Stories are a beautiful backup to life, says Geeta Ramanujam, who is to soon open a Kathalaya centre in the city
She always saw history as ‘his story’. The names of kings and queens, the battles they fought, and the monuments they built — all seemed irrelevant to high school history teacher Geeta Ramanujam unless they were part of a strong narration. During her free time in school, she would dig into reference books at the library and string bits of information into a smooth plot. Then, she would shepherd her class out for a walk, and, with ease, convert the tall trees and buildings on the campus into interesting characters in her story.
Over a phone call from Bangalore, Geeta, the recent winner of the Best Storyteller Award at Bo ca deu Festival in Brazil, recalls one of her classes on the ‘Justice’ tree, which grows in forests. It was years ago, before she rose to fame as the founder of Kathalaya, one of the first storytelling revival institutes in the country. “I thought of how to present facts about this particular tree in a way that kids could remember it. So, I started off by telling them how certain tribes tied up people, who had committed a wrong, to these trees. They were left to be bitten by hordes of poisonous ants that resided inside the barks, which contained molasses. This way, the kids understood why it was called the Justice tree, and also learnt about molasses, and the fact that ants don’t just reside in anthills,” she says. The obsession with stories, she says, has much to do with the many spiritual discourses she attended as a child.
The school found her teaching unconventional, as it did not abide by the norms that demanded children stay inside the four walls during class hours. She was transferred to the library department. Geeta, who was used to being surrounded by naughty children, was suddenly left with stacks of dusty books around her. She had access to a thousand stories, but nobody to narrate them to. “One day, I realised that a few kids were returning books without reading them. I wanted to change their attitude. So, I would call them, tell them half the story, build up the suspense, and leave it hanging so that they would read the rest of it. And, almost all the time, it worked,” she laughs.
A few colleagues who saw her conduct these impromptu storytelling sessions suggested she do something similar for kids outside as well. Just as an experiment, Geeta took a year off and set up the Kathalaya Trust in Bangalore in 1996. In a few months, the response from the public grew, and she decided she would never go back to being a librarian.
Today, Kathalaya has trained over 70,000 people from different parts of the world, who have dropped in at its Bangalore office to get a diploma in storytelling. For kids, the Institute has developed a dedicated forum called Story Space — A Different School, which conducts storytelling sessions that revolve around the concepts taught in NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) curriculum. “I have had people who flew down from Ireland for the course and went back to set up a Kathalaya centre in their country. For the upcoming workshop in Chennai, a storytelling enthusiast is specifically coming down to learn and set up a centre in Italy,” says Geeta, who has toured as many as 23 countries as a storyteller.
This workshop also marks the setting up of the first Kathalaya centre outside of Bangalore in the country. What prompted the decision to expand? “The storytelling diploma that we offer is a three-day intensive knowledge-sharing event. For me, it is a very personal session. Through my stories, I aim to touch people’s hearts, understand their psychology, and use it to engage with them. So, I felt the need to be involved in every workshop. But then, I realised I am growing old, and need to pass on the baton,” says Geeta. She found a positive synergy with Amrutash Misra and team at The ilovereadin’ Library, Chennai, and decided to take the plunge.
The Kathalaya centre in Chennai will hold monthly workshops. The first few will be handled by Geeta. While there are many reasons — better presentation skills, customer relations, marketing and leadership skills, and so on — to attend the event, a simple yet important reason, as Geeta says, is to “look at stories as a way to wade through one’s personal problems… as a beautiful back-up”.
Story of a storyteller