They passed the candle to me and I found myself lighting a flame at the small votive statue of Lord Ganesh - paparazzi cameras flashing. The story unfolds…
For me, last month was full of stories. Perhaps reading In Arabian Nights by Tahir Shah has made me particularly aware of them. The book is written as an autobiographical tale. Early on the author learns that the Berber Arabs believe we all have a story that is ours. He therefore sets out on the search for his own story in Morocco. As his quest unfolds, so do the stories which he lives and finds; they roll inside each other like waves.
He writes, “I have seen storytellers casting their magic in the depths of the Peruvian Amazon and in tea houses in Turkey, in India and Afghanistan. I have found them too in Papua New Guinea and in Patagonia, in Kenya’s Rift Valley, in Namibia and Kazakhstan. Their effect is always the same. They walk a tightrope, no wider than a hair’s breadth, suspended between fact and fantasy, singing to primitive parts of our minds. We cannot help but let them in. With words they can enchant us, teach us, pass on knowledge and wisdom…”
This was borne out when a friend kindly invited me to the opening of an exhibition, Rhythm of Elements, by her friend and fellow medical practitioner Dr Balesh Jindal. Balesh practises as a doctor in India and has also been painting for the last twenty years. She told me she has to paint everyday.
The Director of the Nehru Centre, Sangeeta Bahadur, opened the exhibition with a speech. Then, turning to the small statue of Lord Ganesh on a tall stand, she lit the first candle. Balesh lit the second. I had the honour of lighting the third, and Balesh completed the tradition lighting the remaining ones.
For those who might not know, Lord Ganesh or Ganesha (who also has other names), is the elephant-headed Hindu deity revered as Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Beginnings. He is also patron of arts and sciences. It is therefore Hindu tradition to honour him at the start of ceremonies and special events. The myth of how Lord Ganesh acquired his elephant head and his place amongst Hindu deities is a long story full of colour and drama. You can find the full story on YouTube.
Ganesh was created by his mother Parvati, but his father, Shiva, cut off his head in a battle of the gods against him. Parvati was extremely upset. She demanded he be brought back to life. So the Gods brought back the head of the first animal they found - which happened to be an elephant - and placed it on his body. The gods granted him special status amongst the Lords, to be revered at the start of any important project or event.
Balesh’s pictures, transported all the way from India, were strong narratives too. She told me that in this exhibition her figurative pictures, impressionist in style, painted with her one and only favourite palette knife, represent the five elements of nature and the human body and soul. The stories that surround Krishna, a deity who as Balesh said ‘symbolises the ideal man or woman, yet falters at times’ really gave Balesh’s pictures a spiritual vibrance. I was affected by the poetic, lyrical quality of the collection. All the figures appeared as powerful women taking part in a dance. The images insinuated themselves like notes fromKrishna’s flute. The exhibition had a mesmeric impact - the feeling of a story you have become immersed in and don’t want to forget.
As hearing stories predates reading by thousands of years it makes sense that our brains are genetically hard wired to process a story better than other types of information. The power of stories on the human psyche is scientifically proven. If I stop to think how my brain works when I hear and read stories, I know I tend to visualize people and events. You have only to watch one of your favourite stories as a new film or TV drama to realize that the casting of the hero or heroine is no match for the one in your mind’s eye! So stories surely unlock visual creativity in all of us.
Fairly recently I have begun to appreciate museums, cultural and religious centres – not just libraries – as rich resources for stories. Until I had been to the Nehru Centre at the Indian High Commission to see Balesh Jindal’s Rhythm of Elements I had not thought of High Commissions as being centres for the arts and culture. This could be the start of a quest to see which other High Commissions and cultural centres offer a bridge to different worlds - through art and story telling.
‘In Arabian Nights' is by Tahir Shah, Bantam Books (2008). If your art is inspired by stories let us know. If you know of a treasure trove of stories other than libraries let us know that too.
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