x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Indian storytellers speak to the child within us all

Charukesi Ramadurai talks with Indian storytellers who are keeping both legends and values alive.

Jeeva Raghunath enthralls children at a school in Scotland. Courtesy Jeeva Raghunath
Jeeva Raghunath enthralls children at a school in Scotland. Courtesy Jeeva Raghunath

To watch Jeeva Raghunath tell a story is a bit like being transported back to one's childhood; those days of innocence when you were ready to believe in a world of magic where gods lived, birds spoke and the good always won in the end.

Raghunath waves her hand, stamps her foot, rolls her eyes, raises her voice, all just so. And her audience is enthralled: as she flaps her hands and crows "Caw, caw", the little ones faithfully repeat "Caw, caw" after her.

India's tradition of storytelling, or katha, is an old one, found across the ages and across regions. Imagine this scene: Ganesha, the elephant god, one of India's favourite deities, writing down one of India's favourite ancient epics, the Mahabharata, as recited by the sage Ved Vyasa. Before that, it was Vyasa who narrated it, and only to his son and disciples.

As stories themselves go, the Mahabharataremains popular in India because of its relevance to contemporary life and the way we are able to draw upon its characters in our everyday conversations. It is also loved for the fact (though few would admit it openly) that it acknowledges the flaws of all its characters: in the Mahabharata, everyone is human and, therefore, fallible. It holds us in thrall today with its clever story-within-a-story structure - "a story that will grow like a lotus vine, that will twist in on itself and expand ceaselessly, till all of you are a part of it", as described in Vikram Chandra's award-winning book Red Earth and Pouring Rain.

Over time, stories from these epics found many expressions in India through theatre, dance and puppetry. Through these forms, tales of gods, goddesses, demons and even ordinary folk came to be passed down the generations.

This is perhaps what Bill Mooney and David Holt write about in The Storyteller's Guide when they note: "Stories are how we learn. The progenitors of the world's religions understood this, handing down our great myths and legends from generation to generation." And though such performing storytelling forms seem to be losing their relevance, there are a few people fighting to keep them alive.

What is more interesting is how a whole crop of new storytellers has emerged in India, young men and women who are reviving the art of the simple narrative. These Scheherazades of modern India either create new stories or make existing ones more contemporary and fun for the young.

Raghunath, from Chennai, is one of them. She grew up listening to stories and now narrates them to others. Raghunath, who has travelled to 14 countries as a storyteller (when I first contacted her, she was at a literary festival in Sri Lanka), helped set up the World Storytelling Institute in Chennai along with Eric Miller. Miller is a New Yorker who has made Chennai home for the past 10 years, although his first visit to the city was in 1988.

With his soft voice and slightly hesitant speech, Miller hardly fits one's idea of an Indian storyteller, yet his research and work are all to do with Indian stories. The mission of the World Storytelling Institute is simple: storytelling helps people relate to each other, to the past and to the environment and, therefore, needs to be encouraged and cultivated. According to Miller, storytelling also helps develop skills such as listening, articulation and logical sequencing of events.

In Mumbai lives Mayur Puri, who has been telling stories in some form for years now - he writes songs, screenplays and dialogues for Hindi films, his most successful film being the 2007 blockbuster Om Shanti Om.With his wife, Puri also runs Story Circus, a small room in a crowded suburb of Mumbai that comes alive during weekends with his stories and children who hang on to his every word.

Talking about his decision to create a space just for stories in ultra-crowded Mumbai, Puri says: "There was nowhere in the city I could take my young son to. That is when I got the idea of a place where kids can go every week, where the place remains the same but the experience is different each time."

Mumbai is also home to perhaps India's most famous storyteller, Devdutt Pattanaik. A doctor by training, he has been writing and lecturing on mythology for 15 years and is considered an authority on storytelling.

In October, Mumbai also saw the first international storytelling festival organised by Mumbai University's English Department. Called Magic of the Word, the festival was kicked off by the Hindi film actor Naseeruddin Shah, who narrated from the writer Ismat Chugtai's work. At the festival workshops, children were encouraged to create and narrate stories. As Coomi Vevaina, the festival organiser, says about its success: "Everyone loves a good story."

And when I ask: "Why storytelling?" all of them seem to have a common answer: that narratives are the most natural form of human communication. According to Puri: "Storytelling is employed in everyday life - for example, a deodorant ad sells a story, a promise about your sex appeal. When you tweet, you are writing a story. A need to share our experiences in the form of stories is an intrinsic human quality.

"Take away stories and you take away culture. Stories are also a medium to communicate ideas and to resolve conflicts in society. They tell us how to see the world. If there were no stories we would not have concepts like good/bad, right/wrong, heaven/hell, god/demon. Stories are how we imagine the reality around us."

By speaking to an audience, of either one or more, it is easier to gain their attention as opposed to simply have them read a book themselves; remember being put to bed by your father reading a story? In Vevaina's words: "With stories, it is easy to gain and hold your listeners' attention. It is a fun way of imparting values without sounding preachy."

But Raghunath has a word of caution: "Tell your story and let the listeners take what they want from it. If the story is powerful and told well, then the message will get through. If you force it, then there is resistance."

So, is this what all the newinterest in oral storytelling is about? Perhaps. Pattanaik has an interesting theory about our need to rediscover the old stories, calling it "the outsourcing of the storytelling grandmother".

"People seek storytelling grandmoms who will pass on values," he says. "What they are actually seeking is not 'values' but 'identity'. We fear our children are looking at the world and imagining life very differently. We fear they are drifting into another subjective reality constructed by the media and Facebook and Twitter and Cartoon Network. We feel helpless before such massive forces."

Miller adds to this: "We live in nuclear families and that takes away the chance for children to listen to stories from their elders. The social act of dreaming together is lost."

And thus the growing interest in storytelling and its relevance in a day and age when the written word is so significant. Pattanaik stresses that oral narratives are capable of carrying with them and passing on the character and therefore the values and belief systems of the narrator. As he says: "Every mother will tell the Ramayana differently. She will bring her values into the story and, through it, pass it on to her child. A book is more impersonal that way."

Simi Srivastava, a storyteller from Delhi, has been occupied in research on storytelling as therapy for children between the ages of three and seven. She is engaged in writing stories for children with special needs and working with non-governmental organisations on storytelling as a medium of expression with convicts and people undergoing treatment at trauma centres.

Vevaina works with children in the slum area of Dharavi in Mumbai, combining her stories with art and craft activities to impart basic life lessons to them. Raghunath has worked with children from fishing villages affected by the 2004 tsunami, who were afraid to go back to the sea. She told them simple, non-threatening stories about the sea, slowly dissolving their fears. Puri recalls a fretful child with a low attention span who calmed down and started making friends after just a couple of sessions.

Remarkably, stories are increasingly becoming tools of communication, not only for children but for adults, too. All these storytellers also work with corporations, passing on messages about corporate values through stories, and taking away the burden and boredom of learning. Additionally, says Raghunath, presentation, de-stressing and marketing skills can be taught through stories.

In the case of adults, it may take longer to break through their defences, but stories talk to the child within them, according to Raghunath: 'Several times, I have had adults come to me after a session and say, 'Thanks for taking me back to my childhood'."