Kali is the Hindu goddess of empowerment – mother to Ganesh, husband to Shiva. Her life is one of war, of love, and family – a grand, epic story with demons, catastrophe and a whole saga of creation. A tale so massive perhaps, that to even recount it all with any form of success seems like a huge challenge – one confronted by storyteller Emily Hennessey, and sitar player Sheema Mukherjee. The results, it must be said from the off, made for some exciting theatre.
A lot of this came down to the abilities of the performing duo. Hennessey, narrating the story alone for almost 100 minutes, laced the saga of Kali with humor, emotion and excitement, endearing the audience and keeping us captivated throughout. With understated precision she lyrically conjured up the lives and visions of Shiva, of Parvati and the pantheon of gods that surrounded them without missing a single beat, using subtle changes in stance, tone and bearing to switch between different figures with ease.
This was matched by the skills of Mukherjee – her compositions and performances not simply on the sitar but on a variety of other instruments embellishing the performance with a tonal depth and flavour. The music never felt overwrought or understated, but seemed to stride effortlessly alongside the narrative, reacting to events with crescendo or silence whenever necessary.
This was theatre by first principle – stripped back from technology wizardry (there were no lighting changes, or sound cues) and leaving only the rhetorical and musical skills of the performers naked before the spectator. There was a purity to proceedings – a didactic narration that gave the air of collusion and inclusivity. It was exhilarating to see such a performance brought to a central London venue.
If there were issues, it was less about fault and more around circumstance. As fantastic a venue the Soho Upstairs is for championing performances, it felt somewhat stifling at times, as if the performance needed an open space to breath and evoke even greater images. Hemming in the audience on three sides did make the performance feel somewhat static at times – a difficult issue to counter when only one performer had the means of moving freely, but this became less of a problem as the tale progressed and the narrative grew more evocative and physical.
Kali is a wonderful piece of theatre – pure in its ideas and retelling a fantastic story vital for both Hindu and modern culture. Kali’s tale is one of female empowerment, of joyful exuberance in the face of love, and seeing the two performers bring it to life so vividly makes it clear to see why it struck so many chords.
Kali is Presented by the Crick Crack Club. Performance storytelling by Emily Hennessey
Music by Sheema Mukherjee
The goddess Kali is a complicated figure. She can be portrayed as a bloody-handed destroyer massacring armies and dancing on her husband’s chest. She can represent change and the force of time. She can be a wellspring of strength and creativity, or an aspect of the devoted mother-goddess Parvati. There is a fluidity to her character in common with the most ancient conceptions of the universe, where primordial forces exist in a constant state of flux.
Part holy creation myth, part love story, and part fantastical gods-versus-demons showdown, Kali is a night of epic, energetic storytelling presented by the Soho Theatre’s resident spoken word collective Crick Crack Club.
Multi-instrumentalist Sheema Mukherjee, best known for her contributions to world-fusion music outfit Transglobal Underground, provides a live score which goes well beyond a mere accompaniment. Her virtuosic sitar playing creates a resonant soundscape, but she sets the instrument aside in the story’s more reflective passages in favour of rhythmic handclaps and lyrical chants.
The production has had a long development, which shows in the fabulous precision and near-perfect synchronisation between the two artists. At no point does Hennessey have to strain her voice to be heard, and Mukherjee’s music never fades into the background. Instead, words and melody feel equally integral, equally involved in communicating the story, flowing together like two mingling rivers.
Hennessey’s composition evokes a vivid and deeply sensual world, redolent with details of perfumed meadows, oceans of milk, dappling sunlight, and billowing snow. Maybe it’s the humid environment of a small, full house after a hot day, or maybe it’s the faint perfume of burning incense, but there is a tangible magic in the air.
The story itself comes straight out of the complex, colourful melange of Hindu mythology – with a few contemporary tricks added to the telling. Hennessey knows just where to slip in a modernism or a daft joke, and treats the mythic subjects of her tale with the right mix of reverence and mischief. At one point, a god comments on his brother’s habit of disguising himself as various people and animals, telling him that the fact that he remains bright blue in whatever form he takes is ‘a bit of a giveaway.’
