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She Tells Tales, But Only Beautifully: Rachana Patil

Rachana Patil, an incredibly gifted storyteller and the winner of Steller, 2021, talks about her love for stories and the art of drama.

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Rachana Patil

There is a sense of ease as we begin the conversation. It is not, by any means, because of the questions I pose to her. It is only because Rachana Patil has mastered the art of speaking. There is, in her words, a cadence that exudes charm and a certain sense of happiness, making it impossible for you to not get engrossed in what she is saying. And while that may, sometimes, be difficult to prove in a tangible manner, the only thing I need to substantiate my claim is to point you to her winning Steller, 2021, the nationwide storytelling competition held by Tape A Tale. Storytelling is something that she is wonderful at. And, what better story is there to listen to than her own?

Born and raised in Mumbai, Patil prescribes a lot of significance to her childhood. There is almost a sense of reverence to the way she describes her earliest memories, cherishing them, for all they are worth, for what they have given her. In our conversation, she recalls how the act of speaking and performing held a special place in her formative years, with her being engaged in multiple co-curricular activities. In point of fact, she asserts that she truly enjoyed sharing stories ever since she was a child. It was only later, when she was growing up, that she realized that the act of sharing stories is something that is not only enjoyable but also something that holds immense value and is a craft, in itself.

That same realization bore fruit earlier this year, when Patil went on to win the Steller of the Year award, in the national level competition held by Tape A Tale. What a lot of people don’t actually know is the fact that she was actually part of the same competition the year before, in 2020. As a matter of fact, she made it past all the initial stages then, beating out the other competitors in Mumbai before going on to compete with the finalists from the other States. She made it till the final leg of the competition, only missing out in the last stage. 

Narrowly missing out on something stings. However, it stings a lot more when others try to make you feel better about your loss. Sometimes, that loss is worth a little too much to just let go of. Admitting the same, Patil pushed herself to improve, working diligently and striving to perfect her craft. When the competition came around this year, she didn’t waste time hesitating or wallowing in self-doubt. Signing up for it, she geared herself up for the coming selection phases. 

“This year, when the competition came around again, I went for it. I didn’t think twice.”

Rachana Patil

In the conversation, she reveals details about how the initial stages of the competition work. And before we go into that, it is crucial to stress how demanding the competition actually is. Leaving aside the sheer skill that goes into the art of telling a story, there is also the necessity for a dash of mental fortitude. Patil touches on the first stage of the selection process where she and a classmate made it through, after going up against contestants from her college. The second round was a six hour long session where participants, from all over the country, came together to perform their own bits. Interestingly, Patil states that part of the competition was, in fact, her favourite phase, with her being able to witness the stories that others had to tell. 

As she went on to Delhi for the third and final round of the competition, Patil found herself satiating a lifelong curiosity, one which entailed her, as a Mumbaiker, experiencing all that Delhi had to offer for the first time. And, that whole leg of her journey was everything she had hoped it would be. From the night of the event to the other participants sharing their own experiences with each other, everything went the way she had envisioned it. When she goes on to talk about being declared the winner at the end of it all, Patil explores what that experience was truly like. Indeed, as she held the trophy in her hands, she realized that this singular moment was everything falling in place as it should. There were no second guesses about what could have been or how it would have felt to win the previous year. 

“I would not choose to give myself the trophy in 2020. The journey, from 2020 to 2021, has taught me a lot.”

Rachana Patil

When we really explore storytelling, there is so much more to it than just choosing an engaging subject matter. Patil asserts that, when creating the tales she tells, she tries her best to add humour to it. Whether the tales, themselves, are fictional or based on her real life experiences, her stories come from the idea of attributing meaning to the little slices of life. Structure and plot cohesion comes only after the story itself takes a life of its own. Once that happens, everything falls in place naturally. 

As she talks about how she broaches the creation of a story, Patil talks about how storytelling and drama flow into one another. In fact, she doesn’t differentiate between the two. There is this idea of often keeping one separate from the other and, indeed, she has been asked by some why she adds theatrics to her own style of storytelling. She, however, refuses to restrict herself to one. You see, the art of telling a story is not an isolated art. It is, as Patil implies, an art that is infused into every creative effort that we engage in.

I am glad she brought up dramatics in the conversation because it is something that Patil harbours an immense amount of passion for. She touches on how it has always been a dream for her to study acting and drama at the National School of Drama, Delhi. Ever since she was a child, the institute has held a certain allure for her, with it representing, in a manner of speaking, a place where her dreams become reality. 

