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Telling the tale

Statesman News Service |

Once upon a time…is not just a traditional opening line, rather it&’s a heritage of our very being. Suchayan mandal finds out why and how

India&’s culture of storytelling is not only unique but reflects shades of tradition and heritage that one easily bonds with. The Indian style of religious storytelling called “Katha” is a ritual, and often involves professional storytellers called kathavahchak, who recite the Hindu religious texts, such as the Puranas, Ramayana or Bhagavata Purana, often followed by a commentary, or pravachan. Sometimes such events take place in households when it involves smaller stories related to the Vrat Katha genre, for example, the Shri Satyanarayan Katha, and all are didactic in nature and used to instill moralistic values through the revelation of the consequences of karma. The tradition has been  existing since ages and has undergone evolution to a larger extent. While earlier grandmothers were the treasure trove of stories that were orally told, now, with nuclear families taking the lead, audio books are serving the need. No way can you expect the flavour of real story telling from the synthetic effect of orchestrated music but the mouse that was an avid listener to grand ma&’s stories suddenly became computer&’s mouse.

Oral tradition
India had for a very long time subscribed to the oral tradition of passing knowledge, wisdom and history. Each region has developed its own style and tradition of storytelling in local languages. Epics and puranas, ancient stories of wisdom in Sanskrit, are the common story material for all or most of the regions of India. Often storytellers, who used to tell tales in temples or social ceremonies, were respected as teachers.
South India has a long tradition of storytelling and religious discourse. Religious scholars such as Oduvars, who were knowledgeable in religious scriptures, rendered discourses in temples and monasteries. In Tamil Nadu, this was known as Kathaprasangam. Arunachala Kavi (17th-century), Gopalakrishna Bharathi, Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer, Ramalinga Swami (19th-century), Nellai Sundaramurty Oduvar, Kripananda Variar, and Pulavar Keeran (20th-century) were Kathaprasangam experts. Even today there are scholars like Suki Sivam and Trichy Kalyanaraman, who perform in this style. One important factor is that the element of Prasangam, the extent of Sloka interpretation and music in these expositions, depends solely on the musical ability of the individual. The ones who were adept in music used that skill, whereas the experts in literature used their knowledge in that area more. Some had a good command over both, which reflected in their performances and popularity. Pravachan, Patakam, Upanyasam, Harikatha, Kalakshepa, Harikeerthan, Villupattu are all similar in the sense they are interpretations and storytelling on religious theme, yet they have different styles.