Other times, Hennessey calls on the audience for suggestions. Admittedly, these suggestions are for synonyms for orgasm, which leads to a sort of verbal re-enactment of that scene from the Naked Gun, with the dams bursting and the rockets launching into orbit.
There’s a sense of ritual running through the entire performance, established at the outset by Crick Crack organiser Ben Haggarty’s exuberant call and response introduction, and underpinned by the mantra-like quality of interwoven voice and music.
At the interval, we’re offered cut flowers, and invited at the show’s end to leave them at a small shrine by the door. There, your choice of idols promises a blessing for either a new beginning (via Ganesha) or empowerment (from Kali herself).
These spirits seem like fitting onlookers, watching over a joyfully told tale of transformations, transcendence and rebirth.
Kali was presented by Crick Crack Club. Click here for more details.
The Project Place, Baker Street, 25 April 2016
Reviewed by Fleur Shorthouse
“Emily is an outstanding performance storyteller”
Following performances in Denmark, Wales and at the Royal Opera House, Emily Hennessey brought her vibrant, enchanting story to a Brighton Storyteller’s event at the wonderfully bohemian Project Place in Baker Street. Emily is an outstanding performance storyteller, she does not learn her material off by heart or ‘recite’ a story, but improvises on the bare bones of a host of stories that have been meticulously researched over at least four years. She has travelled to India many times to share stories with Indian performance storytellers, temple goers and many people who have a love of Kali stories. She has also studied Indian dance, and wove in beautiful movements and mudras to her telling.
There are thousands of Kali stories and Emily made insightful, careful choices in cutting the cloth of her myth. The work is complex, as is the goddess herself. Kali is the Hindu Goddess of Death and Destruction, she has many manifestations such as the warrior who defends righteousness; the ultimate feminine godhead; and in a more gentle form, Parvati, devoted wife and mother. The evening began with the profound genesis story of how all beings were churned into existence using a mountain and a lake of milk; I was later intrigued to hear the shocking story of Sati, who sacrificed herself on the funeral pyre. The second half commenced with a wonderfully sensual and humorous story of Siva and Parvati’s amorous embraces being repeatedly thwarted by the demon king who heard a prophecy that he would be killed by the fruit of Parvati’s womb. Impressive work, her Norse myths are also outstanding. If you are interested in hearing more stories, Brighton Storytellers’ details are on Facebook. They host evenings on the last Monday of the month.
The goddess Kali is one of the most fascinating and paradoxical figures in all mythology. On the one hand, she is the embodiment of female rage, a blood-drinking death-wielder with a necklace of skulls and a skirt of severed arms; on the other hand, she is the ultimate mother figure and the protector of life itself.
In this enchanting show, the storyteller Emily Hennessey and the musician Sheema Mukherjee guide the audience through the surreal landscape of Hindu mythology—a world of giant floating lotuses and milk-filled oceans, a place where gods fight demons and humans are brought back from the dead.
Hindu mythology offers the storyteller a panoply of riches to choose from, and Hennessey has selected her material well. The main focus of the show is the love story between Shiva the Destroyer and Parvati (the benign incarnation of Kali), which gives the production a strong narrative thrust and a greater sense of dramatic structure. The most significant subplot concerns the ascendance of the demon king Raktabīja, climaxing in an epic battle between good and evil.
Having worked in rural India and trained with master storytellers such as Dr Vayu Naidu and Ritu Verna, Hennessey is steeped in Hindu mythology. Over the course of nearly two hours, she uses her considerable talents to conjure up a series of extraordinary tales for a transfixed audience. Her vivid use of language delivers a sensual thrill, skilfully evoking the sights, smells and tastes of this strange, fantastical world.
Hennessey’s bold characterisations breathe life into a range of mythical icons. The pleasure she takes in playing various demons and monsters is infectious. Her portrayal of Kali—wide-eyed, tongue stuck out, arms outstretched, foot-stamping—provides one of the show’s wildest, most captivating moments.
Throughout the show, Hennessey’s words are underscored by the music of Sheema Mukherjee, best known for her work with Transglobal Underground and The Imagined Village. Her rhythmic chanting and virtuosic sitar playing add even greater colour to Hennessey’s storytelling, heightening the dramatic impact of key scenes and contributing to the sense of narrative flow.
