Sushmita Singha Of Udaipur Tales On Storytelling, Museums And More

The founder of Udaipur Tales, Sushmita Singha talks about her early experiences, life in the city, oral storytelling and unmissable locations around the world
Sushmita Singha (center) sits at the Udaipur Tales 2024 event
Sushmita Singha (center) sits at the Udaipur Tales 2024 eventQ

If you are someone that keeps a track of the literary and cultural events happening around cities, or are an enthusiast of the shamanic storytelling form, there is only a slim chance that the name Sushmita Singha doesn't ring a bell. Singha, a distinguished professional with over 35 years of experience across diverse sectors, is the person, along with her husband Salil Bhandari, behind the prestigious Udaipur Tales, an international storytelling festival that seeks to archive, preserve, restore and give platform to the surviving forms of the "purest form of storytelling," the oral tradition.

Singha's book "Tales from Hindu Mythology" culminated into early interests and inclinations that were realised in the form of Udaipur Tales. As a life member of INTACH, she actively contributes to heritage conservation and is committed to international welfare.

Singha spoke to Outlook Traveller about her journey, interests, exposures and the creation of a cultural engagement such as the Udaipur Tales, among other things.


Please tell us about yourself and your days studying at Patna. How did you think your career would pan out at that time?


As a child, I travelled to different parts of the country as my father was in the military. We lived in Sagar, Lucknow, Kanpur, and then Patna. I have interesting and vivid memories of all these places. Although we visited Patna every year as it was also our hometown, when I joined college, I realised that Patna was very different from all the places I had lived in. In the 80s, people were conservative and very caste-minded. However, I was lucky to study in Patna Women's College, a reputed missionary college. I learned a lot from the prolific teachers and got the opportunity to participate in many extracurricular activities. Later, at Patna University, while I was doing my Masters in English, I was exposed to a different world. The difference between girls and boys was far more significant than I had ever witnessed. I got into a lot of trouble because I challenged this at every step. Despite everything, I had a great time in Patna because of my friends. Our group consisted of both girls and boys. I ended up being part of Patna University's Student Cultural Society in the University. Since senior school, I had wanted to write and do something creative. Social work was my passion, but I never considered it as a career option.


What interested you about storytelling?


I have always loved reading, doing plays, and listening to interesting stories from people and places. As a child, a Bengali family friend named me 'Gul Bodoni', which means a person who only spins tales. I guess that sums up my love for storytelling.

I have vivid memories of my father telling me about the lives of African people when I was just 5 or 6 years old. He would tell me stories from far and wide, and I was always curious to learn more. Both my grandmother and mother were avid readers and always had fascinating stories to share.

Because of my love for stories, I decided to pursue an Honours degree in English Literature. I started writing play scripts for college competitions and even acted in them. We were encouraged by the prizes we won. I also wrote short stories, mostly based on what I had heard from my mother. She had a way of making things intriguing, and I loved the way she engaged us.

Every time a story was told, I would live in that moment, learn, lament, rejoice, and think about it for a long time. Even now, I still do the same.

Singha at the Udaipur Tales 2024
Singha at the Udaipur Tales 2024Q

How did you get upon the idea of formulating something so culturally rich as the Udaipur Tales?


One day, while my husband Salil and I were sitting in Udaipur, we were discussing how we could do something unique to document traditional and heritage values. We wanted to do something that wasn't your typical music concert or theatre performance. Though there's a big contention between us about who came up with the idea, we agreed that it was a great one. We had no idea if anything like this had happened anywhere in the world before, so we decided to do some research. After googling, we found out that there were festivals for adults abroad, but none in India. 

Our main goal was to capture the oral traditions that are often overlooked. This idea may have stemmed from our visit to the house of a gardener who was a tribal. During a function he invited us to, we sat with him and his family and learned about their wonderful traditions. These were far more advanced than what we often think of as culturally emancipated. It was something they had been doing for years and years. We discussed how we should document these traditions because so many things happen orally. It was always at the back of our minds, and it's what led to the creation of Udaipur Tales.


How did Udaipur as a city come into the scene?