Religious discourse

The Purana-Pravachana is a form of Hindu religious discourse, which comprises lectures about scriptures. The Pauranika or the Pravachan pandit became a spiritual interpreter of these scriptures. Pravachans usually have a religious theme, usually the life of a saint or a story from one of India&’s epics. These discourses seem to have a soothing effect on people’s anxious nerves and serve as a security fallback for them. Pravachans sometimes become very emotional. People who listen to Pravachans have become more tolerant of their brethren; a sense of giving has been inculcated in them. In the olden days Pravanchan pundits were often well versed in the Sanskrit language and educated and well-trained in Veda Sastras and Vedanta.
It is easier to listen to a pandit, who is conducting a Pravachan, to understand some of the scriptures. Basically a pundit elaborates on the significance of the sloka or scripture he reads and gives several bhavas and angles to look at a single verse or even a single word. Upanyasa or Pravachanas concentrated mainly on Sanskrit and Tamil texts. Music was kept to a minimum and was used sparingly to recite the slokas. Reading the original sloka and presenting the meaning was the methodology followed by Pravachan pundits. Paruthiyur Krishna Sastri was the first exponent, who gave interpretations and commentary to each verse and created a new style; he was considered the “Father of Pravachans”.
Kathakalakshepa is another tradition in India .Any story with song and acting coupled with anecdotes is called Kathakalakshepa. Kathakalakshepa is unique because the story is carried through songs and compositions in languages like Sanskrit, Tamil, Marathi, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi, which is a peculiarity in the Tamil Nadu-style of storytelling. Harikatha is a composite art form with storytelling, poetry, music, drama, dance, and philosophy. Harikatha involves the narration of a story, intermingled with related songs. The compositions used are common to the Bhajana Sampradaya ~ congregational singing like the Ashtapadis of Jayadeva, Tarangas of Narayana Teertha ~ compositions like Tevaram, Divyaprabandam, Thiruppugazh, keertanas of Annamacharya, Bhadrachala Ramadas, Tyagaraja, Padas of Purandaradasa and other dasas and the Bhajans of Tulsidas, Kabir, Meera and Surdas.
 In the courts of kings there were instances of Sabha kavis like Birbal, who were an extended version of story-tellers. The concept was not only to entertain but also help with moral and intellectual support during moment of crisis.
Grimm tales
German academics, the Brothers Grimm, were among the most well-known storytellers of folk tales, popularizing stories such as Cinderalla, The Frog Prince, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin and Snow White. The rise of Romanticism in the 19th century revived interest in traditional folk stories, and represented a pure form of national literature and culture to the brothers. With the goal of researching a scholarly treatise on folk tales, the brothers established a methodology for collecting and recording folk stories that became the basis for folklore studies. Between 1812 and 1857 their first collection was revised and published many times and grew from 86 stories to more than 200. In addition to writing and modifying folk tales, the brothers wrote collections of well-respected German and Scandinavian mythologies.
Indian tradition of folk tales is also quite ancient. In the Deccan region, Burra katha is quite popular. Burra is a drum that is shaped like a human skull. In this tradition, gypsies narrate stories beating this drum; in Tamil Nadu, the folk story tradition is called Villu Paatu, or the bow-song. The folk stories were told accompanied by a stringed instrument resembling a bow. The stories chosen were heroic ballads commonly known in the villages and urban areas. This medium is, in fact, also used to propagate social welfare programmes like AIDS awareness, family planning and election propaganda. Kanian koottu and Udukkadipattu, prevalent in the villages of South India, are also folk storytelling traditions. Stories like Sudalai Madan kathai, Draupadi Amman Kathai, Kovalan Kathai, Muttuppattan Kathai, Marudu Sahodarar kathai and others are narrated. There is a rich literary tradition of published and unpublished written material called Nirupana, where the stories and the songs are written in languages like Marathi, Tamil and Telugu.
In rural Bengal That Patachitra, a particular kind of hand painted canvas, are still used to tell tales about Maa Durga&’s battle with Asura (evil), and other stories of Kali and other deities. Mainly used to promote religious values, these are used to narrate the stories of epics and other puranas.

On the air

All India Radio&’s “Golpo Dadur Ashor” (story telling session by grandfather) was one of the most popular radio shows in Kolkata in 1990s. Recently, a private radio channel started a show called Sunday Suspense, which is aired every Sunday in the afternoon, where thriller and adventure short stories of Satyajit Ray are narrated by voice-overs. With music added to it, it is not only a craze among children but also elders alike. “On some Sundays, some hostel campuses become deserted,” said a hostel superintendent of Ramakrishna Mission Residential College in Kolkata.  “The return of Mahabharata days on national channel has been made possible with this radio show,” adds he.
The master mind behind this radio show, Mir, a popular TV anchor in Bengal, recalled how it took days to convince the producer of the radio channel, whose firm belief was that radios were made to entertain with songs and not stories. When the popularity of AIR&’s Golpo Dadur Ashor was shown he finally gave a green signal and “it was an instant hit” said Mir with a relief, as he had taken a risk. Various other channels have also started same kind of show in Bengali with the most popular being a horror story radio show. This show, aired every Friday at 10 pm, is an exclusive spine-chilling package. 
“We generally turn off all lights and keep glued to the radio, the only form of entertainment to us. Mostly, others join in and that&’s the perfect way to start our weekend,” said Somen of Blind Boys’ Academy run by Ramakrishna Mission at Narendrapur in West Bengal.
Communication tool
Geeta Ramanujam of Kathalaya, a Bangalore-based story telling society, who conducts story telling session for corporates, children believes, “We have completed many workshops for corporates, specifically addressing communication skills and innovative ways of addressing problems using storytelling as a tool. This would automatically involve team-building, gaining self confidence and public speaking skills.”
 According to Paul Smith , a corporate trainer and researcher, “Storytelling is useful in far more situations than most leaders realize. The five most commonly used are probably these: inspiring the organisation, setting a vision, teaching important lessons, defining culture and values, and explaining who you are and what you believe.” “You can’t just order people to ‘be more creative’ or to ‘get motivated’ or to ‘start loving your job’. The human brain doesn’t work that way. But you can lead them there with a good story. You can’t even successfully order people to ‘follow the rules’ because nobody reads the rulebook. But people will read a good story about a guy, who broke the rules, and got fired, or a woman, who followed the rules, and got a raise. And that would be more effective than reading the rulebook anyway,” he added.

