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India: Women storytellers make learning fun

Mar 08, 2014

As the story telling session turns comical and entertaining, the children also get sensitised to the world of the visually impaired, writes Elsa Mathews.

New Delhi: It’s a bright sunny afternoon in Delhi and a group of 20 children has gathered around a young woman. She blindfolds each one and asks them to take out an object from a bag and make a guess. One child takes out a book and tries to read. Then, he wonders aloud, “How do the blind read?” “Have you ever seen raised dots on a book that one can touch?” asks the woman, as she goes on, “There was once a man called Louis Braille, who lost his sight but not his determination. He invented a way of writing that the blind can read. It is called Braille.”

This gets the children curious about how life is for a blind person and soon the young storyteller embarks upon the story of the six blind men and the elephant. She acts like a blind man, pretends to fall down. “It’s a snake,” she screams, pretending to touch the elephant’s tail. “It’s a fan,” she chuckles in delight pretending touching the elephant’s ear. As the story telling session turns comical and entertaining, the children also get sensitised to the world of the visually impaired.

The talented woman in action here is Jaishree Sethi of StoryGhar. She is among the handful of innovators in education, who are using the art of storytelling to teach formal lessons and basic life skills. A thoroughbred media professional, Sethi started StoryGhar in 2012 with the objective of imparting education in a fun way, making sure that her sessions are never preachy. “I never use words like ‘must’ and ‘should’ in my stories. And I come to know what the ultimate take away from a session has been during the final discussion with the children. The impact of such storytelling is not immediate but unfolds over a period of time.”

Sethi conducts her storytelling sessions with children from various backgrounds, often tying up with institutions and non-government organisations. She recalls the time she went to Kasturba Niketan, a home run under the aegis of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, to give life skills training to children between 5 and 16 years, “Through stories I spoke to them about respect for others, being truthful, valuing life. Initially, they were rude and wouldn’t listen but at the end of two months they were so attached that they would volunteer to carry my things back to my car.”

While Sethi, who recently got her Masters degree in Education, was inspired by some innovative storytelling sessions she saw in the US, Bengaluru-based Geeta Ramanujam, the founder of Kathalaya, started experimenting with the idea nearly two decades ago. She is well-known among the city’s school children as Lollypop Aunty. How did she get this unusual moniker? “I used to tell children the story of a girl and boy who got new dresses stitched for a birthday party. Their mother asked them to go straight to the party venue. But on the way they saw a lollypop shop and decided stop to buy some. Soon they had eaten lollipops of all colours. The colours not only dripped on to their clothes but they also got a bad stomachache. In the end, they couldn’t go to the birthday party and had to return home. The next day both of them apologised to their mother, but she said, ‘Why should you say sorry to me, it is you who missed out on all the fun.’ The children loved the story and would ask me to narrate it again and again. Now I am ‘Lollypop Aunty’,” she says.

In the 1990s, when Ramanujam was still working in a school, she started using storytelling to teach history. “I would take the children out on short trips to monuments and tell them stories about important historical events associated with that place,” she recalls. Although the students were happy the other teachers weren’t and so Ramanujam was soon transferred to the library. However, there too she started narrating stories from the storybooks to encourage reading.

In 1998, she got together with her two colleagues, Lalu Narain and Sujatha Pai, to initiate a weekly class for storytelling in six schools of Bengaluru. A year later, the Kathalaya Trust was established. Today, after reaching out to over five lakh schools across India, Kathalaya conducts storytelling sessions through its concept of ‘Story Space’. Kathalaya has six Story Space centres – one each in Madurai and Bengaluru, two each in Ahmedabad and Mumbai. “We have about 20-30 trained resource persons conducting sessions for children in groups of 30,” she adds. The Trust has tie-ups with The Scottish Storytelling Center, Edinburgh, U.K., The International Institute of Storytelling Tennessee, U.S.A and the University of Skovda, Sweden, and has also been giving diplomas in storytelling since 2012.

Talking about the different ways in which she uses stories to educate children, Ramanujam says, “I like to use a picture story that is relevant to the region. For example, if it is a story from Rajasthan, I use mirrors or textiles from that state to give an authentic effect.” And besides history she also teaches science and maths in this way. “By narrating the Greek myth of Icarus, who tries to fly making wings of wax and feathers, or the story of the Wright brothers, one can put the desire of human beings to fly in perspective for the students,” she elaborates.

In the NCR town of NOIDA, Simi Srivastava runs Kathashala. It was while undergoing Nursery Teacher’s Training in 1998 that Srivastava realised she wanted to tell stories for a living. “During the final exam my teacher asked me to prepare a story rather than a lesson. I think she understood my flair. I believe that stories are the bridge between reality and fantasy. They teach us about life; teach us to imagine and create. They are a fabric of our culture,” she shares.

After she cleared her tests with flying colours, she turned down a plum post in a well-known Delhi school and chose to be a storyteller instead. Like Ramanujam, Srivastava has been able to spread her work in different cities, covering more than 100 schools from small towns like Ludhiana to metros like Mumbai. “I believe it is possible to teach any subject through storytelling, whether it is social sciences, accounts or mass communications,” says Srivastava, whose vibrant storytelling sessions have made her quite a favourite with children. Besides kids, she has been sharing her innovative ideas on teaching and storytelling with teachers. Kathashala also conducts a basic course in professional storytelling, enabling and enhancing the skills of several storytelling enthusiasts.

“Our sessions not only entertain them but also give them food for thought. We do a lot of discussions to understand whether they have imbibed what we want to convey. One story can have more than one moral and we can subtly bring it to the notice of the child,” explains the storyteller, who uses “puppets, glove puppets, shadow puppets and sometimes it is just me and my voice” to create the right ambience. Srivastava often combines storytelling with drawing, singing and dancing to encourage the group.

Even the most boring and complicated subjects can be projected in a fun-filled and entertaining manner through stories – that’s the mantra of these talented women. And regular interventions are enabling children from all walks of life learn better.

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