our art forms.”
When asked about what other genre of music they wish to work with, Vinay said, “I am very spoiled by Vivek, and every time I feel like I am fine and I do not need to do anything else. There is definitely potential in different genres of music. For me, Carnatic music is home. I am familiar with Carnatic music and this may be my personal bias towards it, but I think more than that, the amount of content that directly feeds into stories, into tattva, and into philosophy is very easily linkable.”
However he also added that the duo have thought about what other genre they could bring in alongside Carnatic music. For example western classical music and also folk music. Folk music is something that the two are passionate about and they are looking at ways to weave it into an experience.
Vivek and Vinay have a plethora of stories that they want to share with the world. They recently did a segment called Nava, the power of the number nine. They explored the significance of nine and they want to extend this to all numbers.
Vinay envisions for himself and for those of his age to have platforms where they are able to understand stories authentically. There may be language barriers, but he wants to create a community of critical enquiry without the cynicism. He wants all to collectively go on a journey where one can discover their own connection to the stories.
“How do we make the Indian ethos relatable; something we cannot find in textbooks or in a Netflix documentary. I should not have to cringe the next time a fellow Indian comes up to me and says ‘you know what happens in the Ramayana; Rama abandoned Sita’, and then subtly avoid the topic. My focus is to create that respect and a conscious community.”
Storytelling is an integral aspect of Bharata. Stories are important because they are personal and timeless. “Krishna gave the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna and I could pick this up today when I am having a quarter-life crisis. The book could be speaking to me; I could forget the whole context of Guru-Creator, and everything Krishna says could just literally be about me. This is just one example to show that this is something that is relevant to me right here, right now,” Vinay explained.
Stories have the power to remind us that we are not alone. Our own journeys can be very complex in many conflicts, especially for the Indian diaspora community. On the one hand, their parents are trying their best to immerse them in Indian culture and on the other hand, it can be a culture overdose at home and when they are out, there is a lack of such understanding. They are torn between two worlds. This can make it hard for them to find their grounding.
That way, Vinay feels that stories with music or any art form have the potential to remind us that they can relate to something without having to feel odd. It becomes effortless for them because stories have the power to remind us that we are all connected to each other.
Vivek expressed that there is a lack of correct information and this leads to many assumptions. “As children, we do something because we have been told to do so, and as time goes by, we do not know why we do it. This passes down to many generations, and even more for those who live outside India. The value of stories and understanding it the right way rather than just reading is okay but we need to delve into more. A good storyteller guides you and tells you why certain things happened and why it is still relevant. So, understanding these concepts are important whether it is for somebody here or for the diaspora.”
For Vinay, their stories are not Wikipedia. They scratch the surface of the story just to let them know that there is something deeper. “What exists underneath and how far they want to dig into is left to them. This becomes their own internal Sadhana,” remarked Vinay.
“People are used to long exposition of topics. Some talks go on for hours like for example, if the topic is the Trinity of Carnatic Music or even if it is a two hour program, what are the audience taking away from it,” Vivek expressed.
The two want to streamline this and make the topics more specific and explore those specifics. They want to take people from one zone to another, giving them a little bit of everything rather than spending hours on a generic topic.