Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Interview with Geetha Ramanujam

Geetha Ramanujam is an excellent storyteller and the Director of Kathalaya, an organisation which promotes storytelling, conducts workshops for teacher training /aspiring storytellers and involved in a lot of other initiatives.

The interview with Geetha follows -

Ranjani : What was the inspiration for starting Kathalaya ? How did this novel idea strike you?

Geetha : Back in the nineties I was a teacher at The Valley school, Bangalore. On the long trips in the bus, to and fro from the school everyday, I would regale the children with my stories. The children began to look forward to these story telling sessions!

I was a Social studies teacher and used to think of ways to make the history lessons more interesting for the children. So behind the Maratha warrior Shivaji, would be a personal story that I would relate to them. Indus valley civilization would come alive in the minds of children with stories that I invented, based in that time period. So education and entertainment went hand in hand, making it a wonderful experience for the children.

Then I was in charge of the school library. I noticed that there were wonderful books lying around in our library, but there were hardly any takers for these. So I started the story time, picking up interesting books to read some of which used to span over weeks ! This got the children very interested and motivated them to start reading on their own. Telling stories, in my opinion, addresses the fundamental aspects of communication - listening and speaking. When these two are taken care of, reading and writing fall into place by themselves.

In 1996, in a summer camp for children, I was asked to do "story telling" as one of the sessions to keep the children engaged. This became a big hit, as it was a very novel concept at that time. We got a wonderful press coverage too for the event.

All these events paved the way, for starting Kathalaya between 98 -99 with two of my friends and with an intial grant from India Foundation for Arts.

R : What were the initial activities of Kathalaya ?

G : Right from the beginning, quite a few schools in Bangalore recognised our potential to make school education more lively with story telling. They wanted storytelling sessions in their schools and also wanted the teachers to be trained, to make their classes more interesting. So our initial focus areas were these

1) Teacher training workshops
2) Story telling sessions in the schools that invited us.
3) Stories on Wheels - We used to take the school kids on trips to nearby places while narrating the stories and legends of those places. This concept was a huge hit with the children.

R : What have been the challenges and the achievements along the way?

It has not been an easy journey for us, but each time we hit the low, help would come in some form and it has helped us to sustain ourselves. Some of the grants that we have received over the last decade to enable us to continue our activities, have been from -
Sir Dorabj Tata Trust, Ford foundation, Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and the Ashoka Fellowship award. Most of these grants would be for a year, with the main aim of concentrating on the rural schools and teacher training in the identified areas. I am very happy to say that as on date,

  • Over 5000 children in the urban and rural areas are the direct beneficiaries of our programmes.
  • We have trained over 7500 teachers worldwide.
  • Developed teacher-training modules for Human rights, communal harmony, Environment awareness and Gender equality for the NGOs. Have reached out to over 2000 children through its Stories on Wheels program.
  • Developed alternative curriculum for Social Studies for the middle school level.
  • Kathalaya has won three awards for its contribution to child Welfare.

R : You mentioned earlier that you were in the tribal belt of Orissa, working with the Santhali tribals for over 6 months. Could you give us more details on this project ?

Plan International came up with a proposal, which required us to work with the Santhali tribals of Orissa. The children of these adivasi tribals were not getting education of any form. They had no schools in the forest areas. They wanted us to collect folk stories from the tribals, prepare educational kits and empower the women of the community to teach their children.

This was a big challenges for us, as none of us in the group knew Santhali or Oriya. We had to take help from the translators, get the stories in their native tongue, prepare educational kits and then set up the learning centres. The tribal women, who had some kind of primary
education in their villages(before they got married and settled in the forest areas), rose up to the challenge too and till date are doing fantastic work in the learning centres there.

We successfully establised 200 learning centres, where the women come in the mornings, take classes for their children (mixed age groups) and then leave for their respective work in the forests. The dedication and the determination of these women to educate their offsprings, is simply amazing.

R : Can you tell us a bit about your international experiences ?

In 2002, as part of a cultural exchange program we visited Japan, Singapore and South Africa. We gave performances as well as conducted training workshops. In 2004, we visited Poland where a storytelling course was conducted by us in the University of Poland. We were also invited to the inauguration of The Storyteller Museum and it is such a wonderful place. It was a matter of pride, that Kathalaya's was the first performance at the museum.

In 2008, there was a Sweden trip where we gave performances and also extended help in setting up the Academy of storytelling in the University of Gothenburg. Recently I attended the Storytelling festival in Brazil (July -August 2010) and had a fabulous time interacting with the people there.(For more interesting experiences of Geetha in this festival, check out the October newsletter of Kathalaya ).

R : Having attended a number of storytelling festivals abroad, what are the differences that you see in contemporary Indian storytellers and others ?

In India, storytelling as a performance art has been there for centuries. So we have numerous accessories to go with it - puppets, chitrakathas, kavads, musical instruments and so on. Whereas I notice that international story tellers primarily rely on themselves to narrate the stories. Some people use musical instruments to supplement their storytelling, but nothing else is involved. It is recognised as a unique art form, mainly for adults. They have separate puppet shows and usually do not mix it with storytelling. They do think that, integrating storytelling into education, is a novel concept and more people are trying to embrace this idea.

