Once upon a time, not so long ago, Geeta Ramanujam was a social studies teacher at The Valley School, Bangalore. Fascinated by stories, Geeta turned her classes into inter-disciplinary sessions. History was not taught simply by dates, names, and battles. They became adventure tales with a lot of excitement thrown in. Geeta’s classes were a hit. But the management thought otherwise. They deemed it unconventional and asked her to take charge of the library.
This did not stop Geeta from telling stories. The story-telling sessions continued in the school bus trips and in the library. She started something called story time aimed at instilling in the children a desire to read. “There were so many lovely books that hardly had any takers. Story time was to help motivate the child to read. My story-telling session continued during the library hours,” recalls Geeta, Executive Director and co-founder of Kathalaya, a story-telling academy.
And one day, a parent who happened to listen to one of Geeta’s sessions invited her to conduct a similar one in Bangalore. “This was in 1996; my first workshop. There was a huge response and for the first time I began thinking of doing something on my own. I quit my school job and in 1998 with two other teachers decided to start Kathalaya Trust with a goal to establish storytelling as an effective and cultural tool in all sphere of life and learning,” says Geeta, who was in the city to launch the first Kathalaya centre in the State at The Little Legend, nursery and pre-school, Chambakkara.
The institution conducts orientation and awareness workshops, advanced workshops in story-telling for teachers, parents, NGOs, tribals, artists, corporates and others. It offers certificate and diploma courses in story-telling and training sessions for teachers and professionals across the world.
Story-telling is a communication process that involves listening and speaking. “When these fall in place reading and writing will fall in place. Stories open up emotions and activate the imagination. It is all about going deep into oneself, bringing to the fore the emotional and intellectual quotient. It is proved to be an effective tool to address issues.”
Nowadays, it seems as if we have forgotten to listen and to tell stories. “I have felt that the sense of wonder and excitement is lost though the very survival of our species depends on our ability to communicate with each other. There is no inquisitiveness and the enthusiasm to ask questions is missing. If we cannot express ourselves our lives become silent. We have become like horses with blinders; our creative side is fast fading.”
The Academy of Storytelling, the training and research wing of Kathalaya, has introduced innovative foundation and diploma courses. “The foundation course is a 20 hour programme spread over three days. This one can be organised in any of the centres with a minimum number of applicants. The diploma course is spread over four days and 200 hours and is conducted only at our Bangalore centre. It involves field work and a research project.”
Geeta says that the response she gets after the workshops has been amazing making her work harder. “Almost everyone say that they feel transformed. Most of them begin to use stories in their training sessions. It becomes a value-addition to their personality. There are many successful corporate trainers or those who have set up their own centres and are now effectively integrating stories in their sessions. They talk about gender sensitivity, behavioural skills, leadership qualities, all through stories.”
Kathalaya has recently introduced storytelling as a credited course for the Azim Premji University and at the University of Gothenberg, Sweden. “Soon, storytelling will be part of the under graduate main course at Azim Premji University. The course will be a career oriented one and then I’m sure people will open their eyes wider to storytelling.”
The aim of Kathalaya is to create an educational curriculum where students, both in schools and colleges, can be provided with a space to excel in what they are good at. “We have four members dedicated to create the curriculum with 15 members helping us organise and make it happen. Many ask me if it can help them get a job. It sure can for it not only enhances confidence but also inspires one to work on these lines, as trainers or teachers. We attempt to inculcate a knowledge-based educational system contrary to the conventional information-based.”
Geeta talks about her experiences as a trainer that really opened her eyes to certain forgotten aspects of human life like the emotional quotient that is so important but sadly missing in today’s world. “I was asked to conduct a workshop for expectant women and one for nurses at Rainbow Hospital, Hyderabad. Here stories were used to bridge the empty emotional facet, the need to be compassionate. I did this using Jataka Tales.”
Geeta and Kathalaya are on a mission to initiate research and revive storytelling traditions and ancient knowledge systems, establishing a university for storytelling and integrating it as an educational tool into the regular school curriculum.
The brightly done-up classroom at The Little Legend turns into a stage. Geeta begins narrating stories from a seemingly never ending bag of tales. There are those from Indian folk takes, mythology, stories from across the world and some that she has created. Expressions flit across her face as she regales a mesmerised audience with tales of humans and animals.
Geeta, her stories, and her audience all seemed to live happily ever after…