The Petal Garden of King Shubash

Davide Panzeri interviews Peter Chand and Shonaleigh
Last March the Scottish
Storytelling Centre had the
privilege of hosting The Petal
Garden of King Shubash by Peter
Chand and Shonaleigh, a show
combining Indian and Jewish
tales and cultures.
You’d be surprised to discover
how much the two traditions have
in common. There is a huge
Jewish population in Mumbai, and
a great wealth of Indo-Judaic tales.
“There is that tale of a Jewish
Princess who marries an Indian
king after being his concubine…”
Peter begins.
In both traditions storytelling is
much more community-based than
performance-based. “If someone
from the audience doesn’t
understand a point, they would
stand up and ask about it. And if
you are sharing the floor with
another teller, they might interrupt
you to say ‘that story reminds me
of…’ and they would go with their
story, so the show becomes a sort
of organic scene”.
This is what Peter and Shonaleigh
have tried to recreate on stage.
At the Storytelling Centre, it took
the audience about 10-15 minutes
to work it out, to realise that it was
alright to react and interact. But
once they got into it, it was great.
Shonaleigh laughs. “At one point
we threw it out to the audience,
which is a very Indian and Jewish
thing to do, and this woman said ‘I
would have done it this way’ and
we both said ‘that’s a very good
In the Petal Garden of King
Shubash the link between stories
and society is unbroken. It isn’t an
anthropological exercise or a
bleached ‘stage’ version of their
More than anything else, Peter and
Shonaleigh have fun telling the
stories. They have a framework to
work with in their show, but within
that framework there is flexibility.
“You also need to have trust in
each other” says Peter. “There is a
part in the show when Shonaleigh
doesn’t know what story I’m going
to tell. She has to react to the
theme in that story, and sometimes
it is a story that she has never even
Peter and Shonaleigh’s partnership
started four years ago almost by
accident. They were both working
on a project in Yorkshire. Peter had
been going to the Punjab for the
previous two years recording
stories and then translating them
and Shonaleigh was doing exactly
the same thing, translating her
Nana’s diaries from Yiddish. So
they decided to do a show
together with these stories which
had never been told in Britain or in
the Western world, and called it
Lost in Translation.
Shonaleigh is a Dry’syla (Yiddish
oral storyteller), a tradition passed
down from mother to daughter,
that in her family has lasted for 300
years. Dry’sylas don’t exist
anymore, there are only 3 left in the
whole of Europe. The role of a
Dry’syla is to tell folk tales but also
to ‘record and remember’.
Peter, among other things, works
with asylum seekers and refugee
groups. Storytelling helps them to
integrate and to learn the language.
The combined use of English and
Punjabi words lets them know that
it is okay to retain their language,
that they don’t have to discard their
own culture in order to live in Britain
“The real work is on the ground
floor, in the community” he says. “I
love being on a stage, who
doesn’t? But real storytelling is day
in and day out, when there is a
child who has never had stories
told to them, and they might be 6-
7 years old. And that’s the real
work, and it’s great when you tell a
story and you see the light coming
on in their eyes”.

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