R : Do you think that the traditional storytelling methods of India like - Villupattu, Burra Katha are still prevalent in the villages or the modern visual media have overruled them ?

TV has wiped off these numerous and unique storytelling forms of India, even from the rural areas. In Rajasthan, a little bit of the old tradition is still alive. During the birth of a child, these storytellers come to the houses and sing songs and narrate stories of the child's ancestry. Even if any of these storytelling forms have survived, they are highly localised and there is not much awareness about them.

I would like to express my wholehearted thanks to Geetha for taking the time to talk to me for this interview. Geetha is currently in Scotland for performing at The Scottish International Storytelling festival. It is interesting to note that this festival coincides exactly with our CROCUS festival !

For more information on the current activities of Kathalaya, please do check their website.


Lavs said...

Just saw the half page article in The Hindu Young World edition. Congrats guys. My heart swelled up in pride!Keep up the good work:)

artnavy said...

What a lovely interview with a lovely lady Ranjani.

I am so keen to visit them and learn from them...I had to agree (even with my ltd exposure) that in India story telling can/ does employ props whereas elsewhere it seems to be more just the teller himself or herself often.

@Lavs- Thanks. We were thrilled as well.

sandhya said...

Wonderful interview, Ranjani. Had heard of her from you, but did not know that she was an educator who got into storytelling. It is something to be able to work in a field that one is passionate about, isn't it?

Hear her totally re the disconnect between all the wonderful resources available and curriculum in schools. I remember being most influenced by a teacher in my 7th-10th grades who taught us social studies and english, who really brought it all alive with her out-of-the-box teaching, with liberal use of stories. I wish there were more people like her and Geeta Ramanujam.

sathish said...

interesting know that there is a storytelling museum. That website is pretty interesting - with tonnes of interviews with storytellers.

Tharini said...

Wow Ranjani. This was a scintillating interview! Loved Geetha's radiant smile and the way Kathalaya began, with those story telling sessions on the bus. And was completely humbled and fascinated to read about the Santhali tribals project. It seems like a volume of a task and to think those women have now been empowered thus! Wow. Its very touching. I would love to be involve in something like that!

Thanks Geetha for all the insights yo gave us into storytelling. I am inspired all over again, to find a cosy corner with my boys an tell some tales! :)

Vibha said...

Ranjani, what a wonderful interview. And really the story telling sessions in India can be so lively and colorful thanks to the wide range of accessories that can be used here.

Meera Sriram said...

Thoroughly enjoyed it! And actually very inspired about a lot of things - to take a passion all the way, to bypass roadblocks like in Orissa and to bring back home the richness from the global experiences. Most importantly I am very curious to know about ways in which storytelling can be incorporated into education - what areas are appropriate for adopting this and how far can mainstream academics be stretched to work with this art form?

Thank you Geetha and Ranjani for bringing this to us!

Anusha said...

Ranjani, thank you so much for bringing an inspiring individual to CROCUS.

Thank you, Geetha for talking to us; really wish I was your student at Valley School, Social studies would have been my favorite subject! Kudos for taking a small beginning to make such a prominent difference in so many lives!

Poppins said...


"Telling stories, in my opinion, addresses the fundamental aspects of communication - listening and speaking. When these two are taken care of, reading and writing fall into place by themselves."

Couldn't agree more.

utbtkids said...

Wonderful Ranjani!!!

A charismatic personality, an educator, dedication, social awareness.... Ms.Ramanujam is inspiring.

Natarajan Srinivasan said...

Very inspiring!

Praba Ram said...

Thanks Ranjani and Geetha for an engaging and inspiring interview. I have always been curious about Kathalaya's activities - stories on wheels, teacher empowerment and such. Nice to hear the full story from Geetha herself. She has so beautifully shared with us her own personal journey and hurdles and achievements.

I have also read about Delhi based Katha, and their work in different areas of story research and resources. I am curious if there is room for anny collaborations planned with like-minded organisations? We have so many patchwork of NGOs working in similar areas of reading, story-telling and literacy.
Sharing resources
nd learning from each other's experiences and best practices, might help create a national model and network for schools and communities!

I can't wait to attend a story-telling session by Kathalaya, and also if I can, participate in their training workshop as well. Thanks again to you both for such an awe-inspiring interview!

Harini Gopalswami Srinivasan said...

Geetha really has to be experienced to be fully appreciated! Her warm vibrant personality, the excitement she conveys as a storyteller, and all the funny faces, noises and snatches of songs she uses are indescribable! I was a parent volunteer at the Valley School when she was librarian and have attended a storytelling course at Kathalaya, so I've really seen her grow into her role over the years. Congrats, Geetha and Ranjani on a great interview!

ranjani.sathish said...

Thank you everyone and glad that you enjoyed the interview ! She is truly a wonderful person :-)

Harini, it is so nice to hear your personal experiences with Geetha. I agree completely with all that you have written about Geetha !! The more you interact with her, the more you feel inspired.

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