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Telling stories with panache

New-York born Cathy Spagnoli held audiences at the Landmark and Goodbooks bookstore in thrall recently, with her lively narrative style. She talks about her unusual profession... telling stories.

STORYTELLING... IT immediately brings to mind the picture of an old woman sitting in a courtyard on a warm afternoon, weaving a yarn, with two or three children intently hanging on to every word of what she says.

Yes, storytelling is an art that has kept children entertained, long before the days of television and computers. "But it is not just about leafing through a book or listening to a tale. It's about tradition and ethics. It's a study of culture," says Cathy Spagnoli, a professional storyteller and author of several books. She was at Landmark and Goodbooks bookstore this past week... telling stories.

The New York City-born Cathy was always interested in teaching. "My interest in the art developed when I first heard a teacher, who used storytelling quite a bit in class. I was impressed and tried to emulate her," she recalls.

Destiny then extended a helping hand in the form of a parent, who helped Cathy get an artist-in-residence grant in Washington State. And that's how Cathy began telling stories to make a living.

India left a deep impact on the Italian-German-American ("My father is Italian and mother, German"), who has a Master's Degree in Arts in Education. "My first trip to India was as a tourist way back in 1970. I returned in 1973. That time, I got an opportunity to sample the different storytelling traditions such as Harikatha and those based on the two Epics. I was inspired by the stories." The other India, in fact Chennai, connection is Cathy's husband Paramasivam, a sculptor. "I met my husband at Cholamandal." They have a 16-year-old son, Manu.

Cathy collects stories from various sources — some personal accounts, some folk tales and some true stories. "Japan, Mexico, China and Indonesia... every region has its own stock of tales that have come down generations. I try to find out what each group would like to listen to, and accordingly I choose my tales. There's a common cultural thread connecting most stories... themes such as hospitality, friendship, religion and piety," Cathy explains.

Her quest for stories has taken her to different parts of the world and "most of my trips are funded by institutions." Story telling will take Cathy to Singapore and Japan in November and Shanghai, in April next year.

Her favourite stories? "A Native American ghost story and my grandmother's story."

SAVITHA GAUTAM

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