The World Of Wonder

Umrao Jaan

I am writing up this workshop very soon after I ran it because, although it was strictly planned, so much came out of the doing of it which isn’t inherent in the structure or basic idea. Inevitably much of the interesting detail will be lost and I wrote notes on a board which I wiped off at each stage so much of that is lost too. One thing is certain, it’s a workshop which would be different every time it’s run with much depending on who is at the workshop, so if you’re interested your best idea is to get me to run a version of it for you.

The subject was “Rhetoric”, as follows, – “This week’s story workshop will concentrate on the rhetoric of Story-telling, those techniques which are like the “special-effects” which make a telling memorable and dramatic. We’ll be trying some of them out on a particular story, and considering how they work within our own story-telling style.”

I started by reflecting on a clip from the television comedy classic “Father Ted” which I had seen recently on Facebook. It’s the one where Ted’s housekeeper Mrs Doyle takes exception to a book which she finds so offensive that she can’t help quoting copiously from it, until Ted ejects her firmly from the room. The moment is managed with such a mastery of comic timing and scripting that it had struck me as an example of what I meant by “rhetoric”, the conscious structuring of material to create strong connections with an audience.

Before we paid attention to some rhetorical techniques I commented that subjecting story to rhetorical development is an enlarging action, a kind of addition, a gesture of generosity which invites us to see even the most commonplace experience as part of a “world of wonder”. I had chosen a story which we could experiment with and it was in a very commonplace state, the summary of a film narrative as found on-line. It was short and very basic and therefore suited my needs as a story-teller in that it offered lots of opportunities for original interpretation and invention. The film is a Bollywood movie made in 1981 called “Umrao Jaan” which I had discovered during my radio programming work. The plot summary I used is as follows,-

In the year 1840, a girl named Amiran is kidnapped from her family in Faizabad and sold to Khanum Jaan, the madam of a brothel in Lucknow who teaches young courtesans. Renamed Umrao Jaan, Amiran turns into a cultured woman trained to captivate men of wealth and taste.

Umrao catches the eye of Nawab Sultan and the two fall in love, but the relationship comes to an end when Nawab reveals he must marry in order to please his family. Umrao then becomes infatuated with bandit chieftain Faiz Ali, who woos and wins her heart. She elopes with him, but is forced to return to Lucknow after Ali is killed by local police.

Sometime later, British soldiers attack Lucknow and the residents are forced to flee. Umrao’s party of refugees stops in a small village, which Umrao recognizes as Faizabad. The residents fail to recognize her, however, and ask her to dance for their pleasure.

Afterwards, she reunites with her family, who believed her to be dead. Her mother is happy to welcome Umrao back, but her brother forbids it and orders Umrao to never return. She returns to Lucknow to find the brothel looted and deserted.

The film has been remade in 2006 and its story is taken from a novel which is in turn based on a native story which may or may not be based on actual events and characters. I had longer plot summaries to hand but this basic version was the most useful to me and to the workshop. I identified various incidents or situations in the story and invited the workshop attendees to join me in applying rhetorical effects to them.

The first effect I proposed was what I called “intensification” and we applied it to the moment near the beginning of the story when Amiran realises that she is being abducted. I invited each of the workshoppers to produce a sentence which expressed that moment and we had a diversity of formulations from more abstract phrases, “persuasion and coercion”, to empathetic expressions, – “her whole world seemed bare”, involving metaphors of fabric and weaving. Each in some way represented the story-telling style of the individual. I then invited them all to consider how a physical action (gesture, facial expression, turning of attention) would add another level of rhetoric to the telling of this moment and also how the voice could be used to indicate the quality of the experience. We all tried expressing “her whole world seemed bare”, using “bare” as or keyword which became subject to all sorts of vocal colouration and pacing, to indicate how Amiran viewed her situation.

Even at this early stage it was clear that individuals had different affinities for rhetoric. David, for example, tended to physicalize his expressions naturally and Liz improvised aspects of rhetoric (repetitions, exclamations) as to the manner born. I wanted to allow these tendencies to develop so my follow-up challenge was to find a formulation for a later moment, Umrao Jaan’s elopement, using some of the rhetorical elements from the abduction moment to emphasize the connection and contrasts between the two journeys. So the fabric metaphor was extended and the description of a horse ride was subtly adjusted to allow for hope not confusion. With action and vocal intonation applied there was already in the rhetoric a world of freedom to make the story what you felt it needed to be.

