Akshay Pathak on Storytelling Festivals That Aren’t Quite What They Seem…

Akshay Pathak talks about a recent storytelling festival that took place in Dantewada …

Via Open

The scorching sun was no deterrent for the hundreds of children gathered together for the first-ever Essar Kahani Utsav, organised from 17 to 19 April in Dantewada (a district in Chhattisgarh where the media and government celebrate their own attempts at storytelling). They were used to the heat and this was their day out—a fantastic picnic party that the rich sponsors had thrown for them. Set aside the fact that the children had never been on a bus before and many were throwing up or fainting, this was a rare moment in history. They were going to be part of a celebration, a novel idea for cultural upliftment, a feather in the cap of the district administration and of the Essar Group, which claims to provide the children with ‘a better future’.  

Long pieces of cloth in different colours hanging outside the venue— in classic Teamwork Productions style (the event management company organising this festival)—conjured a sense of celebration.  

The mood inside, though, didn’t match. That is, if you set aside the sight of visibly uninterested festival organisers and district administrators finding ways to pat their backs. And there was certainly no festive air around the 600-odd Adivasi children who had travelled hours on foot and buses to hear stories on an empty stomach—“the district administration miscalculated the numbers”, the organisers explained to me later, and so they had run out of food for the children.  

What makes us fawn over this idea of cultural intervention, of celebrating the arts, of spawning one festival after another? Why can’t we pause to see if there is a need at all? What makes these corporations—almost all of them by now ‘socially responsible’—so convinced they are ‘making a difference’? The presumably deliberate omission on Teamwork’s part to mention to me that Essar was a sponsor was a vile tactic, leaving the likes of me divided over whether to walk out or stick around for the sake of the barefoot children, who, though completely overwhelmed, were there and expectant. That most of them did not comprehend Hindi, the language I was supposed to tell them stories in and get them to tell stories in too, didn’t seem to bother the organisers. There was enough tokenism by way of a few local artistes and some dance and song. Their apology to me, ambiguously stated that they themselves had no idea that Hindi would be “such a stumbling block”. Obviously, no one had bothered to figure out the reality on the ground. That no one thought it necessary to understand and respect the need illustrates how little they actually care about people in such a ‘remote’ place. Anything you throw their way is supposed to help them ‘develop’. The money is there to be used, to signify that someone at least ‘cares’. 

We lamented the complete lack of purpose in what we were there for. A Kahani Utsav to make children laugh? A festival to pay lip service to ‘culture’? To become another photograph in a brochure for Essar Foundation? To join the growing list of the festival mafia? To become the local administration’s trophy for villagers? To tell poor children to clap their hands every five minutes so that noise may drown out the murmurs of our conscience? Why do we need a story-telling festival in Dantewada? And if we do, should we not at least understand or appreciate the sensitive nature of the place?

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