“Something about NSD has always pulled me. I want to learn, I want to go there. The day I do that, I’ll feel like I have done something good.”

Rachana Patil

And, the manner in which she wants to go about doing this is, like everything she does, untethered and seamless. There is a world of opportunity out there and Patil plans on experiencing everything that it has to offer. The idea of working on creative pieces from her own home fascinates her as much as the idea of going to study dramatics in a more structured manner. Through her words, you sense an individual that wishes, with everything she has, to embrace each and every experience for what it’s worth.

The person she has grown into today didn’t just happen instantaneously. Patil, in fact, attributes it all to her working past her own self-imposed limits. Recalling how she made it a point to go perform at every gig that she was aware of, she adds that the experience of just going for what she wanted and being rewarded for it, be it in the form of a clap or the tiniest smile, has helped her come out of her own shell. 

It takes a lot of self-belief to stand where she stands. The journey hasn’t been easy, of course, even if Patil’s enthusiasm and zeal makes it seem so. And, it is this very thought that she would want you to take from her story. There is this idea of leaving too much at the hands of others, one she says is crucial to shed. Only then, will you truly be able to chase something that you want. And if you take a closer look, Rachana Patil is inches away from getting all that she really wants.

Credit: YouTube (Tape A Tale)
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Don’t Mind Me, I Am Just Being My Perfect Self: Mansi Mehra

A stand-up comedian, with an adventurous spirit and a general sense of swagger, Mansi Mehra has quite a story to tell.

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Mansi Mehra

I had been watching small snippets of her stand-up shows on YouTube for an hour before I sat down to write this. From beatboxing to rapping to making you choke on your coffee as you laugh, Mansi Mehra is one of those rare people who make you question whether you are really doing enough. And, as if that wasn’t enough, she is a seasoned traveller, having spent several days cruising around in her car as she travelled, on her own, to multiple States in the US.

Born in Madhya Pradesh, but raised all over the country, Mansi Mehra’s educational qualifications, at first glance, wouldn’t suggest a career in stand-up comedy. With a Bachelor’s degree in Electronic and Communication Engineering and a Master’s in Science, Mehra, initially, did not envision a career on stage. In fact, it was a break-up that inspired her to pursue comedy.

Formerly in a relationship with a fellow comedian, Mehra realised that one aspect of the relationship that she missed the most was the stand-up shows that her former boyfriend’s performed at. Everything that went into making people laugh, the backstage preparations, the refinement of the material being performed, fascinated her. One day, she decided to just go for it. She enrolled herself in an online class, wrote her own material and went to perform it in an open mic. On that very show, a producer happened to notice her and Mehra found herself being booked for her show. From then on, there was no looking back. Through word of mouth, Mehra’s performances garnered the recognition she deserved and she went from one show to another. Funnily enough, Mehra recalls sharing the stage with her former boyfriend on her 99th performance.

Credit: YouTube (Mansi Mehra)

Comedy, however, isn’t always as light-hearted as it is made out to be. There is an immense amount of work that goes into it. Mehra, herself, is an individual who is consistently looking for a new experience. Starting from radio to filmmaking to hosting massive shows, she has built up a world of experience that she draws from. And, that, she says, is critical to individual growth.

Take, for example, the manner in which she goes about refining her material. As mentioned earlier, Mehra, initially, draws from her own experiences and then proceeds to write down the entire story before she begins to filter the funny bits from it. Still, that’s just not enough. Then, she has to perform that material in front of an audience and, based on the reaction she gets, she has to work out the kinks in the manner in which she delivers it.

Of course, it’s not always about relying solely on personal experience. There are some things that you cannot learn from anywhere else but the greatest influences in your preferred field. From Jerry Seinfeld to Taylor Tomlinson, Mehra always finds something to take away from the sets of the people she looks up to. It’s not always about the joke, however. Sometimes, it’s about the manner in which they deliver a certain bit or, perhaps, it’s about the general theme of the entire set.

Credit: YouTube (Mansi Mehra)

By now, it is pretty evident that Mehra looks to continuously absorb and improve. And, it’s immensely fortunate that she is wired that way because her starting days, like all budding artists, were not the easiest of times. 

An immigrant in the US, Mehra found that there was a massive difference in the way humour is perceived abroad. After all, humour is about relatability. Navigating that difference, let alone the stereotyping and the denial of certain opportunities and avenues, on account of her not being a US citizen, was a challenge in itself. In point of fact, there have been times where Mehra cleared an audition but missed out on the role merely because she wasn’t a US citizen.

