Takes two to spin a fine yarn

korean storytelling

Takes two to spin a fine yarn

Storytelling traditions across the world are varied. In India, there are storytelling art forms like Pandavani, Kathakali, harikatha and kathakalakshepam. Similarly, a traditional storytelling art in Korea is pansori — ‘pan’ means a place where people gather, and ‘sori’ means song.

Pansori is performed by a vocalist and a drummer, where the former narrates a story with stylised speech, expressive singing and meaningful gestures; while the drummer, with the accompaniment of a buk (Korean drum), plays the rhythm to suit the narration.

I had the opportunity of witnessing a pansori performance recently. It reminded me so much of our harikatha. The rendering demands the vocalist, who can be male or female, to be highly eloquent and demonstrative, as also an expert in the art of modulating his/her voice according to the flow of the story — very similar to the mono-acting here. It’s not only the vocalist’s job that’s difficult. For, the drummer is expected to understand the tempo of the narrative and play the rhythm accordingly.

A tradition regarded as authentically Korean, pansori was recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage in the domain of oral expressions and traditions in 2003.

A pansori performance generally lasts up to eight hours, and its performers undergo rigorous training which includes modulating the voice and memorising complex repertoires. Pansori, I found out, originated in south-west Korea in the 17th century, and remained a popular oral tradition till the late 19th century.

It acquired a new literary colour over time and became popular among the urban elite. And, like our storytelling traditions that are rooted in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the stories pansori narrates date back to the Korea of Joseon period (1392-1910).

Today, pansori has its own set of professionals who have developed a unique style of shows. Of course, the art form saw difficult times when its continuity was threatened by Korea’s rapid modernisation, forcing the authorities to label it as a National Intangible Cultural Property in 1964.

This new designation for the traditional art helped its revival, but led to its loss of spontaneous character due to the overflow of written texts which left little room for improvisation by its practitioners. Well, every move will have its positives and negatives. But, pansori continues to be a popular form of storytelling.

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