The tradition of storytelling is as old as Hindu culture with its immense impact having defined our very way of life.
Geeta Ramanujam is a Veteran Trainer, Story Coach who has 22 years of experience in the field of storytelling. She is the founder of Kathalaya - The House of Stories that trains and encourages people in the art of storytelling. She has a Masters in Economics & also Education and is a faculty at The Azim Premji University & University of Gothenburg, Sweden
The Indian tradition of Storytelling
A tradition means along established custom or belief passed on from one generation to another. In India storytelling has been this movement, which they passed on to us from the time of creation through yogis, saints, grandparents and gurus. Epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are the offspring’s of such a culture and we need to continue to be the keepers of this tradition.
In the Indian tradition, this is precisely how we have preserved and passed on the stories not just as entertainment but more importantly for learning. The Gurus and masters in the Gurukula system of education using ‘Stories’ as a tool of learning that taught concepts and values.
Through stories, older generations passed on their oral laws and understanding of the subtle laws that constitute human existence. Thus by studying oral stories, we understand many ancient belief systems and ideologies. For example, one of the famous stories is that of Dattatreya, the three-headed leader of the Avadootas and his many gurus. This immortal yogi and sage understand the essence of existence from twenty-four gurus in nature including the sun moon, wind, deer, trees, earth etc. This story illustrates how every moment of considered awareness can be a learning experience and how we can learn from Prakriti, the environment into which we are born. Thus by studying oral stories, we understand many ancient belief systems and ideologies.
In each state, the stories had localised characters especially the folk tales and that became the culture of each state too. You will not find Kangaroo in any of the Indian tales and in the same way, you will not find an elephant or a peacock in a Swedish folk tale. People told these stories around a fireplace in the local regions in their own styles.
The beginning of my storytelling journey goes back to 1947 when British rule in India officially ended. Independent India then started to rebuild herself and a modern era had begun. People migrated to cities in search of greener pastures and employment. Indians shared stories of freedom and families were now beginning to become a nuclear unit.
My parents, too, were a part of this movement. My father came to Mumbai in search of better prospects and my mother hailed from Tanjore in South India. They had grown up on a rich diet of stories. However, in 1956 after I was born, I began to listen to my parents’ exchange of sounds words and stories to each other. Since there was an absence of technology, I grew up reading books, especially classics to read. My father read aloud in English and my mother told me stories in Tamil. My mother told me folk tales and my father read stories from history and legends. I accompanied my parents to religious discourses and afterwards replayed the Harikatha teller’s styles, the film stars and cartoon characters from films. Play reading, socialising and listening to stories were the key learning formats in a typical day in the 1960s. Growing up in the 1960s and 70s was fun. While we went to English medium schools we also visited friends relatives, listened to discourses, stories from my parents and grandmother. Listening played a predominant part in my upbringing, be it tales, music, songs, cultural programs or movies.
One of the tales I vividly remember is How EEEE.... (A housefly in Tamil) forgot his name and my mother telling it to me in Tamil.
My father told me stories of Napoleon, the Romans, with classics like Ivanhoe, the Scarlet pimpernel, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield also thrown in. The styles they adopted were so different. My mother had an exaggerated expression when she told the stories and my father concentrated on the language and the tone of the hero as he told the story.
Storytelling and Story Writing
A storyteller is a teller of tales. A storywriter writes stories. Is there a difference one may ask? Perhaps there is. While one is more an extrovert, the other is probably an introvert. One begins the journey outside sharing collecting and giving stories whilst the writer jots downs listens observes and notes down points.
It is strange that from the quiet corners of a library I emerged like the moth out of a cocoon to be a storyteller. Not to forget that vesting period of being within is what prepared me to emerge out as a storyteller. From 1998, I began to wander from one land to another crossing mountains, hills, valleys, cities and towns - covering many parts of our own country and the vast expanse of the Earth.
The Storytelling movement has been a very emotional journey for me. I have cried, laughed, enjoyed, and got frustrated felt lonely and excited all at different times. What perhaps helped me to wade through this journey was travelling to different nooks and corners of the World exploring collecting and sharing stories. A storyteller’s journey helps one to flower both within and outside of ourselves.
From the year 2000 I began to expand my centres of storytelling developed an academy to teach Storytelling and had the unique opportunity to facilitate training centres around the world.