“I wanted to connect more to the audience but, sometimes, language barriers, references or accents would create a challenge. But, now that I know some of their terms, references and have learnt their style of speaking, I feel like I am getting there gradually.”

Mansi Mehra

Still, moving to the US, as Mehra states, was one of the bravest things she could have done. From working at an established MNC, in India, to working at an on-campus job, when pursuing her Master’s degree in the US, to help with daily expenses, Mehra has come a long way. Now, she sits at over two hundred performances, having shared the stage with some of the biggest names in stand-up comedy, such as Margaret Cho, Maz Jobrani, Monali Thakur and Zakir Khan.

It’s important that you understand the trajectory Mehra has been on. Becoming the stand-up comic that she is today has, by no means, been an easy journey. There is probably a whole side of blood, sweat and tears that she doesn’t even remember about when she talks about the larger scope of her journey. That is why when she says that consistent work, regardless of the existence of latent talent, is more important, it holds special weightage. Things will fall into place only once you decide to commit to the path you have chosen. 

That’s Mansi Mehra for you. The person who almost ran out of gas in the middle of the desert and went ‘This is fine.’ If that isn’t grit, I don’t know what is.

Credit: YouTube (Mansi Mehra)
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Of Hope in Despair: Heartfelt Spoken-Word Performances

Watch these beautiful, emotive performances that find and render hope into words of compelling comfort!

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Poetry

Poetry and stories are meant to provide you comfort in the dark. Watch Simar Singh and Vanika Sangtani get real, as they deliver performances drawn from their own experiences which are speckled with hope, even as they revolve around those universal feelings of solitude and sadness. 

“Loneliness is a Bad Thing” – Simar Singh & Hasan

“In every breath, there’s life Simar Singh quotes a lyric from a lovely song by the Bahamas, as he writes his own song, both an ode and antidote to the much universal feeling of loneliness. There’s a lot of musicality running in Singh’s tender, compassionate creation, with Hasan’s guitar strums and vocals reminding a little something of the band Radiohead. 

Simar Singh renders the ugly, the sad, the beautiful, and the hopeful side to the heavy burden of loneliness within this poem of powerful and moving sentiments. “I did not know the value of this poem, till I almost lost it. I did not know the value of my words, till I was silent,” he says. And you will find the value of his poem and his words too and would be glad he attempted to treasure it with this performance. 

Credit: YouTube (UnErase Poetry)

“Mujhe Mera Rahul Mil Gaya” – Vanika Sangtani

Fictional happy endings give hope, proves Vanika Sangtani with her very real story which is told with such genuineness of emotions that it is hard not to smile when she smiles, and feel tearful when she cries. “Ek si hokar bhi, har kirdaar ki kahaani alag hoti hai” she says, as she narrates a beautiful story drawn from her life. Of how she both lost and found hope when she went to live in the city of Mumbai. 

Inspired by Aisha from the film Wake Up Sid, Vanika’s dreamy expectations were met with a different reality in the city. In the story you find her sharing the piece of hope that she later found when she met Rahul and not Sid, and how her faith in the fantasies of fictional stories was revived again. Among the numbered kirdars (actors) of Vanika’s story, you will find yourself counting her innocent, warm smile too!

Credit: YouTube (Spill Poetry)

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From One ‘Besharam Ladki’ To Another: Kopal Khanna

Kopal Khanna, in a riveting performance, talks about labels, societal expectations and what being a Besharam Ladki is truly like.

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Kopal KhannaKopal Khanna

There is a pitch, as Kopal Khanna states, that we are all sold from a very early point in our lives. The words may differ, the manner in which it is put forward may be disguised as something else, however, the underlying foundation of it remains the same: ‘Live your life in the way we envision it.’ 

‘Besharam Ladki’, by Kopal Khanna, then, serves as a canvas for sketching out the fallacy that lies in projecting the idea of individual growth as something that needs to be structured or curated. After all, society does seem to have a vested interest in the lives of those that are completely unrelated to them.

Khanna begins her performance by beseeching her audience to keep a secret for her. As she goes on, we learn she is six months away from hitting 30 and is consistently subjected to questions and perceived opinions regarding her marriage. Ah, yes, that sacred institution that binds people together. You see, India has a fascination with marriage that most other countries cannot hope to match. For us, as a people, life has always been a series of steps that you must take. From getting good grades, to getting a job immediately after we graduate college and then, perhaps most importantly, getting married. Of course, having kids is naturally the next step. Somewhere, along the journey of attempting to build a cultural identity, we have, as a collective, begun to see life as a uniform, structured table rather than the exciting, unpredictable experience it actually is.

