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Tale Weaver

Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey | TNN | Nov 5, 2016, 07.24 AM IST


It was a sight to behold - smartphone crazy kids and their parents sitting for hours together, with the storyteller taking them from one intrigue to another seamlessly. They missed their calls, WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts by the dozen, but they were back for more the morning after. They have brought their friends and the crowd has swelled, but Roger Jenkins's door is always open to whoever loves a good story.


Jenkins, an internationally acclaimed storyteller, was in town and held sessions for three consecutive days from October 22. He had always wanted to see Kolkata, the city that shaped and got shaped by British politics and eventually inspired the establishment of Singapore as another British colony by the East India Company .His roots might have been the reason behind this quest, but he chose to give up his British citizenship and become a Singaporean because he is a Westerner who identifies more with Asia and its ways. So, it is natural that this affinity would extend to stories as well.


For the past three decades, Jenkins has collected stories from India, China, Japan and Indonesia -mostly folk tales - and spun and woven them further to include modern complexities.His favourite remains `Panchatantra' and `Ramayana' in all their variations. So, when the baritone booms and the story of Ram and Sita flows, you'll be surprised at the twists and turns it takes. While you seem to somewhat know the structure, there are so many comic interludes and musical crescendos that they almost seem new. "Ah! This is from the Indonesian version of `Ramayana' that is full of dance, music and comic relief, quite removed from the sombre romance that Indians are so used to," explains Jenkins at the end of the story .


You virtually hear the Kenyan drums and cymbals come alive and the forests close in on you as Jenkins races you through a wild adventure. Soon, you are on a Chinese trail with the famous story of an old man who tried to move the mountain, or find yourself chasing that proverbial rabbit that invariably runs into a tree.Magical voice modulations and simple props and puppets transform the whole storytelling space into an out-of-world experience. There are no audio-visuals or flashy screen support here: just the storyteller, his simple tools and his charged space. "Stories from `Panchatantra' and `Hitopodesha' remain my favourite, but I refrain from telling these very familiar tales anywhere in India. But what will never stop surprising me is the uncanny familiarity that they have with Aesop's fables. I am sure stories got exchanged in the ancient times between India and the Mediterranean world through bilateral trade that flourished at that time," Jenkins says.


And that is the second part of his quest -to put his stories in historical perspective. Not for nothing do you see pepper pots in Greece and Rome between 620 BCE and 540 BCE, especially because the Mediterranean world did not grow any pepper and it was imported entirely from India. Birbal and Tenali Raman are his two other favourite literary characters.


Jenkins went to a pure-bred British boarding school and then to the University of Liverpool, but his heart remained in Singapore where his parents -employees of the air force -lived (and where he was born), before moving to England for his education. "These are two different worlds altogether and I realized that I could not adjust to the narcissistic and intolerant world of the West. The Orient believes more in community living and values that I identify with. My stories portray these values and I make sure when I am telling these stories to the Western audience, they realize these are values that people of the Orient live for and with," Jenkins says.


The master storyteller feels his chosen form of art is as ancient as speech. The moment man learnt to speak, he wanted to tell tales, and whenever he told a tale, he had an audience. "So, storytelling never goes out of fashion. Whether it is a public square or a private lounge, if you have a story, you will have an audience and that can be your biggest encouragement," he says. Jenkins has been appointed by the government of Singapore to organize storytelling sessions and festivals in state libraries, top educational institutions and on radio and TV , giving him the highest honour for his art. "We are trying to bring the present virtual-crazy generation back to community-living and what can work better than tales," he grins.


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DISCLAIMER

This article appeared in The Times of India on 5/11/2016 and I place it here in order that I can say it does not reflect my conversation with the journalist and there are many inaccuracies which I find embarrassing.


I have not been collecting stories for three decades. While I like both the Panchatantra and Ramayana, I never said they were my favourite, never claimed to be an expert in the many variations, and never spoke of ‘the sombre romance that Indians are used to’.


I do know know what is the Hitpodesha, so I didn’t refer to it.


There was no discussion of historical perspective - and especially nothing to do with Greece and pepper pots!


I never characterised the West as narcissistic and intolerant. I never use the word Orient, which is way too colonial.  


Above all, I never claimed to be “appointed by the government of Singapore to organise storytelling storytelling sessions and festivals in state libraries, top educational institutions and on radio and TV” nor did I ever claim that the government had given me ’the highest honour for his art.’