An ear splitting wail tears through the room. Children cover their ears. An ugly and unhappy demon has just caught sight of his reflection in the mirror. And, he is aghast. His blood stops flowing and heart stops beating! Geeta Ramanujam, dressed in a red gown and rainbow-coloured topi, is that demon. Her expressions switch from rage to agony as she looks at herself in the mirror. But the next minute Geeta is transformed into her chirpy self. “You should always smile and be happy,” she tells the kids. At the story telling session, organised by Book Mark Library Activity Centre, Geeta regales the children with stories laced with music and humour. The children roar with laughter as she mimics the bumbling bees and the naughty monkeys.
As a child, little Geetha waited for her father to come home and begin his story telling sessions. At night, their house in Mumbai would transform into battle fields and protest sites. She would sit transfixed as he told her about world wars, revolutions and freedom struggles. “He led me into the world of Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte, even before they visited me in my text books,” recalls Geetha.
The childhood fascination for history inspired Geeta to become a social studies teacher. In her class, history took the form of adventure stories. “We used to sit under trees and learn. The children learnt about ancient civilisations through art and craft.”
Her classes were interdisciplinary. The children got a taste of chemistry, mathematics and craft. “”For instance, they would make coins, resembling the ones used by the ancient kings and peasants. This way, I could also familiarise them with concepts in chemistry.”
Everyone, including the parents and children, loved her classes, but the management found her teaching approach too unconventional. Geeta was asked to take charge as a librarian. But that did not stop her from telling stories. One day, a parent who eavesdropped on her sessions in the library requested her to present a story telling session in the city.
Soon, more offers poured in. And before Geetha knew it she was “flowing in the river of story telling”. “Story telling has taken me to different parts of the world. International audience is different from the Indian one. The European audience will not immediately show its response. But in the end their applause will speak for their reaction.” Geeta has also taken her stories to tribal villages. “I remember a session with the Santhals. I was telling them a story of the lion, who attacks his own reflection in the river, thinking that it is his adversary. A woman recreated the story by jumping into a dry well, covered with mud. It was such a spontaneous response.”
The reservoir of stories never dries up because a story teller always has to invent new stories, says Geeta. A story finds her in unexpected corners. It could be when she is travelling in a bus or meditating. She gives the example of the dew drop story. “It was about how the dew drop was struggling to find its own identity. I made it up when I was sitting by the Ganges. The dew drop begs colours from the flowers; but is turned away. But finally, the kind Jasmine tells him that a dew drop’s identity is that it can assume any colour. This is story is special to me because I saw myself in the dew drop.”
A story teller must relate to the story. Stories have to come from within. “Only then will the audience buy them,” she told the participants of the story telling workshop at Book Mark.
Geeta is currently travelling across the country to launch Kathalaya learning centres as part of a new educational programme. “It is an alternative education curriculum where the child can excel in what he is good at without the pressure of competition or exams. It is based on the core story telling concepts; Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing.” Geeta feels the present day school system is more information-based than knowledge-based. “I feel the emotional quotient is completely missing from today’s curriculum. The children need to feel the subject. We must know how to wait and listen; exactly what story telling is all about.”