Written by Ruchi Dhona
Many, many years ago, there lived a princess. She had the most beautiful black hair that anyone had ever seen. When she let her hair loose, they would spread out like the branches of this banyan tree! Everyone praised her beautiful hair, but the princess longed for something else..
And thus began our storytelling session. Sitting under the shade of an old banyan tree, about a hundred faces lit up with amazement as they listened to the story of a princess who had the most beautiful hair. At first they couldn’t understand why would the princess be upset about her beautiful, lustrous hair. But as the story progressed, they empathized with her pain. Imagine someone needing a hundred maids to help take care of and adorn her tresses (at this point in time, a few kids were invited to come hold the black duppatta tied to the storyteller’s hair and a few others pretended to shampoo and decorate it). They started empathizing with the princess a little - all that weight would weigh her down constantly, making it impossible for her to move around. They would be miserable if they couldn’t move and had to sit at one place all the time.
The kind of storytelling that I am talking about here is like a theatrical performance with a solo performer. Through a deliberated set of movements, facial expressions and voice modulation, a storyteller can bring a story alive. Props can be used sparingly as per the need of the story. For instance, for the story of the princess I borrowed a black duppatta from the teacher on the spot and tied it to my hair to give a sense of the long hair.
At this point, one could wonder that there are several ways to introduce children to the world of stories and books. Reading independently obviously is the first one. Then there’s the much relied upon read-aloud, which works wonderfully too. There are several others as well, which are equally impactful. Then why the emphasis on storytelling?
For more context, in 2016 we started working with 8 government primary schools in Sohna, Gurgaon. At that time, we were naive enough to think that just providing interesting books would be enough to create readers out of children. Of course nothing was further away from reality. After a few months of giving away the books, we realised that the books were all eating dust at the schools. So the next logical step was to visit each of the schools and sit along with the kids to help them read. We also tried reading to them. But the average number of children at the schools is 100. And the average number of volunteers on our best day would be three. The numbers were obviously not in our favor. And then there is the complication of children being from different age groups and reading levels. We tried to segregate them by class and focus on a single class, but that wasn’t such a good idea either. All the children who were not a part of it would flock around the door and windows with pleading eyes. And then we stumbled upon storytelling.
It has worked wonderfully so far - it helps us in engaging all children together. Typically we sit out in the open, under the shade of a tree. Children sit on jute mats. And we have a very clear objective - it is to get each child sitting in the audience to be intrigued about the book. Enough for them to want to hold it, browse through the pages and finally read it. And we have become smarter with experience, so we don’t assume that children are able to comprehend everything that we say. So our sessions are in Hindi, their mother tongue. And we interweave a lot of questions. Simple ones, some complex ones, sometimes a few around emotional intelligence or logical deduction. With every question the story pauses and only moves ahead when the kids have responded to the questions. Sometimes they are a little shy and take some time to open up. But when they do, they amaze us. The understand things we don’t expect them to understand. They anticipate stories like we hadn’t expected them to.
We want them to step in the world of stories, something that every child deserves. With each story we want to go on their own adventures to far-off lands. We want them to make friends with the characters. We want them to find their safe spaces within these stories, away from the violent, hostile environment that they are a part of. But obviously, what we are doing right now is just a tiny drop in the ocean. Currently we only have one storyteller on-board and 8 schools. Given that our sessions are scheduled for Saturdays, each school gets access to a storytelling session once in a couple of months. But we are hopeful about bringing more storytelling volunteers on board, to increase the frequency of this to two sessions per month.
When we were wrapping up the story of the princess, we overheard some children holding the book and discussing alternative endings to the story. When we went back, we got to hear how every single child wanted to read that book. And we signed a pact – that the next time we visit the school, there would be another storytelling session. But we would be the audience.
P.S. Our princess was no damsel in distress. She decided to take charge and finds true happiness. If you would like to know more, check out The Princess with the Longest Hair by Katha Books.