The healing power of storytelling

Children's literature

In her first acting role, Nandana Sen played a child abuse victim in the popular play 30 Days in September which is still running and going strong, with a different actor enacting this role. But that particular moment is etched in her memory because at the end of opening night at Prithvi, a girl came to her in tears to say that watching me her like “looking at myself in the mirror”.  

“That was the first time she broke her silence about having been abused by her uncle for many years, and shortly afterwards, she confronted him too. And she wasn’t the only survivor who reached out to me. The play prompted many survivors to finally speak up and begin the process of healing; it even inspired an audience member to start an NGO. It was one of my most fulfilling experiences as an actor,” Sen tells Metrolife.

“Storytelling is such a powerful tool too, no matter how old or young you are, and I absolutely believe in the healing power of storytelling, be it books, plays, or films,”she adds.

The 48-year-old never allowed her identity to be burdened by the shadow of her parents’ achievements. She tried multiple mediums and created a room for herself as an actor, writer and child right activist. Daughter of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and Nabanita Dev Sen, one of the most prominent authors in the contemporary Bengali literature, the Rang Rasiya actress feels fortunate that her parents had a great deal of confidence in her.

“I’ve never been shy about taking chances, or changing my life around, and to their credit ma and baba have encouraged me in all my eccentric decisions without ever imposing their will. Speaking of acceptance and love, they’ve given me a lot of both. I’m very lucky,” she says.
Sen has featured in over 20 films, is a champion of child rights and frequently contributes articles to newspapers and magazines. In her latest creative sojourn, Sen has created the character of a spunky monkey – Mambi for children’s book Mambi and the Forest Fire. The illustrated story focuses on the core idea of how accepting and loving yourself and learning to respect the diversity of peers at an early age is important.

“It’s so important to make a child understand that she may have different abilities and interests than her peers, and that’s totally fine. We need to make children realise that we all have our own individual identities that may not conform and that is absolutely fine, because that’s who we are,” she points out.

She invented this character in a room full of kids in children’s home. “They were feeling very shy at first, and weren’t confident enough to start singing and dancing, as was the plan for the day. I’d been introduced to them as an actor (whose eccentric films the kids hadn’t, of course, seen) and as an activist, a word they didn’t understand,” she says.

“So I told them I was a monkey in disguise, and did some jumps to prove it – which cracked them up. That’s when I invented my best friend Mambi, the shy monkey who didn’t initially have the confidence of her older, cooler jungle friends, but was braver than anyone else. The kids jumped right in, filled the forest up with characters and a fire,” she adds.

Sen doesn’t equate the world of fantasy with an idealised world when it comes to writing for children. “I see it as a world of imagination full of characters that a child can relate to, a world that can make him more aware of topics, even difficult ones, that will become more present, even emergent, as he grows up,” she says. 

“Children's literature gives us the unique scope of using fantasy to sensitise children to the larger reality they live in, a reality from which privileged children are at times disconnected.  But all children, no matter the background, have amazing access to their imagination,” she adds.

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