I digress. However, I only do so based on what Khanna builds up to in her performance. ‘Besharam Ladki’, as a spoken word performance, isn’t just another rail at societal expectations and pressures. It is, rather, a unique insight into how we, as a society, are consistently trying to maneuver the experiences and lives of others according to our expectations. Sometimes, these expectations become shackles for others, holding them back from truly ever being the person they can be.

Of course, there is a sense of acceptance on Khanna’s part. At the end of ‘Besharam Ladki’, Khanna explicitly states that if being an independent woman, in charge of her own life, leads to being viewed as ‘Besharam’, she whole-heartedly accepts the label. The word, itself, only has power due to the misconstrued perceptions that people have. Once those go, the label is just another empty word, devoid of any value other than the syllables it is composed of.

It does get you thinking, however. What about all the women who couldn’t shake off the label as just another word? The women who had to give up their own autonomy to pander to these societal beliefs and expectations. Like it was mentioned earlier, Khanna’s ‘Besharam Ladki’ isn’t just another spoken word performance. It makes you sit and think about what projecting your own expectations on another can lead to, the manner in which it can make them deviate their lives. And, for a country such as ours, that’s an incredibly important thought to be pondering over.

Credit: YouTube (Tape A Tale)
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Telling a Tale: Stories of Unrequited Love

We bring to you some Hindi story-telling performances of the softest kind, narrating the unrequited side of love.

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Storytelling

When you find and lose love, it is a struggle to remain rational as you drown in the complexities of emotions. The only way forward then is found in acceptance of reality as it is. We bring to you performances that are an embodiment of that. These stories of heartbreaks narrate their experience of embracing things as they are, and making the right decisions. 

In a language that is simple and easy, we have two different voices of storytelling that capture the many natures of love and the reconciliation with its loss. 

Aaj Agar Tum Saath Hote – Surbhi Pratap

As universal is the feeling of love, so is the hope and dreams that the feeling comes with. Surbhi Pratap’s story revolves around those dreams that are built with the knowledge that they will not come true. Her story, of love left incomplete, is a reconciliation with reality. That of accepting it as it has to be and moving on. The sombre feeling that it generates might resonate with many and is what Pratap’s story of unrequited love is all about.  

Credit: YouTube (Tape A Tale)

Saalo Baad Uski Call Aayi – Anubhav Agrawal

Love and life come with complexities, the kind that are hard to grasp let alone dealt with. Agrawal narrates a story of a phone call from a long-lost love. This story follows the steps of nostalgia mixed with sensibilities that help him make the right decisions. That of letting go and forgiving, but not welcoming back emotions that would later turn into regrets. Narrated in a language that is simple and relatable to common folks, his tale is that of the struggle that love and relationships come with. 

Credit: YouTube (Anubhav Agrawal)
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A Few Hushed Tales From Yesterday: Vanika Sangtani

An incredible storyteller and the founder of ‘Denied’, Vanika Sangtani opens up about her journey and the importance of the human experience.

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Vanika Sangtani

She answers each question with the utmost precision despite not having slept for the last forty eight hours. I see, as the conversation goes on, an individual with nerves of utter steel. She is brave, without a doubt, but she is also deeply passionate about the things she does. Vanika Sangtani might just be someone who has managed to mould her passion for the craft of storytelling and performing into a channel for helping those who need it. It is only right, then, that you take the time to listen.

Ever since she was a child, Sangtani had always yearned to perform on stage. For her, there was a certain allure to the idea of shining spectacularly, even if it was for a few moments. That came to being in first grade, when she was asked to sing on stage. Ending her performance with a beautiful flourish, Sangtani couldn’t help but fall in love with singing then. Resolving, at that delicate age, to improve even further, she began formally training her voice, enrolling in classes and coaching sessions. She even went on to get a chance to audition for Indian Idol Junior when she was in third grade. That, however, didn’t work out the way she wanted it to. The idea of a child, at that age, being a part of a reality show was something that her parents were not completely comfortable with.

Credit: YouTube (Tape A Tale)

That whole experience was somewhat disheartening for Sangtani and understandably so. She put a pause to her engagement in co-curricular activities, perhaps, a little dejected over the prospects of not being able to truly pursue something. It was only in eight grade when she decided to dive back into what made her truly happy: performing on stage. This time, it was theatre. And, she pursued that without a single shred of hesitancy or doubt. It was around this time that she began to feel drawn towards writing as well.