Of course, the reason we came up with the idea while we were in Udaipur was that my career span in the development sector was also a factor. I wanted to work in a place where we could live outside of the city and enjoy a different lifestyle. So, I chose Udaipur, and now we live in a village ten kilometres outside the city. We have a house there, over a hill in a village, from where we work and occasionally come to Delhi. We were discussing the idea in this house, and it is where it happened, and added to it the fact that a friend who was doing the branding suggested, 'Why not Udaipur Tales?' We agreed that it was a great idea and decided on that name.

DastanGoi Musical by Syed Sahil Agha & Ajay Kumar
DastanGoi Musical by Syed Sahil Agha & Ajay Kumarudaipurtales/instagram

There are many more festivals that take place in the north of India like in Jaipur or Delhi that have much to do with art and culture. How do you think Udaipur Tales is fundamentally different from the others?


First and foremost, we encourage and only do the oral tradition of storytelling. There's no critique or discussion of how good a story is or how bad a story is - it is the purest form of storytelling, which is done orally. It is one of the reasons we can get storytellers from all over the country and abroad who do stories that embody the spirit of places or things they want to talk about. We are not restricted to one culture or language; they are the outcomes of customs, history, and culture. We have a large canvas that way. For the first time in 2024, we thought of honouring three storytellers who had been working for a very long time in their area of expertise and helped the tradition of oral storytelling, one of them was Sahil Agha, a Daastangoi artist, the others being Mahmood Farooqui, a master of Dastangoi storytelling, and Usha Venkatraman, a captivating contemporary storyteller. In addition, there were also Smt. Kamla Devi and Shri Sohan Lal Nayak, revered PHAD artists dedicated to the conservation of oral storytelling.

Inside the Louvre Museum, Paris
Inside the Louvre Museum, ParisShutterstock

As you have worked alongside a museum, what do you think they do for society? What interests you about preservation and archival? What are some museums you have visited that you will advise people to go to?


Museums are institutions that preserve artefacts, artwork, culture, and other aspects of life that may be difficult to imagine in the present day. They provide us with a perspective and understanding of the past and help us empathise, respect, and appreciate the generations that came before us.

I have had the opportunity to visit many museums, and a few that have left a lasting impression on me are the Kala Pani Museum in Port Blair, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the National Museum in Delhi, the Louvre Museum in Paris, the London Museum, the Gandhi Museum in Wardha, and the Textile Museum in Ahmedabad.

National Museum in Delhi
National Museum in DelhiShutterstock

It is truly awe-inspiring to witness the accomplishments of people from the past, including their struggles, art, innovations, and scientific discoveries. Museums preserve things, culture, art, and aspects of living that one can not imagine now. It gives us a perspective and sense of the past. We are what we are because of what was made, discovered, or done. We are able to empathise, respect, and appreciate the generations before us.

I have visited many museums; I was extremely moved by the Kala Pani Museum in Port Blair & and the Jewish Museum in Berlin. I love the National Museum in Delhi, the Louvre Museum in Paris, the London Museum, the Gandhi Museum Wardha, the Textile Museum in Ahmedabad, and the Berlin Museum.

It is awe-inspiring to see the things people have done, their struggles, their art, innovations, scientific discoveries...


While researching for your book "Tales from Hindu Mythology," did you come across any anecdotes and local folklore of amusement that you might want to share? How was your experience researching for the book?


Many stories are based on Hindu folklore. Despite the prevalence of kathas recited by Hindu priests during Puja, most people do not know their meaning. As a child, I enjoyed listening to the Satyanarayan Katha because it always had a happy ending. The Tales from Hindu Mythology are based on these kathas. One ridiculous story involves the belief that swallowing Indian plum or 'ber' seeds after praying to an indigenous deity will bless a woman with a child. These stories were mainly intended for women. 

One story that shocked me involved the worship of the man in the family as though he were a god. It suggested that food should always be served to him first and the prasad taken by everyone else later. This story provides an explanation for many societal practices.

A view of Orchha, Bundelkhand
A view of Orchha, BundelkhandShutterstock

From your travels so far, can you tell us a few lesser-known places that you believe people must visit in their lifetime?


Nowadays, people travel to many places that were previously unknown. I suggest visiting the following places: Orchha in the Bundelkhand region, Nawalgarh to see the frescos, Murshidabad, the former capital of Bengal, Narlai for its stepwell experience, the vineyards of Italy, Galway in Ireland, Isle of Skye in Scotland, and the villages of South Africa and Afghanistan (if possible).

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