Weaving the fabric of stories to educate kids
Geeta Ramanujam has set up Kathalaya, an organisation to integrate learning through story telling in schools
Vibha Sharma

Once upon a time, Geeta Ramanujam, a teacher, pondered over the questions: How to bridge gaps in learning, how to make concepts more interesting for children, how to cultivate reading habits in children, how does one feel proud and rooted to one's own culture?

The answer, she found, was story telling. In 1998, she decided to start Kathalaya as a trust to integrate learning through stories and a vision with which to "Make a positive social change in education through stories". Thus the organisation began taking five schools as an experimentation with a weekly intervention calling it "The storytelling period".

How has been the journey of Kathalaya since its inception?

It was not an easy journey and even today, 15 years later, we are still struggling to get people to value storytelling as a career or as an important spine of learning and education. All knowledge becomes redundant when it is not transacted in the right manner. Storytelling helps one to retain-recall-retell all at the same time — the basis of oral tradition. We thought of the following programmes: Weekly intervention in schools of all kinds — nursery, primary, underprivileged, rural and urban. Workshops for children and training teachers, parents, management to see and apply the relevance of stories in the curriculum. There are stories on wheels — out-of-classroom experience for students. Sim ilarly, story festivals are a platform for national and international tellers to meet to revive old storytelling traditions. We established an Academy of Storytelling in 2006 and had it affiliated to foreign universities since we also established our training modules successfully in Scotland, Sweden and Germany.

What are the key ingredients that make a story-telling session a wonderful experience for the storyteller and the listeners?

Direct energy, with all emotions and sounds, simplicity, understanding of connecting with concepts without pomp and frills, just being and feeling the silence within. The listeners are transported to the story-land, feel destressed and healed.

Do you feel the story-telling tradition is getting sacrificed at the altar of technical gadgetry?

Not really, but in a sense yes. The concentration and attention spans are getting very frivolous and distractions are far too many for children to listen but at the same time because they do not listen to people, they sit through storytelling sessions for more than 40 minutes at a stretch. So, perhaps it has both the good and bad effects.

What are the steps that parents, teachers, caregivers need to take in order to ensure that this tradition continues.

Tell stories from your own lives holding the child close – that is what the Upanishada means, sitting close by and telling. The closeness specially down on the floor on a mat, is achieved without being advisory and shouting at the child. Do not dramatise or tell stories in an aggressive manner. Use a simple compassionate tone, be truthful and natural towards the child. Children are very sensitive and know what you mean. Your attitude would make a lot of difference.

You are an acclaimed story teller in India and abroad, how do you customise the sessions for listeners from different parts of the world?

Gestures and humanity are the key words. Mime expressions go a long way in making the alien listeners understand the story. Also it is very important to understand their culture, traditions and sensitivity. For instance, amongst the Santhali tribals, the fox is a woman’s best friend so I cannot tell them the story of the cunning fox, or in Malaysia the rabbit is the wisest animal and not the owl. For corporates, we customise the session as per the need of the client.

What about Kathalaya 5-10 years later?

We hope to see more and more people telling stories passionately. We expect storytelling to spread like virus and inculcate love and peace in younger generation. We also foresee it as a part of mainstream curriculum in schools.

Why tell a story

Jake of the famous Jake's Tales says, "Telling a story to kids, grandkids or other little friends, is the most powerful way to create intimacy with them. In a world increasingly being hijacked by impersonal electronic media, storytelling allows us to turn back the clock to create unique personal bonds with our children. You'll create a world to which only you and your small listeners have the key. And even when the years fly by, and your little ones now look down on you, the fact that you once shared a magical world will always be there as a foundation stone of your relationship."



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