Mr Kamal Pruthi, the Founder of Kabuliwaala, is counted among the top five trendsetting and most renowned performance storytellers of India. Kamal is a recipient of Goethe Scholarship for young and emerging theatre practitioners of the world (2006), South Asian fellowship for his excellence in the field of Arts management (2014) and Polska theatre fellowship from Poland (2015). Kamal, who is popularly known as Kabuliwaala, started his theatrical journey 18 years ago in Delhi in 1999 and got trained in acting and physical theatre in Berlin, NSD’s TIE Company (97’) and at Sri Ram Centre for Performing arts in Delhi in the years 2001-03. He has performed as Kabuliwaala in 12 states and 7 languages.
Kabuliwaala is a storytelling company with its focus on reviving the folk art form of storytelling and entertaining through meaningful performances for children, adults, young parents, teachers, educators, corporate employees and everybody who loves to explore the vast world of stories and collect the treasure hidden behind them. Kabuliwaala Storytelling Performances, Workshops and Trainings for schools, colleges, young parents, MNCs and NGOs aim to bring back the culture of powerful folk tales and proverbial lingo in our everyday lives.
Question: What inspired you to come up with Kabuliwaala?
Answer: When you cook something impromptu for the first time, it may or may not turn out to be good. But when you cook something with proper planning, say like Dhansak (a popular Parsi dish) which takes a lot of time, effort and planning, it has a different value attached to it. When you put in efforts and planning into something, it would always taste different than something made without any planning. Similarly, Kabuliwaala is a product, an ideology or rather a character, which was planned beforehand extensively. He was in my mind for more than two and a half years. I think how I got this idea was by observing how delighted the kids get by fictional characters. You see those salesmen outside shops in Sarojini Nagar dressed as jokers, Charlie Chaplin and what not? How happy kids are to see them! But sadly, these characters do not have anything constructive to offer them than a momentary joy, a handshake or a selfie. They have a very limited role and can’t go beyond that. Kabuliwaala is this vagabond from Kabul, collecting stories from everywhere, with his stock of kaaju, kishmish and badaam (cashew, raisin and almonds) and leaving kids with folktales that go beyond that momentary joy, leaving a much stronger impact and memories of a lifetime.
Question: What makes Kabuliwaala’s stories different from others?
Answer: Honestly, the word ‘storytelling’ does not justify the work we do. People tell stories all the time, when you gossip with friends, when you tell someone about a rumour, when you share any anecdote, you are telling a story. But what we do is a theatrical performance, an art. We don’t just tell stories, we perform them. We put in so much effort in our work. From finding new cultures and researching about them in detail to ways to pass them on, choosing the right costume to use of theatrical elements, we mix 9 to 10 elements for a single performance. I think that clearly differentiates telling from performing. We are breaking many myths of storytelling, and that storytelling is a mere recollection of incidents is one of the many.
Question: How is Kabuliwaala spreading awareness about folklore in Delhi?
Answer: We inculcate elements of folk theatre and folk dance forms in our performances such as Saang, Pandavani, Ragni, et al which people are not at all aware of in Delhi.
Question: In your opinion, are the folktales being passed on in Delhi?
Answer: Over the time, many storytellers or ‘Kathakars’ have cropped up, and people of my fraternity, are certainly working towards passing on these folktales. People like us are trying to make people aware about these cultures as much as we can. But I would say, more than storytelling, the word ‘storytelling’ in itself is being passed on more. It is vogue nowadays, for people to call themselves storytellers just for the sake of it. The term is being overused so much by everyone that it undermines our art and efforts as professional storytellers. Another problem in Delhi is that the enthusiasm among storytellers is way more than people who these have to be passed on. We have not only created artistic products but also audiences who want to eagerly consume this art. Creating audiences is equally important. Any performer must have a clear focus who his audiences are and why is she performing? This reflection is not a choice but a primary task to do.
Question: As a professional storyteller, which is your favourite folktale?
