The London Mela is a masala of music, dance, theatre and storytelling: a day-long festival which celebrates all aspects of South Asian culture. Held in the gloriously green lawns of Gunnersbury Park, the festival attracts over 75,000 people with the promise of free fun and entertainment for the whole family. Craig Jenkins writes about participating in the Mela....
Vayu Naidu Company (VNC) has been storytelling at the London Mela for the past three years, represented by their resident storyteller and friend of Tulika, Craig Jenkins, (that’s me!) on all occasions. For our Mela outing this year, we really wanted to do something different. We put pen to paper and realised that not every option could work.
Bollywood stories were out of the question (as Craig weeps at every Hindi movie he watches) and as his Tamil language skills are restricted to ‘vannakam nanban’ and ‘Idli…very super!’, he couldn’t tell in any language other than English. We thought and thought and decided instead to use the Mela gig as an opportunity to showcase the ‘Live Book Tour’: the oracy into literacy initiative run by VNC and Tulika.
Armed with four of my favourite Under the Banyan titles: Hiss don’t Bite, The Curly Tale, The Magic Vessels and Eyes on the Peacock’s Tail, I took to the stage to dazzle the audience, and to demonstrate how by listening to a story a child can begin their journey into literacy and reading.
The first story told on the day was an audience participatory version of ‘The Curly Tale’, with the eager crowds closing their eyes and creating (for themselves) the mischievous jinn that terrorises the shoemaker. With a seven eyed, fire tongued, million foot tall monster with a compass (‘just in case he gets lost’, a seven year old informed me), the little voices also sprung in to suggest difficult tasks to keep the jinn busy.
‘Hiss Don’t Bite’ and ‘The Magic Vessel’ were accompanied with call and response songs and hand gestures, and ‘Eyes on the Peacock’s Tail’ transformed the entire audience into the kingdom of the animals. We had teeny tiny bunny rabbits (a trio of sisters from Gujarat), a sleeping bear (a grandpa who had nodded off in the afternoon sun) and the queen of the zebras (a lovely young woman in a white and black striped headscarf).
After the stories, the children rushed over to the table of Tulika books and screamed in delight as they saw the characters, now familiar to them, alive in colour on the page. They grabbed at their parents as they began to read the text of the story, struggling with some words, but eager to try harder and to make the story ‘just right’. Through screams of ‘I remember that bit’ or ‘that’s what Craig said’, the children no longer feel nervous about tackling the difficult English words, and instead, they are excited about bringing the story back to life!
The parents are overjoyed that their children are gaining access to these types of books. One mother tells me that her children don’t see these titles in their school and most bookshops in London don’t have any stories like these. Another parent says: "It’s a joy. These are just like the stories my Grandmother told me in India. It’s just like being home." Her friend agrees, "It is so important for my children to see these. Thank you to you and Tulika for making this possible."
It is the end of the day. The mums and dads are packing up their picnic baskets, while the aunties sit and compare their bags of freebies (who knew one woman could fit eight packets of chapatti flour into one plastic carrier). The children are slurping the last of their pistachio kulfi as they head off into the sunset with memories of hissing, biting snakes and the beautiful eyes on the peacocks tail. In their hands, waving like little colourful flags, are the Tulika books, to be read and enjoyed when they reach home.
That was Craig, ladies and gentlemen, reporting live from the London Mela! If you're going away now, this is a good direction to head in. Videos of Craig telling Rooster and the Sun at the Full Circle Bookstore in Chennai during his last visit. Much awesomeness to be had.