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Myth, legend and more...

Jacob Schmidt Madsen talks about his penchant for collecting stories from different parts of the world


"I CAME to India in search of stories," the young man tells you. Not even the broiling heat of May noon can disturb his absorption in a pile of books at Chennai's Adyar Library and Research Centre. Back in motherland Denmark, Jacob Schmidt Madsen is a professional story teller.

Seeing your befuddlement, Madsen explains that in the last 10 years, this profession has gained ground in Scandinavia, Scotland and Ireland. A fresh alternative to people tired of mechanised, mass scale entertainment. Madsen performs in cafes, bars, schools and at private functions. No musical accompaniment, no acting. He just tells his tale. It is interactive narration though, involving all age groups in spinning the yarn.

"About a hundred people (in schools it can be more) come and stay till the end. The feedback is that they enjoy activating their imagination." In the intimacy of live interchange, they see how a glance, a gesture, a pause or a word can change the entire meaning of a statement.

The ancient art of story telling has become a modern buzzword in management, as the projection of its identity by a corporate house. But with neck-to-neck competition between TV and radio channels, newscasters and interviewers feel the need for narrative skills. Reporters who do courses in story telling fare better than those more theoretically trained in schools of journalism. "I run courses for presenters in National Radio and Television," says Madsen, whose own interest began in childhood when he liked nothing better than casting spells with his tales. That is how he discovered that story telling is all about finding intuitive, alternative ways of understanding narrative. "I am younger than most of my journalist students," smiles Madsen.

"We take them to a remote farmhouse and structure a narrative for them to develop on their own. The course itself is a story, it has a plot manipulated by the participants. Only those who seek a personal change can unlearn what they know and innovate new ways of telling."

In addition to folk tales, Nordic sagas and local myths, Madsen invents his own autobiographical travel stories. " I was keen to get behind the political scene in the Islamic countries, to meet people in villages." That is why Madsen opted to travel overland by bus and train, through Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. "I gathered stories on the trip, and telling them in Copenhagen will be my way of sharing what I encountered personally."

In India, Madsen found metropolises very westernised, but there were glimpses of rich local culture in old Delhi, Kolkata, Varanasi and Chennai. "The Adyar Library has an amazing range of books on art, religion, philosophy, comparative mythology, anthropology, history; and an atmosphere stimulating you to know more... You can get inside those stories as it were. Inspiring."

Tell him about harikatha exponents in India who make listeners weep over Sita's abduction or Karna's death, and Madsen says, "That's the most difficult thing to do! Our story tellers mostly opt for comedy because rapport comes easily with jokes."

As one of the 15 students of the Department of Indian Studies, University of Copenhagen, Madsen's stipend is slim, but the enrichment is in entering both Asian and western cultures through Sanskrit, an Indo-European language. Introduction to Theosophy took him deeper into the mythology and philosophy of India — fertile soil for story growth.

In the ancient world, tales orally told transmitted knowledge and culture through the generations. It was a means of community bonding. Other means have replaced those needs. But the tale teller from Hans Christian Andersen's land declares, "Story telling is a fundamental part of being human. It connects us with the past. It can give us insights into the present. When I go home, I will definitely tell my people stories of Chennai."

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

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