Corporate world
Organisations like Microsoft, Motorola, Berkshire Hathaway, Saatchi and Saatchi, Procter and Gamble, NASA, and the World Bank are among those who hire story tellers to motivate their employees. Some have a high level corporate storyteller whose job it is to capture and share their most important stories. At Nike, in fact, all the senior executives are designated corporate storytellers. 
Other companies teach storytelling skills to their executives (because they certainly aren’t learning it in business school). Kimberly-Clark, for example, provides two-day seminars to teach its 13-step programme for crafting stories and giving presentations with them. 3M is a company that doesn’t allow bullet points and replaced them with a process of writing “strategic narratives.” PandG has hired Hollywood movie directors to teach its senior executives how to lead better with storytelling. And some of the storytellers at Motorola belong to outside improvisational, or theater groups, to hone their story telling skills.
Captive audience
Children, who are the main audience of storytelling, are still lured by it. Radio shows, story telling festivals, audio books are enough to prove the fact. A recent survey has shown audio books of Aesop&’s Fables are high on demand. “Nowadays kids are sharp and want to know more and they are very interested in storytelling as they are not listening to stories much. From age 1-10 show the most interest,” opined Ramanujan.
 Mytholigist Devdutt Pattanaik explained how children could understand mythology easily, “The story told to a three-year-old is different from that which is told to a 13-year-old. We must keep telling children there is more. Provoke them to be curious. Include them in conversations about the characters. Say the mother and father discuss how Karna was killed. The child can overhear the various arguments. There is no right answer so one must allow the arguments to stand strongly without tilting one way or another. The child by overhearing this, again and again, will be able to appreciate the complexity of life ~ as Hinduism seeks to portray.”
 “I think one should make religion and mythology part of day to day life. Let&’s say we are discussing the war in Afghanistan. This can be associated easily with the Ramayana. Just as Ravan had no right to kidnap another man&’s wife, the terrorists had no right to destroy the World Trade Centre. Of course, as the child grows up, the arguments can get more sophisticated. ‘Why do we assume that the Americans are Ram?’ ‘Maybe the terrorists see themselves as Ram.’ Maybe the trigger was the burning of Lanka.’ This will lead to discussions and debates. 
 In these discussions and debates, pros and cons, the ‘argumentative Indian’ is born ~ one who is able to see things from multiple points of view before taking a decision,” said Pattanaik. Director of World Story Telling Institute, Eric Miller, on being asked if the tradition of story telling was diminishing, said, “I would say the opposite ~ the popularity of storytelling, is increasing! Many people are aware that storytelling activities help people develop creative and logical thinking skills, compassion, and communication skills. This awareness is in part driven by Human Resource people in the corporate world, who tend to use and appreciate storytelling a great deal. Storytelling is also very appreciated in the world of education. It is realised that any academic subject can be taught with storytelling ~ by creating characters the students can identify with and storylines that have drama and suspense and thus get the students involved on an emotional level.”
The extension of story telling can be found in today&’s social networking sites or blogs where netizens speak their hearts out. Reaching out to people with attractive narrative and addictive use of contexts coupled with surprises and metaphors are after all the essence of story telling.