Fifteen years ago in the beautiful city of Bangalore, Geeta Ramanujam founded Kathalaya – the house of stories with a vision of “establishing storytelling as an educative and communicative tool to effect a change in society”. She wanted to revive the oral tradition of storytelling like in the times of the Upanishads. She explains Upanishad means sitting down near you.
She also stresses to emphasize how the idea of storytelling has become convoluted in the last fifteen years. She says that each of story- writing, theatre, puppetry, film making has its own place and importance but each is different from storytelling.
“Can we keep it in the purist form please?” she expresses.
Kathalaya among many other things trains adults to take up storytelling professionally, conducts storytelling workshops for students, parents, teachers, corporates, NGOs and tribals in remote corners of the country and organizes storytelling festivals nationally and internationally.
Though Kathalaya started only in 1998, for Geeta, storytelling has always been part of her life. During Geeta’s childhood, her father would tell stories of history, stories of Caesar, Adolf Hitler and so on and her mother would tell her stories of the villages. Her parents would also take her to discourses where though Geeta would play with her friends, she still listened to the stories. She subconsciously grew up with stories. She has been acknowledged for her work from around the world, very recently she was one of the Bangalore Heroes from the Heroes campaign, Bangalore Mirror.
How did a career in storytelling happen to you?
I started my career as an English and History teacher at The Valley school. The children regarded history as boring, about dead people, the dead past. But past is important as it helps construe lessons for the future. I would find new ways to make studies more interesting to the students. I used stories.
I later became the librarian and introduced storytelling. I was part of Valley School from 1977 to 1998. In 1998 I established Kathalaya.
What do you love about what you do?
Finding new stories and sharing them. The joy of retelling stories in different ways. The satisfaction.
What do you don’t like much about what you do? The challenges
Administration. Politics, jealousy and fragmentation in the field. Storytelling should not become a field that sows seeds of jealousy. I am sure it’s possible to decry differences and come together as one.
What are the skills important for a storyteller?
Seeing. Listening. Being able to bring people together. Being true to one’s own conscience.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
You are the story. From the waking up stage to the sleeping stage a storyteller is different from say a homemaker or a businessperson. I think stories. I train stories. I administer stories. As a storyteller I need to be more giving. My presence has to be healing. I need to be a meditator. I am also careful about what I eat. Control over desires is important.
I also cook and clean like any other person. Difference is that in all my awake state, I read stories, usually non-fiction. I try to devise new ways to make training better. I don’t read too much of politics. No desultory talks. I enjoy silent moments. Meditating. Sitting quietly staring into a tree.
What are who are your inspirations?
The philosopher – Ramana Maharishi. J. Krishnamurthy. Aurobindo.
My greatest inspiration was my father. I saw him wading through life with calmness and composure. Every situation I encounter, I think of what he would do.
Your dreams for the future
There are many dreams – dreams to do sacred storytelling, storytelling in regional languages and so on.
What career advice would you like to give?
Do good be good. Be humble. Postiveity and goodness should be predominant. Any work you do, do it ethically. Think of goodwill and not of grabbing. If you do storytelling, do it in the best way. With determination, initiative and motivation, anything is possible.
There are many avenues to storytelling – You could apply it in education to teach subjects and make them interesting. Storytelling could be thought of as another form of performance art just like say drama. You could even apply storytelling for healing.
There is no monotony in storytelling. If you set up an NGO for storytelling you can apply for grants too. There are many opportunities – story festivals on tour, stories on wheels, opportunities to travel and even go abroad.
Stories have been applied in the past to make powerful statements and impact as well. Like in the case of Panchatantra, where the king approaches the wise visiting scholar to impart knowledge and wisdom about administration through stories. Or Aesop who was a slave who used stories to make political statements. The stories of Vikram Bethal, Akbar Birbal, Vikramaditya and so on all used stories to impart knowledge and wisdom to enable problem solving.
Now-a-days, there is lot of information but perception and wisdom have gone missing. Children struggle to disseminate information. People are confused about what they should do. Losing sense of security – faith in themselves. Remove all distractions, things that you don’t want, take hold of what you want and concentrate (Like how weeds in a garden prevent you from enjoying the garden)
After all, you cannot stop a creative mind from flowering no matter where they are like lotuses in the marsh.
Image Courtesy – Geeta Ramanujam
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