An English county renowned for its clotted cream and beaches rather than its Indian connections will this weekend host a festival to celebrate the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore.
Vayu Naidu, a professional Indian storyteller who lives in the UK, will be one of the artists performing at the festival in Devon to celebrate the life and work of the Indian literary legend.
The event will take place at Dartington, a 1,000 acre mediaeval estate near the new-age town of Totnes, which was transformed into a centre to promote arts, social justice and sustainability in 1925, inspired by Tagore, who was friends with the then owners, Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst.
"It's very important people in rural areas get a taste of world cultures and they are not restricted to Londoners," Naidu says.
The 55-year-old storyteller became the first Indian in the world to perform in the Indic oral tradition in the English language after travelling with the Bauls, an ancient group of wandering mystic minstrels from Bengal and studying a doctorate in performance oral tradition at the University of Leeds.
She then became the first academic in the world to take up a career in storytelling after founding the Vayu Naidu Company in the UK in 2001.
Storytelling began in ancient times across the world as an important oral tradition handed down through generations.
"In India, storytelling continues to be handed down within different caste groups and performed by tribes and villagers. In Greece before they had theatre they had storytellers - they were the chroniclers of births, deaths and anniversaries. It helped communities know their own identity and past, customs and rituals," Naidu says.
Although nowadays journalists have replaced this traditional art form in the West, as a performance art it continues, with more than 500 storytellers in the UK. Naidu cofounded The Society for Storytelling there, which formally recognised the art.
"It's a mixture between stand-up comedy, dramatic monologue and interactivity," she says.
What makes it different to theatre is that the storyteller faces the audience, eyeball to eyeball, making the performance very intense, she says. The storyteller can spontaneously react to what is happening in the audience and to hecklers and change bits of the tale according to that. She adds the storyteller will often bring contemporary references into the epics, myths and fables such as The Ramayana and Arabian Nights that are retold, or into original new stories.
"Storytelling is all about bringing the audience in touch with the zeitgeist," she explains.
Her storytelling is sometimes accompanied by musicians and she does not have a script. She keeps the narrative in her head, allowing for improvisation. "It's all about the oral imagination," she adds.
Naidu says she was honoured to be commissioned to create something about Tagore.
She will perform her 45-minute piece, which will re-imagine the spirit of his artistic work, solo, without music. "I wanted to strip everything away to find the essence of his work and there is no better art form than storytelling that can do that," she says.
She will focus on three significant inspirations in his life - nature, freedom and women - and weave them together and retell them.
"He was very honest about his feelings and did not hide anything. His philosophy is deeply felt in his poetry.
"I want the audience to go away with a sense of wonder - wonder at somebody like Tagore who had a great spirit of creativity and philosophical freedom," says Naidu, who has also read Iranian and Persian tales and one day hopes to perform in Dubai.
"The most important thing about storytelling is to get the audience to forget themselves and enter another world with a new set of characters and to gain empathy with them and to understand the human condition."
The Tagore Festival takes place at Dartington in Devon, England, from tomorrow to Monday. It will feature a variety of emerging Indian and British Asian artists. Visit www.dartington.org/tagore-festival
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