Answer: I would say, as a professional performance storyteller, I believe that stories are not as important as the way they are performed is important. Take for example, when a joke is told by someone who does not have a good comic timing, it may seem very lame. But the same joke, when performed by a comedian with good comic timing, may seem very funny. Content, no doubt is important, but it depends more on your art than content. As for Kabuliwaala, kids enjoy the legacy of his character, his cultural background, his whereabouts, more than the stories he brings for them. We recently performed for autistic kids and they enjoyed our performance as well.
Question: And has storytelling, as a genre, changed over the time in Delhi?
Answer: Yes, certainly. And Kabuliwaala has certainly contributed to the change, for the good. Like I mentioned before, Kabuliwaala has busted many a myths. The most prevalent myth of storytelling was that it is not a profession or you cannot make a thriving career and livelihood out of it. It was thought that storytelling is just a tool used by teachers to give out titbits to tiny tots and to help them develop a habit of reading. But I know for a fact that Kabuliwaala has inspired and motivated a lot of people to take up storytelling as a full-fledged career. These include young mothers (with kids of the age 1 to 10 years), theatre practicioners, teachers and storytellers who perform for free. All of these were, in some way or the other, already engaging in storytelling but never thought they can be paid for that or that they can make a full career out of it. We, in Kabuliwaala Storytelling Company, have many such people, who are empanelled with us. I believe such myths should be put to rest by consumption of art.
Question: Do you cater to a specific audience? What is the target audience of Kabuliwaala?
Answer: Kabuliwaala is for everyone between the ages of 4-90. They are our target groups.
Question: So, what are other future plans of Kabuliwaala, the storytelling company?
Answer: We haven’t done shows on Adult storytelling in 3 years. Museum theatre form of storytelling, which we created in 2012, is primarily for adults. The main reason for having not performed is that the auditoriums in Delhi are very expensive. But that certainly does not mean that we are off the radar of the adult storytelling genre, as rumoured by some. We came into existence because of adult’s storytelling. I would take this opportunity of clarifying this by the means of this interview. In fact, we would plan a series of adult storytelling performances soon. Another thing we are working on is bringing toddler’s theatre in India. This genre of theatre is specifically designed for smaller kids of the age group 0 to 3 and a half. It is common abroad but really rare in India. We are working on bringing theatre based storytelling performances to the toddler’s groups as well. Our research and homework on the same is in progress. We will not step into this arena unless we are 100% sure about the artistic skills this genre requires.
Question: Is government or the government backed organisations of cultural sector providing you any support for your work?
Answer: As of now, Kabuliwaala is working as a business model. But I believe art forms are like kids who need proper nurturing from their mother (i.e. state or state backed organisations). As the proverb goes, “maa bhi tabhi doodh pilaati hai jab baccha rota hai” (the mother too, feeds the infant only when it cries). Artists in India are doing good work, sometimes we cry for nurturing and sometimes we do not. But sadly, despite doing good work, promoting culture, and putting our best efforts, we are not provided with grants. It is both disheartening and discouraging for the artists. It is the states’ duty to come forward and provide support to us and encourage us. Another thing I feel, is that the state backed organisations such as Sahitya Kala Parishad and NSD operate among their lobbies alone. These organisations should really come out of the rut of supporting the same set of people and should really provide financial aid and performance opportunities to those who are working well and doing the ground-breaking work in the art fields.
Question: And what about MNCs and corporate world? Are they providing you any support or aiding you under the CSR rule?
Answer: This is a very interesting and important issue you have addressed. Not many know of the 2% CSR rule in India. But, that 2% is more than enough for artists like us to disseminate knowledge about art forms and promoting culture or achieving our company’s aim. But again, another false belief among these sectors is that CSR is just for the promotion of education and environment. All of these companies are spending on education, which is good and much needed, but promotion of those working for dissemination of art and culture is the need of the hour. Their perspective clearly needs to be changed.
Question: What according to you are the greatest threats to passing on of folktales?
Answer: I believe there are 2 major threats the performers face. First is technology. A storyteller has to directly compete with technology giants like WhatsApp, Snapchat, Smartphones and Television. And lastly, uninteresting literature; 90% of the literature nowadays is made up of boring content, not sufficient to be made into a performance. It does take us a lot of time to find a good story, one which is good enough to be told to everyone and once we get a story like that, we make sure that it reaches as many people as possible through our performance.