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“People are losing touch with their own culture”


We recently caught up with Shaguna Gahilote at her storytelling festival, Kathakar. This year, the annual festival saw the release of her book, Curious Tales from the Himalayas, which she has co-authored along with her sister Prarthana. The book is a compilation of folk stories from the Himalayan region. In this interview, Shaguna tells us about the motivation behind writing this book, and why she prefers to focus on children in all her works.

Q: Tell us about your book, Curious Tales from the Himalayas. What was the motivation behind writing it?

A: The book is about the folktales from Himalayas. We travel a lot in Himalayas, being born and brought up there. We go to book fairs but hardly find any folktales from the region. If you ask children about folktales, most of them will tell you the Cinderella story. People are losing touch with their own history and culture; folktales are a part of one’s culture. That’s why we, me and my sister Prathana, who is the co-author of the book, decided to put together the folktales we have heard or collected while travelling. Penguin liked our idea; and here, we have our book.

Q: Was it a conscious decision to focus on children? 

A: Yes, we as an organisation and me, as a person, totally believe that we need to focus on children. A lot of people may say that it’s a children’s book, or a children’s festival. It is strange how people say, ‘Oh that is children’s stuff,’ – in a manner as if it doesn’t matter, or it isn’t good enough. Children are our future. If we won’t work with them, what’s the future that we are going to have?

You could speak to an audience of 1,000 people, but what’s the point if they are not listening to you. Adults are usually argumentative. Even if they want to believe you, they will not accept your point because they want to argue it out. Hence, instead of investing in people who anyways are not going to listen to you, we have decided to work for children. Children are like clay molds, you can mould them the way you want to. Moreover, if you want kids to grow up with empathy, develop respect for other cultures, you have to work with them. I greatly believe in that. Our organisation believes in it. Our major focus is children. And if parents and public come along with them, that’s fine.

Children are like clay molds, you can mould them the way you want to. Moreover, if you want kids to grow up with empathy, develop respect for other cultures, you have to work with them

Q: How was it working with your sister? I believe, this is your first book together.

A: We have worked together on various other projects, but it is for the first time we worked on a book. It was difficult because she is a perfectionist. She would not let go off anything, each and every word was checked by her. But it was good that she was there for I would probably have said yes to a lot of things otherwise.

Q: Do you want to focus on children’s genre in future as well or do we get to see you write together in other areas? 

A: Together, we will focus on this genre only. We have a few ideas in mind. We have discussed those and hopefully, they will be coming through soon.

At an individual level, we probably will be writing something for grownups also.

Q: Would you like to tell us about these projects?

A: I wouldn’t like to disclose that but it is related to our culture, Indian culture.

Q: Tell us about your festivals – both Kathakar and Ghummakkad Narain (Travelling Literature Festival).

A: Ghummakkad Narain is the parent festival. We started it together with UNESCO to promote literacy and reading in schools. The festival was all about reading. As we were going around, meeting children, we realised that students in plenty of schools can’t read, their reading levels were really bad. That’s when we thought about using the oral narratives. This is how Kathakar or the oral storytelling festival was born. It has now been going on for seven years. It is, of course, related to literacy; but is also about reviving and promoting oral folk narratives and the enjoyment it brings to everyone – from the youngest member of the family to the oldest. They just sit and listen to stories.

There’s so much you can convey through stories – whether you talk about empathy or conveying a message. It is all packaged in a nice format and you can convey whatever you want without really saying, ‘let’s do this’, or ‘let’s not do this’.

Q: In an age where we see children addicted to YouTube or online games, what convinced you about these festivals?

A: It is not that we expected around 1,000 people in the first year. But we had 500 people turn up with kids in the first year itself. I think even parents are looking for such occasions – it is a family time for them where they can sit and do something together, even if it is listening to a story. They both are part of the same thing, same moment. And that’s what, I think, works for them.

If your child is addicted to YouTube, internet or online games, and you tell him/her to go out and listen to stories, may be, some of them would be very reluctant, but when they sit in this kind of community and listen to stories, they get involved.

When storytellers narrate a story, they actually capture their audience and transport them to a different world. That’s when the audience gets hooked on to the festival

It also depends upon storytellers and how they tell their stories. In our festival, most of them are professionals and high quality storytellers. When they narrate a story, they actually capture their audience and transport them to a different world. That’s when, I think, the audience gets hooked on to the festival. There are people who have been coming here from past 4-5 years. People have been looking forward to this festival and keep coming back to us.

Q: Currently, this festival is being held in only two cities – Delhi and Uttarkhand. Any plans of expansion?

A: Delhi is where the Kathakar happens; Ghummakkad Narain goes to Uttarakhand. We always go to Dehradun in September. Ghummakkad Narain is a travelling festival – the idea behind it is that it should travel from place to place, wherever it wants to go or wherever it is invited. We have been to Shillong (Meghalaya) and Ladakh (J&K). We were invited to Bangalore. Mumbai is where we took Kathakar last year.

Travelling with so many people to different places involve a lot of money. Given our limitations, we can only travel to a few places. So we try to go to rural areas. Even when we travel to cities, we try to do sessions with schools. That is our main focus. We don’t always target the rich schools because, I think, they have enough resources to get writers, historians, etc.

Q: How do you think the festival has evolved over the years in terms of participation, interaction and interest among people?

A: I would definitely say the number of storytellers has increased, but it is not that our traditional storytellers have really benefitted or people have come forward to support them. Also, our traditional storytellers haven’t managed to contemporize their stories. For example, a storyteller from other states of India may come to Delhi and narrate his story which the audience here may not be able to relate to. Sometimes, you have to package the old in a new bottle. And that’s what has not happened here. I wish that can happen. Because then you can ensure longevity.

Q: How are you bridging the gap between the old and the new?

A: Some of us tell these stories in a modern format because the older generation will do it with music, dance, drama – everything involved. We don’t do it that way. We have one person or two people telling a story. Also, we call a lot of traditional folk artistes to work together with international artistes. The idea being that when they see the comparison, they will hopefully evolve.

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