Initially, however, Sangtani never thought much about writing. In a sense, she never really saw storytelling and writing as a craft unto itself. For her, storytelling was not a defined art just yet. More so, when she began engaging with art of storytelling and writing, it was purely through a lens of organic progression. When she moved to Mumbai, pursuing a degree in Mass Media, she found herself a little lost. You see, the original plan was never to pursue Mass Media. 

Credit: YouTube (Tape A Tale)

One day, while scrolling through YouTube, she came across a performance by Kopal Khanna, the founder of ‘Tape A Tale’. The performance, or rather, the story, emboldened her to pursue her love for storytelling and writing. A month later, Sangtani saw that Tape A Tale was, indeed, looking for storytellers to perform at a particular event, the theme of which being a dedication to one’s grandparents. Even though she sent in a story dedicated to her grandfather, her piece didn’t make the cut. Sangtani, however, was not deterred. She did a little bit of research on the craft of storytelling and the manner in which other people go about it before sending in another story. This time, she made it in. She performed, for the first time, on 9th September, 2018.

When asked about her approach to creating a story and polishing that into a performance, Sangtani, unreservedly, says she doesn’t really have one. Even if she was pressed into having one, she states it would be very messy, indeed. In conceptualizing a story, she draws on her personal experiences, searching, perhaps, for a deeper meaning behind some of the incidents we take for granted. Like she says, a personal experience doesn’t really have to have an instantaneous effect on you. You could, for all intents and purposes, come to realise the weight and value of something much later on. In fact, her story ‘A Sanskari Girl’ followed a similar trajectory. More than anything else, Sangtani sees stories as a means to touch on the human experience.

Credit: YouTube (Tape A Tale)

Exploring that a little deeper, there is so much more that is, now, associated with the art of creative expression. Take, for example, the concept of social media and the internet having an effect on how creativity is viewed. Sangtani believes that, now, due to the nature of how the online world works, there is so much more pressure on artists. With every creative piece, whether it’s a story or an illustration, there is a certain need, on the part of the creator, for their work to be seen and heard. When that doesn’t happen, it can, sometimes, lead to a lot of self-doubt and hesitation, thereby, affecting the process of creation in itself.

And, while storytelling is a major aspect of her life, there is another part of her that must be acknowledged. When Sangtani was just 16, she went on to start ‘Denied’, a platform that initially began as a space for people to showcase their artistic talents. ‘Denied’ came about from Sangtani’s own personal need to have a space for people who never got the opportunity to reach out to an audience. As she explains, the reason behind naming the initiative in that manner was solely to reclaim the word. There was, ironic as it may sound, an idea of never having to be denied within the organization of ‘Denied’. 

“I never thought that I got the right platform for my art and that is why I wanted to start ‘Denied’.”

Vanika Sangtani

‘Denied’, gradually, went on to become more than it was originally envisioned as, branching out to initiatives that sought to educate children, from underprivileged backgrounds, in art, music, painting and basic primary school curriculum. As the founder of ‘Denied’, Sangtani has worked with thousands of children, numerous NGOs and social organizations, making a difference wherever she can. In spite of the countless challenges and constant hurdles, the mark she has left, in being able to bring about some semblance of positivity, in the lives of others is not only impressive but also deeply motivating. Just recently, she was named amongst the 19 ‘Young Changemakers’ by Ashoka for her outstanding work in bringing about a positive social change in the global community she is a part of.

Now, as she looks forward, Sangtani wants to pause for a bit. Her work with Denied has been of tremendous value, of course, however, now, she seeks to take a break and focus on herself for a little while. That is not selfish, however, it is only, and unreservedly so, human and natural. For an individual, young as she is, it is no small feat what she has managed to accomplish, both on a personal front and at the helm of an organization looking to help the underprivileged. It is time, and deservedly so, for her to rest, even if it is for a moment. She doesn’t want to stop completely, however. That is just not in her nature. In point of fact, Sangtani remains open to resuming the operations of ‘Denied’ some time in the future. As for storytelling, that will always remain an ongoing journey.

Credit: YouTube (Tape A Tale)

It is this idea that Sangtani wants to convey to others. As she explains, the world is too large, too heavy to be affected by one person alone. The only way to go about making a difference is by allowing for yourself to be better, even if it is through the little things that you do. The tiniest of gestures and actions can collectively go on to bringing about a change. Moreover, the idea of always having an end goal is sometimes, according to Sangtani, flawed. More often than not, in pursuing a goal with a single minded passion, we, at times, forget to appreciate the process of it. 

However, unlike those who forget what the journey can actually give them, Vanika Sangtani, with everything that she has come to do, cannot help but smile at the joy of it all.

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