Coomi Vevaina loves to tell children the story of Beeblebean and Beebleboo, a poem about a stone wall built between the two kingdoms with those names. “It’s a story about walls that exist between people,” said Vevaina, who heads the department of English at the University of Mumbai. The last time Vevaina recited the poem, the young audience had many things to say about imaginary walls. One child said that a wall exists between his mother and grandmother, while another pointed out that there’s a wall between India and Pakistan. The reading that triggered this discussion was organised by Word-fully Yours, an association that is trying to promote peace and conservation through stories.
Traditionally, our storytellers have been our grandparents, our parents or our teachers. They first introduced us to Indian folklore, myths and fables. But the upsurge in professional storytellers – Word-fully Yours is just one of many groups that organise storytelling sessions – suggests that the activity is moving beyond the realm of home and school. “Oral traditions are best passed down the family, but with nuclear families this is getting to be a bigger challenge,” said Vijay Prabhat-Kamalakara, the managing director of Storytrails, a Chennai-based group that conducts outings replete with stories. “Professional storytellers are an alternative,” he added. “For example, our stories are not the kind that grandparents would tell. How many times have you heard the story of Martha Benz and the first cars or the story of Operation Fortitude from grandparents?”
Prabhat-Kamalakara said that Storytrails was born out of the idea that almost every activity, however mundane, has a story behind it. “We attempt to research, script and creatively present such stories through theme-based trails,” he said. “Storytrails has trails for different age groups – some indoor and some which take kids through bakeries, cinema studios and car service centres.” This summer, Storytrails organised workshops at the Landmark bookstores in Mumbai, through stories, role play, songs and dance, kids learnt about countries, inventions and book characters.
If the storytellers and the narratives have changed, so has the telling of the story. It is no longer limited to reading aloud from a book. While voice modulation, song and dance have always been part of the tool kit, storytellers are increasingly using aids such as drama, costume and sets to enhance the experience for young listeners with short attention spans. Vevaina, the president of Word-fully Yours, said that her team blends storytelling with drama, puppets, art and craft. “We weave in these forms to consciously create a story,” she said. “For us, stories are a powerful form of passing on the right values in this shrinking and rapidly threatening world.”
For others like Blue Fun Umbrella, storytelling has translated into a profit-making venture. Started three years ago by Meenakshi Kishore and Sonu Mehrotra, Blue Fun Umbrella’s clients include Disney, Crossword Bookstore and Hamleys. Kishore said that they combine story-telling with concept building. “One of the concepts we try to instil is about saving,” said Kishore. “We have a pig puppet who tells the kids that he wants to earn money. He takes the kids to imaginary shops and to a bank where they have to save money.”
Blue Fun Umbrella also organises performance-based sessions. They have narrated the story of Beauty and the Beast, complete with a castle, live music and actors reading from the book. Activities are part of the session, where kids need to solve puzzles in order to get the key to a forbidden castle. In a storytelling session to promote the film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, kids got eye patches and bandanas.
However, some like Storytrails don’t believe that they need to put on different voices or make faces to engage children. “The first step is to choose an appropriate subject that would be of interest to the age group being addressed,” said Prabhat-Kamalakara.
Another challenge is building a team that can work with a varied group of children. Most groups devote a substantial amount of time training their storytellers. Kishore said that Blue Fun Umbrella mainly hires professional actors for their sessions, but Storytrails draws upon a motley crew of travel writers, architects, lawyers, teachers, engineers and students who have a desire to tell stories to kids in their spare time. Word-fully Yours trains its members to conduct storytelling modules. “What’s really important is having a passion for storytelling,” said Vevaina.
By Bijal Vachharajani on June 23 2011 6.30pm Photos by Tejal Pandey