I should also add that it became clear that the story of Umrao Jaan brought to the surface many issues of female empowerment and subjection, self-respect and education, and the nature of riches which were interesting to deal with in storytelling terms.

After “Intensification” I moved on to the rhetorical idea of “patterning” which involves arranging individual elements into a satisfying structure. For this we looked at the skills which Amiran would have learned at the brothel. We made a list of such items which included everything from singing and dancing to flattery and make-up. After that we experimented with rearranging the list as if it had been expressed by the brothel-madam as Amiran’s curriculum for training, aiming to create a verbally fluent and cumulative sentence or two which emphasized the different aspects of this life-education and what it was meant to achieve. It was a good exercise which caused us to reflect both on “patterning” and status in social relations in Indian society.

Finally before our break we looked at “addition/elaboration” (and narrative economy) applied to Amiran’s first sighting of Nawab Sultan, the rich man who is to be her first lover. We listed aspects of his extreme riches which would be apparent, creating an additive list of physical expressions, clothes, and wealth, but then reducing it to create a moment of psychological truth which was also a strong storytelling sentence. It was clear that each group-member would finalize this in their own preferred way, but this workshop was there to identify elements of the story-making process which are valuable (essential?) for creating a story which will engage strongly with listeners, which is, as I said, the real function of rhetoric.

After the break I had, as always, to move faster and I covered a number of rhetorical strategies quite quickly. I used as a focus for this a micro-story which I had created as a warm-up for storytellers to help them release all of their vocal and dramatic potential, in advance of a performance/sharing. Here it is,-


Imagine                                                   [Picture if you will]

a lonely wood                                           [Deep, dark]

two men waiting                                       [Waiting….}

“What’s that?”                        [What can they see through the trees?]

A princess approaching      [coming closer] [she comes into the clearing]

“So”, she says,                                         [“So?” they say]

“should it be

you, the quickest,

or you, the brightest?”                             [“Which?”]

PAUSE                                                     [EXPRESSION] 

“The quickest.”                                         [“The quickest!”]

He reaches out –                                                                            [grasps at air]

she disappears into the sun,                       [flies out of sight]  

he catches her cerise silk dress

as it falls                                                      [clasps it to him]

“Ha!” he howls                                              [HA!]  

And they never came back.                           [ever again]


To the left is the basic story, and I must leave to another time an explication of its many uses and nuances, but to the right are some of the rhetorical extensions which can be applied to story, either spontaneously in the moment of telling or planned in advance. You can find there instances of “repetition”, and its rhetorical cousin “echo”, of “addition” and “elaboration”, of “double emphasis”, and all kinds of cues for physical actions and vocal/facial emphasis. Having given this some re-consideration (Most of the group has been introduced to the story before), we tried out a few effects on further aspects of “Umrao Jaan”.

We tried out the variations of pace and volume necessary to create a good telling of Umrao Jaan’s escape from Lucknow after the British attack. We also speculated – in a way similarly to our rhetorical linking of the two journeys taken by Amiran – on whether there was a motif or image which might recur during the telling to hint at an underlying theme of the story (I do not say “the” theme because each will make their own interpretation of what that theme should be). One candidate for image and theme was “home” and how many places suggest themselves as home to the wandering courtesan. Another was a smell or scent which recurs in many settings as a sign that her life is taking a turn in a new direction. (Sandalwood was suggested).

There were several more rhetorical strategies we might have covered or tried out but I chose to end with something slightly different. The problem with a rhetorical enlargement of a story, I pointed out, is that it tends to soar almost without interruption and that occasional (frequently) it needs to be re-anchored to reality with a gesture which downplays not elevates the action. Where might such moments be found in “Umrao Jaan”? I asked. Nawab Sultan’s apparent initial rejection of her? Her brother’s rejection of her? The lack of recognition in her home village? Depending on how the story is developed there could be many more.

But, as I also cautioned and as we had seen while analysing the warm-up story, too much rhetoric can be a bad thing, almost like an over-spiced meal or an over-furnished room. Enough but not too much, should be the watchword. Overall though I think an emphasis on the nuts and bolts, the maybe devilish details and physical technicalities, of making a story which works and lives up to its potential was a welcome subject for a story-workshop. As with so many of our group sessions it might repay being repeated sometime.

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I write a lot in many media on many subjects

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