By Punya Srivatsava
Storytelling has always been one of the most powerful and delectable ways to convey the truths of life. Though modern times reduced its popularity, it is making a roaring comeback, says Punya Srivastava
Once upon a time…” Can one ever tire of hearing that phrase, resonant with the promise of immersion in some magical and endlessly fascinating world? We love stories. We all do. We have grown up listening to stories – by our dadis, nanis and mothers, with an occasional contribution from our fathers. Stories are all around us; stories make our world; stories guide our lives; stories form our fundamental core. We all are walking-talking stories and when we meet new people, they become part of our story. In short, stories help us understand ourselves, the other, and life itself.
My grandmother was my first story-teller. My two siblings and I slept with her at night, while she regaled us with folk tales, tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and some which were passed down from her mother or probably her grandmother to her. My mother was much more enterprising. She would make up stories on demand, mostly animal stories, weaving narrative on the go. I have memories of lying beside my mausi, my mother’s sister, during our annual summer vacation to Allahabad, and listening to one particular story year after year without ever getting bored. She was an amusing storyteller, modulating her voice to suit different characters, and my favourite.
What can match the charm of listening to a brilliantly told story furnished with sound effects and timely pauses? Recall those evenings of power cuts when the family would gather around a lone burning candle or lamp, and the elders would regale us with their favourite stories of kings and queens, bandits and dacoits, local heroes and celebrated knights, and ghosts and spirits? Weren’t these moments of deep bonding within the family?
With its ancient tradition of oral narration, the art of storytelling or kathavaachan has held pride of place in our country. We are the land of Ramayana and Mahabharata, Panchatantra and Jataka, and a multitude of regional folklore. Our pravachans or discourses usually illustrate their points with tales from the puranas. We also had kathavaachaks or professional story-tellers travelling from village to village with their troupes, holding storytelling sessions interspersed with singing and dancing before a rapt audience.
Every region had its own preferred form ranging from the yakshagaana in Karnataka, Pandavani in Chhattisgarh, baul and jatra in Bengal, nangiarkoothu in Kerala, to kavad in Rajasthan. The ubiquitous ramleelas, come Dassehra, are still a part of rural and urban India. These oral traditions of storytelling would offer the villagers gathered around chaupals, a wholesome package of art, culture, religion, mythology, entertainment and shared bonhomie. In so many ways, storytelling kept us together, reminding us of who we were, what our values are, and what we have in common.
Then and now
When I look back on those innocent days of listening to my mother and grandmother, I find that they made me question norms; they made my ask ‘why?’ Also, I can confidently attribute my patient listening skills to years of hanging attentively to every word issuing from the story-teller’s mouth. And the stories unfolded my own creativity. When just 10 or 11, I would gather my siblings and cousins to stage a small skit, radio show or self-written play during the vacations.
However, with the advent of visual media like cinema and television, the nuclear dual income family, storytelling was no longer an indispensable part of childhood or adulthood. Kids took to watching cartoons before turning in for the night. The ramleelas no longer exerted the compelling allure they once had. Communal film viewing through movies-on-wheels, became the preferred entertainment around village chaupals.
Adds Geeta Ramanujam, Indian Coordinator for the International Storytelling Network, apart from being a renowned storyteller and academician since the last 37 years, “We lost touch with our traditional oral story sessions because we are not good at documenting. Most of the orally told tales meandered, got lost and vanished with time,” she explains.
|Vikram Sridhar at a session with the Gond tribal children at the Pench National Park, MP. Photo Credit Pooja Choksi+|
While story-telling is primarily aimed at children, with consistent efforts and awareness, the audience demographics are slowly changing. For example, Bangalore, which has emerged as the hub of modern-day story-tellers, offers separate storytelling forums just for adults. Moreover, folktales and mythology were never written only for children; their appeal was universal. “Storytelling is the oldest and most sustained form of human interaction which has evolved into various forms of visual and oral arts. Today, digital technology is the latest medium through which our folklore and mythology are presenting themselves,” says Bangalore-based Vikram Sridhar, a regular corporate professional who is a storyteller by the weekend. Indeed, by adroitly changing form with time, our oral tradition of story rendition has somehow managed to survive the onslaught of modern visual media.
Significance of oral stories
“We have found that stories are a good way for families to bond. They also increase the attention spans of children and make them more patient and reflective. It improves their social and language skills and has an overall harmonious impact on children,” shares Ameen Haque, founder of the Storywallahs, an organisation offering story sessions to kids, adults and corporates alike.
