U of T students reimagine an ancient Tamil epic in a storytelling fellowship

Jan 27, 2022

The project is supported by a gift from the Sophia Hilton Foundation

A dancer from Shilompoli Shethra Dance Academy, raises her hand in a traditional Tamil dance.
Photo by Joseph Burrell

A group of U of T Scarborough students is reimagining an ancient Tamil epic, bringing it to life in ways that honour its tradition while adapting it for the twenty-first century.

The project is supported by the inaugural U of T Scarborough Library Sophia Hilton Storytelling Fellowship, made possible through a generous donation from the Sophia Hilton Foundation. The gift gives three U of T Scarborough students an eight-month opportunity and $4,000 to explore the art and practice of storytelling.

This year, the fellowship focuses on the Tamil epic The Legend of Ponnivala Nadu. The title is translates as The Land of the Golden River, specifically referencing the Kaveri waterway in India. 

The tale begins with the Goddess Parvathi, who created nine farmers and told them to cultivate an expansive, forested land. It follows these men and their families across three generations — through triumphs, defeat, famines, curses, power struggles and gods trying to be helpful. The story’s several principal Hindu deities face the wider challenge of defending a broad set of morals while maintaining balance, fairness, and well-being in the cosmos at large.

U of T anthropologist Brenda Beck, a specialist in Tamil folklore and the Indian state Tamil Nadu, is mentoring students throughout the fellowship, which runs until March 2022.

Under her guidance, they are learning how to tell dynamic stories and hone their creative skills.

Side-by-side images of Raina Daniel, Christy Lorentz, and Shajaky Parameswaran.
The recipients of the U of T Scarborough Library Sophia Hilton Fellowship (from left to right): Raina Daniel, Christy Lorentz, and Shajaky Parameswaran.

“My passion is to help make this story relevant to Tamil-Canadians today,” she says. “So that many more students whose families have roots in this cultural area can feel proud of their unique, rich, and, to date, largely unknown folk heritage. This story deserves recognition in the same class as any of the other great epics known to the world. Any and all listeners will be enriched by learning more about it.”

The students will develop, test, and execute a variety of storytelling delivery strategies for online and in-person audiences. They’ll also test their storytelling abilities as they explore a wide variety of teaching plans and topics, and develop innovative story-teaching approaches. Fellows have creative freedom to explore mythical and symbolic themes, social justice issues, economic development and its impact on society, immigration, and more. 

The Fellows come from diverse scholarly and arts backgrounds — a testament to the fellowship’s innovative structure that encourages interdisciplinary approaches to storytelling.

Christy Lorentz, a second-year journalism and English major at U of T Scarborough, applied to the fellowship because storytelling always fascinated her. “I felt like this fellowship was calling my name.”

Lorentz most enjoys telling stories through movement using her background in ballet and performance. She hopes to choreograph dances inspired by the themes in The Legend of Ponnivala Nadu.

“There is a universal quality to dance that enables it to transcend linguistic boundaries and make up for where words fall short,” Lorentz says.

She also credits the fellowship’s potential effects on her work as a journalist. 

“This fellowship will allow me to actively refine my storytelling and communication skills so that I can better empathize with people and authentically represent their stories in my journalistic career, building meaningful connections that transcend geographical and cultural boundaries.”

I hope to find connections between the modern day and The Legend of Ponnivala Nadu, and share a story where women of all forms can feel empowered and inspired.

Shajaky Parameswaran, a third-year neuroscience major, will be focusing on the women in the story, along with their actions and relationships. She wants to combine both visual and written elements in her final production of the ancient tale. 

“I hope to find connections between the modern day and The Legend of Ponnivala Nadu, and share a story where women of all forms can feel empowered and inspired,” Parameswaran says.

Coming from a Tamil cultural background herself, she saw the fellowship as a chance to learn more about her heritage. 

“I saw it as an opportunity that would allow me to connect with my language and culture.”

Raina Daniel, a fourth-year philosophy and media studies major, hopes to turn The Legend of Ponnivala Nadu into a live performance series. She credits novelists Gabriel García Márquez and Arundhati Roy as inspirations. 

“As someone who has grown up witnessing the relationships in a close-knit, intergenerational family, different depictions of the dramas, joys, and sorrows within a bloodline are always fascinating,” Daniel says.

A dancer with a love of music, she is excited to experiment with different mediums to explore how The Legend of Ponnivala Nadu translates across various modes of expression.

“The beauty of dance and music is that they are some of the earliest forms of storytelling— ancient legends packaged in a catchy and entertaining way that can be remembered and passed on,” Daniel says. 

“I suppose I just love the idea that these early forms live on today, and we can continue to invent new ways of passing on our favourite tales.”

All three Fellows are also working together to create a series of podcasts about The Legend of Ponnivala Nadu. They hope to create a significant podcast archive that can be widely shared with the world later this year. And they’ll also record the stories created through the fellowship for the U of T Scarborough Library’s Digital Tamil Collections. 

By Rebecca Mangra