On July 5th, a joint performance of ‘The Heartstone Odyssey’ took place at St James’s Church Piccadilly with readings from the book by Sir Derek Jacobi whilst Sitakumari added her own brand of storytelling and dance alongside. In the beautiful setting of one of London’s finest churches designed by Christopher Wren and dating back to 1664, Sailvoyage’s story and how the adventure began was brought to life in the heart of London, a location which he could even have visited when he set foot in the city in 1796.
The section of the story presented covered the period from the accidental breaking of the Heartstone in India in the late 18th Century by British soldiers stationed in a garrison in the south to the journey across the ocean by Sailvoyage Stonekeeper carrying a single piece with the purpose of finding a ‘special place’ to put the fragment and thus help heal the hurt and pain which had been caused. Eventually, the location found would be a stained glass window in the cathedral of Wellminster, a city in the book in the west of England and the home of a prophecy that 200 years from that time, an adventure would begin to return to India and continue the quest for reconciliation. Telling the story of Chandra, the heroine of the fantasy story living in 1980’s London, her struggle against racism, intolerance and indifference, and the mice who will become her friends in the setting of St James’s with its origins stretching back to Sailvoyage’s time added an even greater sense of connection with history as well as relevance to the events of today.
A member of the audience said:
‘Sitakumari the storyteller and Sir Derek Jacobi the teller of stories gave us a fantastic presentation of the early years of the Heartstone. They told of the 18th century beginnings of a timeless story that needs to be told. It’s relevance grows with every passing decade and it is a superb vehicle for changing all our perspectives and teaching us how to live well together, with a single ideology, as one race of humankind…..’
The event however was a ‘first’ in two other directions. Through the assistance of Heartstone core team member, Khadija Abdelhamid, a team of young volunteers came together to support and host the event under the new title ‘HUFD’ – Hope Unites, Fear Divides, a title created just a few months before but with a new significance in London after the terrorist incidents in London and Manchester. The presence of these young people, including Mariam Aiteouakrim, who used her photographic skills to cover the event, and Alex Emberson giving technical support, all representing a range of professional backgrounds, to help host and document the event made a powerful statement, giving life to the central theme in The Heartstone Odyssey of a common humanity, the need to set aside differences and work together to overcome obstacles whilst also achieving individual ambitions. Mariam’s photographs have been used in this report.
What made this event even more special was the installation featuring the Heartstone photodocumentary of girls going to or back to school for the first time in Kabul, Afghanistan. This was a story gathered in 2002, a retrospective but still with relevance for today. Presented alongside the fictional story as told in ‘The Heartstone Odyssey’, this documentary was a real-life complement. Just as Chandra, the heroine, is a strong, independent young woman who will rise above being a victim of the situation she finds herself in, this story was also about a magical journey with a purpose, a voyage of discovery, giving hope that even in some of the most extreme environments and circumstances, however far-fetched it may seem, the world can change and what may feel like impossible dreams and unachievable goals can be brought to life.
The photostory was produced by Heartstone’s photographer and writer, Nick Sidle, the third main creative input into this event who was visible through his work. Nick is the author of ‘The Heartstone Odyssey’ under his pen name Arvan Kumar, given to him by a passenger on a train journey in India and takes his inspiration from the locations and events he finds himself in and the extraordinary people he meets through his work as a photojournalist. This has taken him to every part of the globe, including conflict zones such as the Balkans and Afghanistan. His driving force is to use his creative ability to change perceptions and help people see what they feel is a familiar world with new eyes and to take people into new environments they have not experienced before. Nick has won an international reputation for his photography with exhibitions in some of the most prestigious venues – his images are not staged or posed but aim to capture a true ‘moment in time’.
Alongside the HUFD volunteers, St James’s had recruited a similar group of volunteers from amongst their own congregation to help support the event. For some of the HUFD team, this was the first time they had set foot in a church, making this event a new way to bring people together who would otherwise not meet, breaking isolation, building contact and communication from which comes understanding and empathy. This concept has become the inspiration and model for new Heartstone events which are taking shape around the UK in which the aim is again to bring different worlds together and discover there is much more in common than you would think.
In this setting, to have the presence and involvement of Lt Col Helen Wildman, the most senior British Army female officer stationed in Afghanistan at the time who had organised the access for the story as told through the installation, was an unexpected and very special inclusion. Travelling from the west of England that afternoon to be at St James’s, she brought the real life experience of actually seeing this change happen, a historical moment in time, and what it felt like to be there. Her interest and what became her passion was the story of women in Afghanistan, an experience which has influenced her life ever since. Some of the incidents she presented covering the lives of the women she met were harrowing, the story of women who had been raped and then imprisoned for it being just one example, but her presentation closed with the hope that was clearly visible in the photostory. Girls going to school for the first time in their lives, an everyday occurrence we take for granted but in this case, a life-changing moment as captured in the faces of those featured in the story. Helen described the excitement she saw in these girls simply getting their pencils and bags to take to school in anticipation of what was to follow. As Helen said in her closing statement: ‘…it felt like someone had changed the setting from black and white to colour’.
In 2002, the photostory achieved worldwide coverage and was presented in London at the British Library, the House of Commons, the European Parliament and numerous other prestigious venues. From its first telling 15 years ago, the issues raised remain as relevant today. Helen came back to her life in the UK and moved on from the military, but her experiences shaped what she has done since then. Central to her work today is the recognition of the need for education, opening new doors and opportunities and ending of isolation as a prerequisite to challenging prejudice and intolerance. This was the story of Chandra, from The Heartstone Odyssey, in real life.
The final and third story presented at this event was that told through the images from ‘Chandra’s London’ – from the fictional story of Sailvoyage leaving India in 1796, to the distant but real world of Afghanistan in 2002 and back to London in our time today, the message was the same – people are not that different wherever they may be or even across time and being able to see the world from different perspectives. As a member of the audience said: ‘All humanity is here….’
‘Chandra’s London’ comprises both street photography in London and stories gathered with special ‘behind the scenes’ access. It began in the 1980’s and continues to grow as new invitations are extended to Heartstone from a wide range of people, institutions and organisations who feel they too have a story which can be added to this exhibition.
And so, the magic of the story of Chandra and the mice of the Heartstone Odyssey had taken shape here in the heart of London, blending fantasy and reality, bringing together different worlds, the past and present and a hope for the future.
The Heartstone journey continues……