Engaging the public with South Asian narrative

by Naomi

As part of this project we hope to raise awareness of South Asian religious narrative amongst the wider public through publications and events. In particular we are working with storytellers in an attempt to engage audiences with the stories and create a better understanding of their role in South Asian life past and present. I had my first real taste of this on Saturday, when I hosted an evening of Jataka tales at the Scottish Storytelling Centre here in Edinburgh. The event was sponsored by a Knowledge Exchange grant from the University of Edinburgh.

The format of the evening was simple: After a short introduction from myself, two storytellers – Steve Killick and Mark Rivett – told five stories selected from the Pali Jataka collection, and there was then a short Q&A. Members of the audience were also given a programme with some images of the stories in Buddhist art and some further information about the Jataka genre and the individual stories chosen.

The cover of the evening's programme.

The cover of the evening’s programme.

The stories included three fairly short and simple tales to illustrate the diversity of styles and themes (Talkative Tortoise, Banyan Deer and Gentleheart) followed by two from the final ten stories, which are much longer and more closely tied to the perfections (Mahosadha and Vessantara).

The evening was a great success – rated ‘excellent’ by the vast majority of those who returned feedback forms. Several audience members commented that they had learnt a lot and been inspired to find out more about the stories.

Not every city is lucky enough to have a Storytelling Centre complete with theatre space, cafe and full-time events staff. Nonetheless we hope that the Jataka show may find a repeat elsewhere, and that other shows that directly stem from our current research will come to life in the future.


4 thoughts on “Engaging the public with South Asian narrative

  1. Christian Ferstl

    Bravo, this was an excellent idea indeed! I guess a bit of adaption to the taste of the modern audience was necessary — how much did you (or the storytellers) have to change the “original” rhetoric of the Jataka stories in order to get so much of a positive feedback? You did probably not read out philological translations (and footnotes), did you?

    1. naomiappleton Post author

      Thanks, Christian. There were most certainly no footnotes, and I even managed to resist diacritics in the programme notes! The stories were re-tellings based on the Pali collection but with a lot of freedom to adapt – I left all this in the capable hands of the storytellers. We tried to stay true to the framing, so I started things going with a quick narration of the Dipankara story to set the scene for the genre, and then the first story began with two monks complaining to the Buddha about another monk who talked too much… I don’t think anything was lost by this approach – after all, the early audiences would most likely have heard loose retellings rather than read fixed versions, and that is true of many modern Buddhist audiences too. And then the programme gave further information about the texts and history, as well as the stories’ place in Buddhist cultures. Hopefully that was a good balance! Naomi

  2. Abhishek Amar

    This is an excellent way of engaging audience. I wonder if you videotaped the sessions and if there’s a way to share them with a larger audience electronically. Perhaps uploading them on the web would be useful resouce for Intro courses on Buddhism…

    Abhishek Amar

    1. naomiappleton Post author

      Thanks for the suggestion. We did not record the event but will certainly consider that in the future. However I do think the live experience of storytelling could be hard to capture – it was quite interactive in parts! Naomi


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