By Asha Balakrishnan
World Storytelling Day 2020: Oral Storytelling is one of the oldest and most loved cultural traditions. A tradition that has been passed on from one generation to another. This oral art continues to be relevant, even today in our media-saturated society. I believe we are all storytellers and are made up of stories. We have grown up listening to them. The stories can be folklore, mythology, fiction or stories of family and friends. These stories besides enriching us are the threads that weave our life and we inherit and leave these as a treasured legacy. We may not remember all the stories but we sure remember how we heard the stories from our family and friends.
My earliest memory that I recall listening to a story is from my Grandmom's elder sister who would lie beside me and tell stories of mythology, tales of common man, folk tales, etc. She would gesticulate with her wrinkly hands and modulate her voice as the story changed the settings from a forest to a Kingdom to a faraway land. The story I was told was a 'Kozhakattai' (modak) story in my mother tongue, Tamil. At that age, though storytelling was a bait to retire to bed, today when I look back, I am able to appreciate that art of storytelling in its purest form, oral tradition.
My grandparents, parents, and extended family were all my family storytellers. My parents would make up stories during my bedtime, which when narrated made me feel secure and comfortable. Stories involving the members of our family, our ancestors or some living memory, some amusing incident or something about how the ancestors owned an entire village, their contributions were retold in simple unpolished ways.
Listening to Family Stories
Many family stories like the 'Dhanushkodi story', a town on the east coast of India, which marooned when a killer cyclone with a high tidal wave blew away all structures and almost wiped the whole town. A few survived to tell the tale and one of the surviving family was my mom's uncle.
Another favourite – The 'Burma story' was about how my maternal grandfather walked from Burma to India through the forests with 3 bottles of Kim (a malted beverage) in his backpack during the war.
The other story from my paternal side was how the famous Saint Ramana Maharishi was saved from the thieves by my great grandfather, then Deputy Superintendent of Police. This story, although told to me by my grandfather, gave me greater joy to hear this from the then ashram president, Sri Ramanananda (grand nephew of the saint). These family stories are like the blueprint for our family identities. I have inherited so many such powerful family stories as a valuable legacy.
Impact of traditional storytelling sessions
In early school days, we had an exclusive oral storytelling period. In English, we listened to fairy tales like Thumbelina, folk and mythological tales and; during Kannada class we heard stories of powerful women like Onakke Obavva, Rani Abbakka of Ullal, the poignant Punyakoti's story. At the homefront, besides family stories, I was dragged to the traditional storytelling sessions in temples like pravachans, Harikathas and kathakalakshepam (stories and lectures on mythology) by Paati. Our Sanskrit pandit would narrate stories from Malavikagnimitra, Abhignana Shakunthala, Kumarasambhavam, etc. So many oral story listening and hearing opportunities when mass and satellite communication was not popular.
The powerful influence of storytellers
My storytellers must have had a profound influence on me that even today wherever I see the word "Storytelling" in print or in e-media my eyes stop there and throw me back in time. The morals or values did not sink into my little brain then, it was more entertainment, but I guess I was besotted with the art of storytelling like gesticulations, the emotions, body language, expressions, the bonding, etc.
I was educated for a career in electronics but these storytellers somewhere must have left such a deep influence on me that many years later my passion for stories lured me to take up a profession of a storyteller. When an opportunity came my way, I grabbed it. I practiced voice diction, modulation, body language and with experience, I built my repertoire and slowly found what stories made an impact on young, evolving minds. Gradually I developed into a life-skills facilitator (visiting faculty) which involved teaching life skills through interactive stories, conducting theatre workshops for children. My students taught me more than what I learned in my student life.
I found the choice of the stories was important, while I chose simple interactive stories with repetitive lines for lower classes. Little children loved hearing the same story and would even mindlessly repeat the catchy words as they skipped and hopped out of the class.
Middle school children were more interested in fun stories and stories of wisdom but honestly as a storyteller, I let the magic of the story unfold, I never put forth the moral or made it sound preachy, the moral was always brought out by the children and not all stories had to teach or have a moral. They were inquisitive and were open to thinking out of the box.
Teenagers in higher classes were interested in historical stories and real-life stories. They were able to empathize and understand the stories better.
The stories I told them not just entertained, enchanted and delighted them but the ideas molded the young minds. The children would embellish the sessions with their own experiences, thoughts, and ideas. The storytelling sessions in fact, turned into story listening sessions for me since the communication became two way. I believe stories have that power. Apart from teaching and enriching with tangibles like vocabulary, expression, modulation; they teach values like empathy, perseverance, to inspire, to dream, and to imagine possible worlds. We cannot evaluate them in grades but they add value to their living to raise them as empathetic and compassionate humans.
It is often said that today's children rely more on visual mediums and refuse to sit and listen. From my experience, I have seen children and even elders to whom stories are told, sit and learn to listen. An invaluable skill that will see them through school, college, work, and life.
Storytelling is all about communicating, listening, interacting which are important ingredients of a healthy family or community. Besides family and educational institutions, today storytelling is also part of organisations, corporates, associations. They improve social inclusion, people management, team building, leadership skills. Oral storytelling is a fascinating art to bring people together. I believe it enriches family life, fosters communities and fraternity.
(Asha Balakrishnan is a storyteller by passion, with varied interests such as reading, blogging, traveling, yoga, art and craft, among other things. Views expressed are personal.)