Rituparna Ghosh :
Curating Meethi Boliyan : the Indo-Pak Storytelling Festival
So when an ‘aspiring storyteller’ wrote this back, I typed a second reply, “This is for the power of stories & what they can do to aching hearts. But then you wouldn’t understand. I am afraid, I don’t think you are ready to be a storyteller yet.” Of course, I didn’t send this one! In hindsight, I should have…
On Day 2 of the festival, we were at the midpoint of the festival. As the evening came to a close, I asked the storytellers, “Now that we are here. How do you feel?” I was asked to speak about the festival, but I couldn’t. I didn’t have the words to describe my emotions. And so I turned the spotlight on my storyteller friends. I realised, we all are alike. After all, we are only human. For all the emotions that we so effortlessly portray in our stories, that was the day, I saw storytellers grapple with their own emotions. We were all speechless. Yes, each one of us who are what I call, ‘wordists’ (artists playing with words), found it difficult to find words for our emotions in that moment. When someone’s eyes welled up, everyone’s followed. When someone found knots inside, we felt them too. When someone said we hope things will change, we all prayed too.
I had known Sadia for the past few years. We were the occasional FB friends, sharing our stories & journeys here and there. We always spoke about storytelling. Only storytelling. It wasn’t until COVID-19 that we reconnected, this time to talk to each other over an Instagram Live Chat. For the first time, Sadia and I heard each other. In fact, we landed up sharing a story together! That’s when it clicked…why not do this again? Why not, tell more stories? Why not bring more storytellers?
I can be honest here. I was not prepared to do this alone. Not because I was afraid. But because it wouldn’t matter to anyone if ONLY two storytellers across the border came together for ONE event. It would be too small & forgettable. Both Sadia and I imagined it differently. She thought of it as an event, between her organisation & mine. I thought of it as a festival! I didn’t want Meethi Boliyaan to be about me or my storytelling organisation. I wanted to bring in more Indian storytellers so we could collectively work towards building artistic collaborations between our countries. And so I reached out to five storytellers who I personally admire for their honest & brave voices. Jeeva Maam, Deeptha are fellow FEASTers. This was the time when we had just started talking about the FEAST India Chapter. I got a resounding approval from the two. Deeptha’s mother in law came from Pakistan, she said yes in a heartbeat! In fact, everyone did. Next, I reached out to Valentina Trivedi, the first senior storyteller who walked into my maiden festival performance to listen to me & say Hello many years ago. Valentina has been my-go-to-mentor always giving me sane advice. Then came the question of diversity. I didn’t want the festival to be only about women’s voices from India. The first name that came to my mind was Kapil Pandey, a remarkably brave and distinct voice in storytelling in India. I couldn’t do this without him and he knows that! Deeptha suggested Saattvic, the Economist turned storyteller, with a distinct repertoire of ancient stories in Sanskrit. While Sadia and her tellers would perform in Urdu only, I wanted a mix of Hindi / English storytellers. When Saattvic nodded in agreement, we had added another language to the bouquet!
Sadia selected 5 storytellers from her team at Suno Kahani Meri Zubaani (Listen to stories in my language). Interestingly, both of us approached our work as curators differently. You see, storytelling in our respective countries is received differently. With storytelling burgeoning in India, the craft is extremely popular here. On the other side of the border, there are a handful of people who work as storytellers. For Sadia and her team, this was the chance to invite listeners to experience stories on a bigger platform. That the platform would be one with Indian & Pakistani storytellers, is another thing!
Sara Latif from Pakistan had suggested the name “Meethi Boliyaan” (sweet words), a name that we instantly fell in love with. These two simple words held the elixir to ease our anxiety. It held a magical spell that our intentions would not be misread. It weaved a dream that we could indeed bring our countries together with the sweet sound of stories.
When we first met online, we introduced ourselves & quickly moved to the format & overall themes of the festival. We didn’t want anyone to feel compelled to tell a certain kind of story. Since Meethi Boliyaan was a new entity, we had decided to have a pre-festival series of stories, introducing our storytellers & their stories. We decided that pre-recorded stories would be a good way to spread the word about the festival. For the main festival, we grouped ourselves in 3 groups of 4 tellers each keeping in mind the language & style of storytelling. All our stories are on our Facebook and YouTube Channel, they still continue to draw viewers.
There are several high points of the festival. One, I realised that many had dreamed of something like this! As storytellers, each one of us weaves a dream, a simple wish-list of stories we want to tell or even stitch together a sense of purpose. That an Indo-Pak collaboration would be one of them, was common to many of us. We announced the festival once tellers were finalised, despite that we received requests from people wanting to join the festival as a performer. This, from both sides of the border. Two, we all were anxious about the festival. We were afraid that we would get the wrong kind of attention. That we would be trolled. Or there’d be hate messages on our stories. I remember tightening the settings to filter comments! None of that happened? Does that mean that our festival didn’t reach enough? Let’s say, it reached as many as those who wanted to listen to our stories. Three, we had an organic collaboration where each one of us (the storytellers & the backend team) came with a trusting heart. Poetry, melodies & stories peppered our WhatsApp chats. As the days rolled by, we became friends and then ONE TEAM. We, as storytellers acted with utmost responsibility, ethics, and respect for each other. This was not about personal glory. It was not about being seen doing something great. It was about doing what was right.
That’s why the experience of the festival changed us from within. Personally, for me, I opened the pre-festival stories & ended the festival on the last day. This festival or the experience of curating it helped me complete a journey within me. I could finally come to terms & act on how I feel about being a responsible Indian. Something that my son watched very closely. Long ago when he was a little boy I told him that I wish to walk across the border to visit Pakistan & tell stories there. “But you can't be there Mumma. They will hurt you!” He said alarmed. When he saw us work for Meethi Boliyaan, he asked, “Will we get to interact with children from Pakistan during the festival?”
We can’t change the past, the joint history of our nations. What we can do is pave the way for the future. In that, Meethi Boliyaan became the ‘no man’s land’ where people from India & Pakistan came together for their common love of stories. We could do this ONLY during times of COVID. We do hope, there will come a day when Meethi Boliyaan will happen under open skies & between eager listeners.