Grimm’s Sheesha


Last night, storyteller Peter Chand performed his show Grimm’s Sheesha at Dreamfired in Cumbria, and it was bloody brilliant.

A sheesha is a mirror, and you probably all know about the Brothers Grimm; throughout the 19th Century, brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm collected and published folk stories from across Germany and beyond. Their books preserved many – if not most – of our classic fairytales. When they feel so intrinsically European, hard-wired into grey stone and rain and winter, it’s crazy to discover that threads of those same tales have existed in India for centuries. In retrieving and retelling the original stories, Peter’s show gives the Grimms an Indian incarnation – or, more accurately, reflection – and hence the titular sheesha.

Just like people, stories evolve as they travel, building on a core, becoming something new, fitting themselves around each new place. The same elements are plain to see in the fairytales of both cultures – family discord, revenge, blood, luck, magic – but Peter’s stories explode with language and laughter. His characters flit between between Punjabi and English – sometimes with translations, sometimes without – and the seamless interplay of both languages is dizzying, dazzling, mesmerising. The stories balance violence with humour, using voice and movement and body language and expression to conjure holy men and jealous sisters, gods and donkeys, poison and pakora, loom shuttles, bloody shawls and magic mango stones.

It was an electrifying show and an inspiring night. By the end of the performance, my face ached with so much smiling and laughing. I can’t do it justice; hunt down Peter Chand and hurl yourself headfirst into his stories.

I’m fascinated by the evolution of stories, and it was a delight to chat to Peter after the show and hear more about how he’d found and developed the show – and how the show had then evolved again, changing around him with each new performance. His medium is more dynamic than mine, but that idea of evolution is something I can understand; it’s there in my inability to let go of written work, returning to it time and time again, even years after publication, tweaking and cutting and expanding, improving, building towards something ever new. We also spoke about his performance style, which is both relaxed and spontaneous – at one point he said “Bless you” to an audience sneeze without breaking the suspense – and he was kind enough to give me some advice on how to improve. I’ll never be a storyteller of his calibre, and that’s not really where I want to take my work – but I absolutely strive to read and perform my stories with greater confidence, and it was useful to talk to a master! Peter also put me onto Festival At The Edge – the country’s oldest storytelling festival – which I think we’ll try and attend next year.

As a tangent to all this, my friend (and real-life Lovejoy) Ben Piggott claims there are actually only two stories: 

  1. Boy/girl leaves to find fortune
  2. Trouble comes to town

I’ve tried, but I can’t think of a story worth its salt where one or both of these sound hollow. And yes, they’re vast catch-alls, but that’s okay, because they’re also entirely true.

For a number of reasons, I’ve stalled on the novel redraft since discussing Freedom. As of today, I think I’ve found a way back into the light – but I need to brew on it for a couple of days, so that’s for another post. For now, here’s an illustration from The Old Woman In The Wood.


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