Many years ago in a place far away there lived a barren, solitary mountain. The mountain was terribly lonely. He watched the sun rise; seasons go by, the clouds drift past him, the rain fall on him all alone. One day while he watched a flock of birds flew by him, he suddenly felt one of them perch on his shoulder. They began to talk—the little bird told him stories of the places she had visited, the things she had seen, and the way it felt to master the skies and conquer space. The mountain listened enthralled but the time soon came for the little bird to rejoin her flock and she went away, promising to return the next year with new stories. The mountain waited eagerly for her to return and she did—over and over again with exciting stories of all that she had seen that year. And the mountain was no longer sad or lonely because he now had such a wonderful friend.
This tender heart—warming tale of friendship, love and belonging is story teller Geeta Ramanujam’s favourite story “Sometimes I feel like the mountain—strong and silent. Sometimes I feel I am a chirpy bird who wants to keep flying and seeing new lands. I oscillate between silence and solitude and I believe both needs to coexist in a story teller.”
Stories have always come easily to Geeta perhaps because she grew up surrounded by them. “Every night my father would give me history lessons through stories. I never even knew it was history lessons—he told these stories beautifully without any exaggeration.” she says. “My mother, on the other hand would tell me stories from faith and mythology. I think the seeds were subconsciously planted back then.”
She went on to teach Social Studies and English at The Valley School, Bangalore where she began to use stories to teach history, “History is full of dates and can get very boring for the children. Yet if you look at it closely, history is essentially man’s story and can be taught through story-telling.” she says. “We need to look at history from a humanistic point of view. For instance, it is not the date of the battle of Kalinga that is important but Ashoka’s feelings when he looked at the battle field and felt deep remorse for his deeds. The man questions himself at that point—history is not just about facts but also about introspection.”
In 1998, she along with two other teachers decided to take that leap of faith and started the Kathalaya Trust, which as the name suggests is an organization that promotes and disseminates the art of storytelling. It wasn’t easy, “Yes we did have difficult days,” smiles Geetha, but they persevered and today the institute conducts workshops, offers certificate courses in story telling and has trained children, teachers, NGO’s and professionals all across the world.
Yet she admits that that there are still many challenges associated with the art, “We have a lot of challenges, it is still not a very recognized field. Schools values math science power points, why don’t they see the relevance of story telling?” she says. “In fact, learning through stories was an intrinsic part of the gurukula system. The Panchatantra, for instance teaches the 5 strategies of public administration through stories. No one likes advice and instruction but when you tell a story in the right tone without moralizing, people learn from it.”
But stories aren’t just an effective mode of instruction, feels Geetha. “It also opens up a lot of emotions between people, promotes kinaesthetic skills, multiple intelligences, holistic learning and activates the imagination. Basically, it touches both the emotion and the intellect and brings out a balance between the two. They can also be used as an awareness tool to address certain specific issues.”
She recalls her work in Koppal, a dry, poverty ridden and disease infested part of Karnataka where she used stories to raise awareness about a major issue that prevailed in that region, “Child marriage is very rampant in that region and so we trained many women who are today strong activists against it. They use their own stories as an example to tell people not to succumb to it. Stories can act as a bridge between people and be used to heal them.”
Though her repertoire is wide and she gleans her stories from everywhere she can find them including her own life, Geetha does appear to have a soft corner for stories of Indian origin. “We are sitting on a treasure trove of stories. Why do we need to borrow from the west—we have so many characters in our own backyard. You just need to open those doors and unearth our wardrobes and the whole Pandora’s Box of stories will come flying out,” she says. “Our stories are very different from the Western ones. They don’t always have a beginning and an end, there are a lot of gray areas, so much depends on belief and faith, there are far more references to nature. Maybe it is because of the climate and tropical area of our country but our stories have a very earthy flavour to it.”
But she also adds that beneath the superficial differences that culture induces, most stories say the same things, “I feel the human quality that comes out in stories is similar. In the being stage all human beings are essentially the same and these stories link us together.”