There is, today, a surge of modern-day storytellers like the Storywallahs, dressed in everyday clothes, going about their regular jobs, but transforming into captivating tale-tellers on weekends. Vikram Sridhar, founder of Around the Story Tree, is one such. Sensitised towards nature and animals ever since childhood, Sridhar started off as a volunteer for various social service causes which ultimately led him to a story session for primary school children. “At the end of the session, a storyteller was born to take forward the topic of conservation to children and adults. I found storytelling, with some help from theatre, to be a wonderful tool to break stereotypes. It also helps you to spread awareness of the importance of conserving nature, food, textile to various sections of society, without the use of technology,” he says.
“Depending on the message that you want to communicate, the story also involves the listeners’ and the tellers’ left and right brain making learning more complete and comprehensive,” says Sudipta Dhruva, a Mumbai-based professional storyteller since the last 20 years, currently working with The Ideas Box, a part of the Amar Chitra Katha Group, as Chief Creative Officer.
Story-telling can also enhance self-image. Says Dr Coomi Vevaina, academician, angel healer and story-teller based in Mumbai, “I always bring innovative twists to traditional stories in my sessions. Once, I was telling the story of Snow White to a bunch of young kids while bestowing the princess with a lovely chocolate brown skin colour. A little girl asked me if it was possible for the princess to find a prince for herself with her brown skin.” Dr Vevaina assured her that the princess would indeed find a loving partner who would adore her beautiful skin colour. This made the little girl beam with happiness. As soon as the session ended and her mother came, she ran to her glowing with confidence, saying, “Mama, I am beautiful too!” Dr Vevaina formed a group of her university students from the department of English in 2010 who call themselves Wordfully Yours. This group reaches children and adults alike, across class barriers, holding theme-based sessions all over Mumbai.
Storytelling is currently experiencing a considerable revival of interest. This has led many educators to think about ways in which storytelling can be used to impart education. Asks Haque, “Can you tell me what the Archimedes Principal or the Pythagoras theorem is? Most probably not. But can you tell me the story of the thirsty crow? Of course you can. There lies the significance of oral storytelling in education.” According to him, stories have power that, unfortunately, we do not leverage. “This is a huge disservice,” he says, adding that his organisation is training teachers to become good storytellers. “Story sessions help children tremendously in their language development, socio-emotional development and cognitive development,” wrote the Principal, Centre for Special Education, Spastics Society of Karnataka while commending the initiatives of the Storywallahs.
Hearteningly, Ms Ramanujam has succeeded in getting storytelling included in the CBSE curriculum for all classes. Furthermore, in a first, the Karnataka government has included storytelling for language development in the state board schools. What is more, storytelling is now a permanent part of the Open course at the Azim Premji University fuelled by student demand. It is the only course that enables MA students to take up storytelling as a career now. “Our diploma courses affiliated to Edinburgh and Sweden have been taken up seriously by many people in the last six years or so,” she says of her institute, Academy of Storytelling, established in 2006.
She adds, “Today storytelling is a buzzword, an emerging trend. This is because, at the end of the day, after all the evaluations, storytelling is therapeutic. It is a meditative therapy, but one should not take it as a meditative therapy for story-telling alone does not transform. Transformations need sustained efforts,” says she.
Parables of wisdom
The story-teller too, benefits therapeutically from the experience. Cherry Thong, a lawyer from Bhutan who attended Bangalore-based Kathalaya’s workshop for budding story-tellers, says, “Because stories have no rules or regulations, I felt free in spirit which makes storytelling a liberating experience. It’s an opportunity to explore one’s inner world, and serve all at the same time. It helped me empty and cleanse myself.” Kathalaya was started by Geeta Ramanujam in 1998 in order to reach out to children with special needs, to rural schools and NGOs working in the related sector, as well as to the corporate sector.
Sudipta too confesses that storytelling has changed her. “It has made me more honest in my communication and helped me become better at organising my thoughts. Besides, it built my empathy. Moreover, oral story sessions are quite therapeutic as they allow listeners and tellers to look at different situations objectively, and hence learn from them directly,” says she.
“I saw a poignant shift within on realizing that this is a form of performing arts that is natural for me and I would want to pursue this over a period time. The realization is happening with every session, interaction and feedback that I receive,” shares Sridhar.
The current concern with environmental issues is connected with this revival, since folktales about the relationship between the Earth and its human inhabitants have always been at the heart of storytelling.
Today, storytelling is also seen as the key to succeeding in business, strengthening organisational culture, and summoning up support for advocacy and campaigns. Stories engage people at every level, teach values and stimulate the imaginations, drivers of real change.
So if we want to transform society, we must learn to tell – and listen to – a new set of stories about the world we want to create.
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