From Alice in Wonderland to Dastan Alice ki

  • Asad Ali, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 27, 2014 20:36 IST

“Abki baar...” began Mahmood Farooqui, the dastango.
“...caterpillar sarkar!” piped in a 10-year-old kid, sitting at the back of Farooqui’s spacious drawing room

Farooqui was doing a ‘test run’ of his team’s latest dastangoi performance, Dastan Alice Ki, based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. After gaining much popularity with his efforts to revive the ancient Urdu art of oral storytelling, dastangoi, Farooqui is now trying to inject some life into the children’s storytelling tradition.

World of words: Children listen captivated as Shaili Sathyu narrates a story

"Children are undoubtedly more receptive. The way they react is far more heartwarming, but at the same time demanding because it takes more effort to engage with them." Farooqui’s compatriots, Poonam Girdhani and Ankit Chadha, who performed Dastan Alice Ki in Delhi recently, did manage to engage them well enough: "I think I like this Alice better than the book!" says Ankita Singh, 10, who witnessed Alice’s magical journey.

No tale to tell
However, despite similar performances in the capital and elsewhere, oral storytelling for children as an art form wasn’t, till recently, in the cultural limelight. Somewhere down the line, the whole experience of children listening to stories crumbled.

Valentina Trivedi, a professional storyteller for children based in Delhi, says, “Books used to be things one grew up with. Television took away a bit of those reading habits but the last 30 odd years has seen rapid technological progress. Also, the family structure is now more nuclear so the default storyteller, the grandmother, is usually not there.”

Sea of stories: Professional storyteller Valentina Trivedi weaves a story in Delhi Public Library

Padmavathi Rao, storyteller and educationist, also points towards a sociological slip-up when talking about the general decline that storytelling has seen. She says that as we got busier trying to provide more tangible things for children, the intangible experiences were ejected from the priority list.

A conventional education system, says Rao, also leaves children with little scope to indulge in their imagination. All this is in sharp contrast to her own times when there were stories all around: “I grew up listening to stories from my father, mother, aunt and even one very dear childhood friend who was a little older than me!”

But though times have changed, and technology has eroded some old habits, surely it has offered alternatives? Audio books and e-readers that give a child some interest in reading, a reason to read even more?

Good change bad change
“Oral storytelling is real, not simulated. In any case, it has been proven that technology and increased interaction with it reduces social skills. Live storytelling brings people together like nothing else can,” says Rao who firmly believes that nothing can replace the old experience of emotion shared live, one on one.

But not everyone is swayed by nostalgia. “Do you eat as much ghee as your grandmother? I don’t think so!” says Shaili Sathyu, founder-director of GILLO, an independent children’s media group based in Mumbai. Sathyu says that with the passage of time a lot of things are bound to change. It’s a natural progression that isn’t always evil.

“Over time, most of our habits and overall lifestyle has changed. The way we consume stories too has evolved into something else. But only the form has changed, the rest is still the same,” she says. What needs to be improved though, says Sathyu, is the way the whole discipline of performing arts for children including storytelling is incorporated in school curriculums.

Save our stories
Geeta Ramanujam, director of Bengaluru-based Kathalaya and its Academy of Storytelling, is much more vocal about the lack of a proper cultural policy in place for the art of children’s storytelling. Kathalaya, which promotes storytelling and helps educators to use it for the benefit of children, will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in November.

However, the journey so far for Ramanujam, and Kathalaya, has mostly been independent of any proper government support. “Very recently a team from Sweden’s ministry of culture came to meet us. They were interested in taking our concept of storytelling and using it within their educational system. So why can’t anyone from our own country do anything to help?”

She further talks about one Bill Drayton from the Ashoka Foundation in US, who offered to help her in her efforts to promote storytelling: “That man, who never saw me, gave me an award and recognised me for my work. For three years I received a certain amount as stipend every month to support my work.”

Ramanujam also co-founded the Indian Storytelling Network, which is like a one-stop platform for all those who comprise the storytelling community in major Indian cities. Between heading two such major initiatives, Ramanujam still makes time to be the animated storyteller herself. “Wait,” she says, “before you go, let me tell you a little story.”

Mind your language

There was a mother cat and she was feeding her little one. She was very happy because she had just given birth to three little kittens. Then suddenly at the door, she saw a dog. But she couldn’t move since she was feeding her children, so she twisted her face and started barking like a dog. The actual dog soon went away. The kittens looked at the mother cat with surprise. Then the mother cat said: “Children, it’s always good to learn a second language!”

From HT Brunch, September 28
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