When fellow teachers in Geeta Ramanujam’s school mocked and ridiculed her for telling stories in the class instead of teaching, little did they know that their lethal words were quietly paving the way for an unconventional profession for their target. For the uninitiated, Geeta Ramanujam is the founder director of Kathalaya, a storytelling academy in Bengaluru. Geeta employs storytelling as an effective educational and cultural tool in educational institutions in India and abroad.
“I used to teach History, and I would explain concepts to children in a story format as I found the conservative form of teaching very insipid and monotonous. As there was always laughter and noise erupting from my classes, my colleagues complained that I was not doing my job properly,” explains Geeta. Her colleagues didn’t want her in the school as she was a ‘negative’ influence on students, but the principal was too kind to dismiss a teacher just for telling stories, so she was relieved of her teaching duties and made the librarian. “I am a survivor. When I was young, I loved to participate in the obstacle race and always won the first prize. So, this punishment posting was like another obstacle which I had to cross and win a prize,” says Geeta, who’s also an Ashoka Fellow.
Not the type to be disheartened, she continued her tryst with reading stories and narrating them to children. After two decades of stints in schools and a lot of self-discovery, Kathalaya – a house of stories – was formed in Bengaluru. Kathalaya has 12 centres in India and two overseas – one each in Ireland and Columbia.
I was interviewing her just after her storytelling session in Mysuru. For the 60 minutes that she was on the stage, she had kept the audience glued to her stories of cats, mice and lions. The 500-plus audience from various professions listened to her in rapt attention. “Like how a very funny joke can fall flat if not told interestingly, the presentation of a story makes it engrossing,” says Geeta, who entered the Limca Book of Records for organising the first international storytelling festival in India.
Geeta has taken her storytelling performances to places such as the Scottish Storytelling Centre, UK, International Festival at Brazil, Storywood Festival at Sweden, World Tales Festival at Poland, International Storytelling Centre, USA and many other festivals. She is also the Indian co-ordinator for the International Storytelling Network – RIC, besides being the Indian coordinator of the Indian Storytelling Network.
“Actually, it wasn’t always my dream to become a storyteller. It just happened,” reveals Geeta. Do you think storytellers are born? I can’t help asking. She explains, “I know teachers are born so it means even storytellers are born. I have always loved to regale my family with anecdotes. I had a story for every reason and every season. Now when I look back, I think this trait was always within me in a latent form, and when it got the opportunity, it exploded. But anyone can become a storyteller. All one needs is passion and good observation to acquire the art of storytelling.”
Geeta is a postgraduate in Economics from Chennai. Shifting from Economics to storytelling seems like a total role reversal. She disagrees, “In fact, drier the subjects, the greater is the need to make them interesting by storytelling. The Indian education system is very bland. It is rote-oriented and hence not fun. The conservative method of teaching takes the pleasure out of learning as well as out of teaching. No wonder we have so many dropouts, and when some teachers like me try to change the system, they are asked to either conform to the norm or leave,” she laments.
Value of fables
“Today, we live in an imbalanced world where our technical quotient is increasing but the emotional quotient is declining. We are all in a hurry to achieve something. We all are talking but no one is listening. Can there be compassion without listening? Listening to the other party is the crux of relationship building. Storytelling is aimed at bringing such values back into the system,” Geeta explains.
What next? “There is no long-term vision,” says Geeta. “I believe in taking each day as it comes. I have been telling stories for the past 20 years without being bored. I constantly try to reinvent myself as it would be boring to tell the same story again and again. So every time I repeat a story, I tweak it a little by including the moon, a cat, a mother, a child.”
Her only aim is to spread the wings of Kathalaya, start more story spaces in the world. What if the old fables fail to entertain the matured audience? What if you can’t think of an interesting story to narrate? I ask her. The lady with the magic voice takes a long pause before replying, “The word ‘fear’ is missing from my dictionary. The last thing that will happen is death, so why worry?”