Published: 06th December 2020
Inside India's storytelling boom: The art of telling a great story to kids in the OTT generation
Storytellers across India share their interesting journey of telling stories and inflencing people both in their thoughts and behaviours at such a young age
Every time we heard our mothers or grandmothers telling stories, it took us to a different world. While we visualised the characters and incidents in the story, they always punctuated it with that 'moral' at the end. For instance, the quality of being honest was learnt from the real-life stories of Mahatma Gandhi. The stories of queens (and kings) who fought wars in ancient India were told to instill in us the qualities of valour and bravery.
While the list of these great stories goes on and on, the style of storytelling has changed in terms of genre and characters have changed to suit the times we live in. The fact that the art of storytelling has lived on should be credited to those who do this full-time — and today, a lot of people from different walks of life are exploring it to teach lessons at school, to improve mental cognition, to preserve culture, nature and so on. We speak to some of these storytellers who have quit mainstream careers to understand their journey and what it takes to be a great storyteller in this day and age.
Anu's soulful stories of nature
Coming from a software background, Anukeerthana did not know much about storytelling. Like most techies, during the weekend, she would learn and explore new skills like photography, trekking, etc. However, none of these hobbies held her interest for a long time. Anu says, "After a period of time, I felt bored doing all these things. And I ended up dropping them. When I was thinking of what else I can learn, I thought of storytelling. Though I was into computers and coding, my way of weaving stories around everyday incidents was something unique. Hence, I decided to take a formal course to learn the nuances of storytelling. And I applied for a Beginners Course in Kathalaya, an organisation based in Bengaluru that trains people in storytelling."
But what happened after she took up this course is an interesting turn of events — and Anu feels that this was a turning point in her life for her to become a professional storyteller. She recalls, "Geeta Ramanujam was my first guru when it comes to storytelling because it was she who encouraged me to write my own stories. After the completion of our course, Geeta asked us to write our own stories and I decided to write a story around the Kurinji flower. People might wonder why write a story around the Kurinji flower when I can write about different things and people around us. I come from a place called Kotagiri near the Nilgiri hills in Tamil Nadu. I spent my childhood amidst forest and mountains. Going to the forest to watch animals and birds and pluck sweet berries to eat, was a part of our everyday routine. This made me fall in love with nature and when I moved to Bengaluru, I missed living in Kotagiri. This was the reason behind my choosing to write a story around the Kurinji flower."
Anu recalls her first day telling a story, when her performance was not that great. And yet, she was happy that she chose to write a new story on her own. Later, she performed the same story around the Kurinji flower at the Bangalore Storytelling Society and a few other places. "There was no looking back for me and I went on start a blog and pursue a Diploma in Storytelling. I even pursued a Shadow Play course by Michael Dacre and Wendy Dacre of Ravenales in the United Kingdom. In the last three years, I have written stories surrounding animals, birds and conservation of nature," she adds.
To end gender discrimination
After working for eight long years as a chartered accountant in the financial and legal sector, Sangeeta Goel took a shot in the dark — she moved towards storytelling and made it her profession. When asked the reason behind such a big change, Sangeetha has an interesting story to tell us, "When I chose to be a storyteller, it was mostly known as a hobby and not as a profession. Though I was a chartered accountant, I always wanted to work in the social and development sector. Hence, I volunteered with several organisations. One of my gigs as a volunteer that helped me grow was as a storyteller with the Jagriti Theatre in Bengaluru. There was a particular storytelling event that happened for kids and I was in charge of coordinating with a storyteller who came from Mumbai. When I shared my interest for storytelling with that person, he invited me to the Spastic Society to attend one of the storytelling sessions. Thus, my interest in telling stories for specially-abled children increased, paving my entry to the world of storytellers."
In this process of storytelling, Sangeeta joined Storywallahs, an organisation in Bengaluru that helps people leverage storytelling for businesses. "I worked there for more than two years and the experience that I gained here was unique. It changed the way I wrote or put up the stories on social media. I also got to be part of the teacher training programme and educated myself as a sexuality educator for children. Hence, most of the stories that I tell children revolved around gender and sensitising them about the issues there. After I quit Storywallahs in 2018, I chose to work as an independent storyteller," he added.
Apart from sexuality or educating children about the LGBTQIA community, her stories focus on folk tales, European tales, family and modern stories. "I use personal narratives when I tell stories so that I bring a difference in the community that I work with. At the same time, I am working towards bringing gender equality and educating adolescents on sexuality," she says.
Let's listen to the Kabuliwala
When it comes to renowned storytellers, Kamal Pruthi's name is the first one to be on people's list. Popularly known as the Kabuliwala, Kamal has many credits to his name in the world of storytelling. He says, "Unlike others, storytelling is not a hobby for me, it is a profession that I blend into. When I perform stories, I just don't talk or tell them about some characters and finish it with a moral. I sing, dance and tell poems that carry a beautiful message. I blend music in my stories, and hence, several other musicians perform along with me."
Kamal, who is originally a native of Delhi, started his journey in 1999 and got trained in acting and physical theatre in Berlin and the National School of Drama's TIE company. Hence, his form of storytelling includes a lot of acting traits in it, making it interesting for people to watch and listen. He explains, "Among many other projects, Kabuliwala is one that is close to me. The name Kabuliwala itself suggests that the man has come from Kabul with a bag full of interesting stories and goodies for children. I also dress up accordingly, wearing traditional jackets and a turban. The jackets, jhuta (shoe) and pagadi (turban) that I wear are all handmade by artisans and they are imported from different states."
Kamal, who is a recipient of international fellowships, writes his own stories and sometimes translates the best literary works from different languages to Hindi. You will be surprised to know that I perform in nine different languages other than Hindi. German is one such language that I love to perform. "My performances and I are warmly received by people in Germany. I perform in nine different languages including Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Bangla, English, Gibberish, Kannada and German. Hence, I have been invited to perform at more than 200 shows across different states and countries," adds Kamal.
Where does the passage lead?
Meet Geetanjali Shetty Kaul, a master storyteller, Founder of Secret Passages, story coach and voice coach. Born and brought up in Mumbai, Geetanjali grew up hearing stories from her father and grandmother. She recalls, "My father would tell stories using a host of actions and produce different voices. My siblings and I grew up hearing all mythological stories. I was motivated by my father's way of modulating sounds while telling stories. Soon after completing my Bachelors in English from Mumbai University, I pursued a course in Early Childhood Education. I joined a kindergarten school and the first class that I held was a storytelling session. It went well and the very next day, kids wanted to hear me tell them stories. It became one of the best times of the day to tell them stories. Then, with time, I started a library in Pune. Here, I conducted story hours for children and got an overwhelming response."
In the meantime, Geetanjali pursued an NLP trainer course in Waldorf and Integral Education where every activity for children happens through storytelling. This led her to design a course called Heart and Craft of Storytelling and offer it to people through her organisation called Secret Passages, an organisation and space for storytellers that offers workshops and storytelling sessions. So what exactly is Heart and Craft of Storytelling? Geetanjali says, "I believe that storytelling is not just for kids, it is for people across all age groups. Therefore, through this course, I heal people's minds. I use various tools like the power of visualisation, rhythm and movement and voice projection. While many people come to seek relief from their mental health issues, others also pursue this certificate course."
Aside from using storytelling, Geetanjali is a voice coach and a parent coach. She says, "Being a voice coach doesn't mean helping people modulate their voices. It means motivating them to raise their voice for the right thig and stand for themselves. And being a parent coach, I counsel parents and help them deal with the kids and their current day issues."