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Sita's tale

Travels with Sita


EPICS & LYRICS: In Naidu's telling, Sita is no victim. She's a single mom who fights back and brings up her boys. (Left) A first edition copy of 'Gitanjali' that Naidu inherited from her uncle

Vayu Naidu is a professional storyteller who tells the story of the 'Ramayana' instead of reading it out from a text.

Professional storyteller Vayu Naidu shared the stage with Namita Gokhale, founder-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, at the Tagore Festival. The two women spoke about their writings on Sita. Gokhale discussed her anthology, 'In Search of Sita - Revisiting Mythology', co-edited with Dr Malashri Lal, which presents fresh interpretations of the Indian woman's most famous role-model. Naidu spoke about her debut novel 'Sita's Ascent'.

Is 'Sita's Ascent' a retelling of the Ramayana?

Retelling is the same story told with another voice. What I am doing is reimagining. It's the story of Sita after she returns to Ayodhya, when she is pregnant with Rama's child and he exiles her. It covers Sita having her sons and ends with the two sons meeting Rama. The story is the same but I fictionalise the reasons for things such as why Rama exiles her and give the different perspectives of the characters rather than having one omniscient narrator. It is set in the 4th century. To me, Sita is not a victim as she triumphs with the power of love. She is not bitter or regretful even though she feels the loss of the man she loves. She is not a wimp, she fights back and brings up her boys. She does not ask to be taken back and has her child in the forest. She battles with whether to fill the kids with hate or love and fills them with love. I see her as an inspirational role model. I am interested in archetypes of women and mythology. There are a lot of oral tales of Sita told by Indian women when they speak about their own plight because Sita was a woman who was banished, who was a single mother and a lot of their tales have irreverent views of patriarchal society and authority. I think Sita should feature more in world literature.

Is it true that the publication of your book was delayed?

Yes, it was because the publisher was worried after A K Ramanujan's essay Three Hundred Ramayanas witnessed violent protests in 2008.

What is your view of Tagore?

I have always been nervous entering the realms of anything about Tagore because I am not a Bengali and felt I was not qualified to comment. But he was a renaissance man, a polyglot, beyond national boundaries who had a fundamental belief in every individual's imagination being the portal through which they can manifest themselves.

Tell us about your storytelling background.

I was born in India and moved from Chennai to England in 1988 to do a PhD in Performance Oral Tradition at the University of Leeds. In the mid 1990s I was asked to tell the Ramayana story at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London when it was holding an exhibition on the Indian epic and that led to me becoming the first Indian in the world to perform storytelling in the Indic oral tradition in the English language and the first academic to take it up. In 2001, I founded the Vayu Naidu Company.

You were inspired by the Bauls, the wandering mystic minstrels from Bengal.

Yes, they sing improvised Bengali songs to the accompaniment of an ektara. I also spent time with the Gayani tribe in the Himalayas in Nepal. My storytelling is sometimes accompanied by musicians and I do not have a script. I keep the narrative in my head allowing for improvisation. I then tell the story directly to the audience extracting what I believe is the spirit of it and bringing in contemporary references. I have put on various performances of epics, myths and fables such as the Ramayana. Apart from performing, I have also been working in hospitals, prisons and women's refuges helping lift people into another reality to take their mind off their daily problems.

Your funding was cut by the Arts Council in the UK in 2012?

Yes, we were funded between 2004 and 2012 so now I am trying to curate literary events. I had an online residency at the Tagore Festival with Tishani Doshi, an Indian poet, which was inspired by Gitanjali, published in 1913, and we have both been responding to bits of verse written a hundred years ago looking at the topics of environment, nature and gender. The site is open to the public to respond to here (www. dartington. org). I am also writing an English play for Birmingham Repertory Theatre's community touring production. It is about two characters talking about food and includes memories of immigrants pining for the food of their homeland.

Do you feel sad to have to give up storytelling ?

I don't see it like that. I am moving into curating, producing and presenting a bit more. For me, all of life involves storytelling as it's all about how do you make those stories from the past significant to the present, how do we make sustainability relevant, how can we reinterpret and remap the world - that, for me, is what the storyteller is.

You had a first-edition of 'Gitanjali' with you at the festival.

Yes, it belonged to my uncle Rao Bahadur K Venugopal who lived in Robert Clive's house in Cuddalore. My parents gave it to me when I got married. It is a first edition published in 1913. It has holes in some of the pages and my uncle's notes, but is in very good condition.

So are you continuing with storytelling?

Yes, I have had to lay off my full-time staff and just hire people on a freelance basis but I am continuing to do it and keep applying for small project grants. I am doing storytelling at ninetieth birthday parties and engagement parties in India with Indian musicians. It's traditionally known as Kathakalakshepam. With metropolitan audiences with intercultural families, they are interested in myths and epics that signify contemporary urban relationships and contexts - so I'm reviving it with performing and curating storytelling in concerts. I've just returned from creating and performing one such a concert accompanied by vocalist Mahesh Vinayakaram at the Museum Theatre in Chennai with former Indian President Abdul Kalam to congratulate Surendra Bhai Mehta on his 90th birthday.

I will be performing storytelling of the Ramayana and Sita's story at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and the British Library in October and discussing the difference between storytelling and reading from fiction. Storytelling is an art form that has existed for thousands of years. There is something about a human body relaying a story with music. It is a craft of poetry that comes from the soul. It would be foolish to let it die out.

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