Veteran storyteller Geeta Ramanujam grew up listening to stories. While her mother told native tales from her Tamil village, her father read her Oliver Twist and Uncle Tom’s Cabin . The tales made her think, form her own opinions and narratives. Today, she need no longer hunt for stories. They come to her, unbidden, changing form and flavour, depending on her audience and her own life experiences, wherever relevant. “I aim to touch people’s hearts through my storytelling, understand their psychology and use it to engage with them,” says Geeta, the recent winner of the Best Storyteller Award at Bo ca deu Festival in Brazil.
“When you tell a story well and people are able to carry something back with them in their hearts, that is the most wonderful feeling,” she adds. And it is to spread this artform that she founded the Kathalaya Trust, one of the first storytelling revival institutes in the country that she formed in Bengaluru in 1996.
Today, Kathalaya has trained over 70,000 people from different parts of the world, awarding them a diploma in storytelling. She was recently in the city for a beginner’s workshop in storytelling and to set up the first Kathalaya centre outside Bengaluru. This one in Chennai will hold monthly workshops, but only the first few will be handled by Geeta, herself. “I realised I was growing old, and needed to pass on the baton. So Amrutash Misra and team at The ilovereadin’ Library, here, will be doing their bit in my absence,” she adds.
She has also established and founded the Academy of Storytelling, the only globally-recognised institute for storytelling in the world. Through it and Kathalaya, Geeta has been equipping teachers, mothers and professionals with the skills of storytelling to bring about a major educational reform. “In India, teaching can be dull, systematic and stagnant – where emphasis is on the absorption of facts and not on critical thinking. We have created an education system in which children are not encouraged to cultivate creativity or given the courage to question.
Not surprisingly, teachers, who also find their school hours boring and repetitive, have lost interest in experimenting with new teaching techniques,” explains Geeta, adding that this is where storytelling comes in handy. However, she is aware that she can’t simply criticise or challenge existing practices from her place outside the system.
“Instead, we create mutually accommodating relationships with schools in which storytelling supports existing subjects such as language, math and crafts. We expose teachers to various forms of storytelling, such as picture stories, puppet theatre, mime, shadow plays, and clay modelling that can be implemented within the existing structure. This way creativity is encouraged, so teachers, and eventually students, come up with their own stories on educational themes,” adds Bengaluru-based Geeta. But stories aren’t just an effective mode of instruction, says Geeta.
“They also open up a lot of emotions between people, promote kinaesthetic skills, multiple intelligences and activates the imagination. They touch both the emotion and the intellect and bring about a balance between the two. They can also be used as an awareness tool to address certain serious issues,” adds Geeta, who is also working with organisations to communicate messages about health, HIV/Aids, environmental awareness and gender equality.