Geeta Ramanujam opens up about how stories can form an integral part of the learning process and her journey in the world of storytelling through Kathalaya.

Remember the time we'd hang on to grandma and grandpa begging for a story; the complete attention we gave every twist and turn in the plot and each inflection of a loved voice? Storytelling was not just a time to relax and chill out; it was also a learning process. Children learnt appropriate behaviour, lessons on ethics and morals and much more from these sessions.

Though storytelling is slowly fading from homes, it has been taken to a whole new dimension as a learning tool for both children and adults. Geeta Ramanujam of Bangalore-based Kathalaya is one of the pioneers in using storytelling in schools and corporate workshops.

Decade's journey

Kathalaya was born in 1998. In little more than a decade Kathalaya's reach extends from Baramullah in Kashmir to Kanyakumari, in the South; Ahmedabad and Baroda in the West to Shillong and Assam in the East. Schools, NGOs and corporates use Kathalaya's modules as a tool of communication and to bridge communication gaps. And that's only the national level.

At an international level, Kathalaya is collaborating with universities and institutes in Poland and Sweden to make storytelling a part of teacher training programmes. Geeta is also helping train the famous Ritvikstheatern theatre practitioners to use storytelling during their performances.

Geeta began as a social sciences teacher in the Krishnamurti Foundation School in Bangalore. One fine morning, “I was asked to take charge of the library… I was an avid reader but had no background of library management.” When she realised that the children were not reading, she started telling them stories; not just fables, but also about authors, poets, artists… “I chose spots within the campus to read… near the lakes, pottery shed, language room, the art shed. Soon the children began to make clay models of the characters and used words to develop language skills or painted out the story.”

Potent tool

Geeta soon realised that storytelling could be a potent tool in redefining learning. “Storytelling is a wonderful way of breaking communal and language barriers. It is so different from theatre; you do not need a stage, colour, lights...,” she muses. “You can tell a story standing under a waterfall, above a mountain, under a tree, to any group of people... We decided to create a whole new system of learning like the ancient Gurukula system of oral tradition and create new schools of thought based on stories.” This was the key to developing what is today defined as “the joy of learning”.

“The 10 years of Kathalaya has been a very invigorating journey, personal and spiritually,” says Geeta. She talks of telling stories about Bhagirath and the Ganga at Gomukh to a group of foreign tourists, about Ramana Maharishi bringing life to the mountain at Tiruvannamalai, about angels in a church at South Africa, the Jataka and Panchatantra stories through pictures and puppets in Japan… She has taken as much from these trips as she has given. She collected Zen stories in Japan, tribal folk tales in Karnataka, Chattisgarh, Meghalaya and Assam. She has taken people on the “Stories on Wheels”, trips in which participants learnt about the Silk Route or the coffee plantations of Chikmagalur.

Storytelling also has a role in the corporate sector. It helps identify softer aspects of communication like language, voice modulation, body language, gestures and emotions and also teaches strategy and team work.

Geeta's focus right now is the Academy of Storytelling. The rising demand for workshops and a visit to the Storytelling Centre at Jonnesborough, Tennessee, the U.S. triggered the Academy's founding in 2006. “We had course contents for nearly 100 hours but began with just 25 hours in 2006,” remembers Geeta.

The Academy has different kinds of courses — “long-term, short-term, intensive, compressed and a three-month certificate course from this year — for different kinds of people — “students, teachers, parents and grandparents, professionals and corporates”. She is also open to new ways and thoughts in which storytelling can become central in peoples lives.

Future plans

Geeta has great plans for the future. She wants to establish story labs and publish the nearly 1000 stories they have collected in easy-to-use format: as booklets, story cards and resource material for teachers, parents, children and professionals; To increase the length of the Academy's three-month course to one year and have it recognised by at least five Indian Universities and the top universities abroad… Her dream project is Story Land, an institute of storytelling, which will have regular events for both youngsters and adults based on storytelling….

For as she says, “We are in the world because we share…your story, my story and our stories. The universe is made up of stories…”

Get involved

If you're wondering just what a Kathalaya storytelling session includes, Geeta elaborates, “I combine music, dance and fine arts to make it completely activity-oriented and participatory.” Which explains why nine-year-old Poorna Prassanna, a student of Bangalore's Shishugraha School, insists: “We have to continue Kathalaya for the rest of our life.” The adults don't lag behind either. “Give me some more... We will carry it further into our classes,' was the response of a teacher from Alwar.

Training tales

Geeta carries wonderful memories of some of her training sessions. “When I trained tribals in Chattisgarh or in Kodaikanal I noticed that the language did not matter as much as the nuances of the body, expressions and sounds. They are so alert and positive despite the language barrier. They were some of the best tellers combining voice and tone with body language jumping like a rabbit or leaping like a monkey from the window sill. In the city people are so aware of their bodies and very rigid about the way they move.”

Where it is

Kathalaya is at 88, BHBCS Layout, 3rd Main, 2nd Cross, Banerghatta Road, Bangalore 560076. Ph: 080-26689856, e-mail: kathalaya@gmail.com, website: http://kathalaya.org