For nearly 30 years, The Crick Crack Club have been devoted to the idea of reinventing storytelling as a contemporary performance art. After watching Kali, I will be sure to keep an eye open for their future productions.
Telling of the romance of Sati, a human girl, and Shiva, the immortal ‘destroyer’, against the backdrop of the gods’ struggles against the demons of the underworld, this was an engrossing, entertaining, and ultimately inspiring exploration of feminine power, and the myriad facets of the female self.
Although the Hindu myth (and to a certain extent the culture which has nurtured it) was unfamiliar to me, this enhanced rather than limited my experience of the tale, meaning that I truly never knew what would happen next, as gods transformed and shifted shape from child to turtle to god again, died and were reborn. I struggled somewhat with the narrative’s emphasis on motherhood, though its depiction of the relationship between Sati/Parvati and Shiva was both timeless and hilarious, and I could only cheer at the terrifying power that Kali unleashes, a satisfying depiction of woman as neither saint nor whore, but enraged warrior, storming down the mountainside to prevail where male gods have failed.
Emily Hennessey’s narrator was energetic and expressive, while Sheema Mukherjee’s musical accompaniment informed rather than distracted from the plot. The engagement between the two was perfectly pitched, each feeding and supporting the other, and combining to transport the audience to an exciting time, long ago and far away.
Kali, British Museum – Review
Cons: I only wish we were all sat on a circle around a campfire.
Summary: The myth of the Hindu goddess Kali, told to grown-ups with spice and a pinch of humour
The Crick Crack Club has spent the last 25 years touring the UK with storytelling performances in the most diverse spaces and Epic Sundays is the brainchild of their collaboration with the British Museum. Crossing the museum’s famous courtyard, I felt as I was about to start a journey through history. In my knowledge, ancient history and myth have never existed independently from each other and I can’t think of a better place on earth where this affinity could be officialised. It’s as if the museum wanted to give new life to the thousands of objects that are kept in its galleries, and the result is truly magical.Once a month, until the end of 2016, the basement 300-seat BP Lecture Theatre hosts a Sunday afternoon session in which a narrator and a musician present a famous episode from some popular tradition from around the world. After Gilgamesh in September, it was the turn of the Hindu goddess Kali, a powerful figure who personifies creation and destruction simultaneously.
The tale starts from the very beginning of time, when Brahma had to establish the balance between good and bad. It explains the role of the holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, before moving to the personal adventures of the latter. Travelling the world in search for real love, Shiva the destroyer one day meets a young girl called Sati and immediately falls in love with her. Against her father’s will, the maiden accepts to marry the god and moves with him to the top of a mountain. Some time later, whilst visiting her family, Sati decides to burn herself alive, with the intent of proving that destruction calls for regeneration but Shiva is heartbroken over his loss. Reborn as Parvati, the woman reunites with her divine love and the couple strives to have a child. Their plans are constantly boycotted, however, by the king of demons Raktabīja, who is aware of a prediction that says he’ll die by the hand of Shiva’s son.
In front of a sold out auditorium, the stage is simple and evocative. In the middle is a small altar decorated with garlands of marigolds, fruits and bowls of rice and flowers. On top, there are two statues of Kali and one of Ganesha. On the right is a platform where talented musician Sheema Mukherjee is seated with her legs crossed, in the typical posture of the sitar player. Her music is a sweet accompaniment that occasionally – and sometimes unexpectedly – becomes the centre piece.
On the opposite side, but free to move around, stands the mesmerising Emily Hennessey. Bare feet and wearing anklets made of little bells, she delivers her tale with impeccable body language and an ever so compelling intonation that gives shape and colour to her words. The narration is so absorbing that I couldn’t take my eyes off her and, for a moment, I wished to be sat around a campfire and surrounded by the Indian landscape. The emphasis with which the myth of Kali is presented and the fascinating surroundings of the British Museum offer, however, a suitable alternative. I’m eagerly looking forward to next month, when it will be time to wander with Ulysses on his Odyssey.
Storyteller: Emily Hennessey
Music: Sheema Mukherjee
Producers:British Museum and the Crick Crack Club
Booking Until:Epic Sundays are performed once a month until December 2016.