In the laps of the Himalayas
2018- After a twenty-three years anubhava –experience of travelling and training with storytelling around the World I opened a centre in the Himalayas in collaboration with the Himalayan writer’s retreat to offer residential courses. In fact, I inaugurated the centre at Sathkol in the Kumaon region with the Beginners course in 2018. After offering a few courses my mind slowly began to merge with the snow-clad mountains. I began to venture, more into the Himalayan ranges. Here the mind compelled me to stay beyond my storytelling work.
After one such course, the mind slowly began to withdraw and the moth settled on the leaf of a tree. The golden heavens of the Himalayan peaks opened out. I felt the need to unwind and knew that it cannot happen overnight. I had built many invisible walls of prison around me. Just as the world moved, I too moved along logging on to Facebook, WhatsApp, planning strategies on expanding to the regions I needed to cover, travel, plan and facilitate people.
Ironically, the people who attended my courses felt de-stressed and transformed and commented that the course gave them the ‘High’ feeling.
I felt I was floating above the clouds. My body and mind began to urge me to return to the source. While the people in cities were agitating in their brains about intellectual reflections, I began to crave for silence and cessation of thoughts.
As I entered my room in the house made of mud, I chanced upon the snow-clad peaks. They stood tall against the fading violet sunset rays. It was night and I slept alone in a cottage that night. It was the 120th batch that I was facilitating here and the people and participants had left after the four-day residential course. My tired feet urged me to make it rest. I was now alone here facing the three beautiful mountain peaks of the Trishul and the Kanchenjunga range. I watched them as I walked back to the cottage made of the local mud and settled into my room on the top from where I could watch them. The air filled my lungs.
In that sacred silence, I heard my heartbeat and breath and felt that they were competing to be louder than the other was. It was late in the evening and my tired body watched the beautiful sunset. As the sun showed off his purple-pink dress and the sky was, folding him in - fear and awe all grasped me at the same time. I by now had gotten over the fear of darkness but now. I sensed the cicada and a sweet song of the robin bulbul not too far away.
That night I suddenly woke up to a loud thumping sound above my tiled roof. I imagined the fox, leopard and my still mind suddenly became agitated. What could it be? It was very loud as if it was very close to me. I dare not open the door. I waited and waited. Then I heard some crushing sound of leaves. It lasted a while and then all of a sudden the silence was back. I woke up that morning and went to the cook who explained that it was a * ‘Yellow-throated Pine Marten. It usually comes to the Eucalyptus tree in the night and eats some fruits.
The next morning and day was my day of BEING IN THE MOMENT- nothing to do. I read a book, had a cup of green tea, and sat facing the three Himalayan peaks Trishul, Nanda Devi, Panchachuli facing me on the opposite side. (By the way, Sathkol is on the way to Almora- the Kumaon region of the Himalayan ranges).
The next morning the tall trees surrounded the place and slowly I began to merge with the peaks. I could see the top part of the complete creamy white slowly enter my head and freeze my thoughts. I slowly began to feel my breath and heartbeat in unison and the bitterness and ego fall off slowly from my insides like the dry dead golden leaves that fell off from the deodar tree close to me. “Freedom” and joy seemed to dance within. This was perhaps the best activity that was happening after ages. Moreover, all this time I realised I had been running and running thinking, I am occupying myself like the chicken with a cut head.
After lunch and a little rest, I decided to take a walk around the curve of a road that bends towards the Ramchandra Mission gate. I walked slowly upwards and then downhill again past the pear trees and kept gazing at the peaks as they show different profiles of themselves to me.
The trees echoed the mountains as a dog suddenly brushed past me with a short bark. As I moved upward, I reached a teashop-(the only one) as it was always the last one to close. In these parts of the Kumaon region of the Himalayas, there is just one person with one teashop open after every 2 to 3 kms. This man not only makes tea and samosas but also acts in the night street plays in the town. He is Ravana, Bhima and does many roles from the Epics as entertainments for the people here.
He sits and makes hot samosas for everyone and he can talk, sit, stand and make people happy all the time. Generally, on the second day of our course, we all walk up to this shop and have samosas and tea. His hands have a magical precision and he can remove the samosas exactly on time. I have a quiet time with him as he narrates his tale and serves me the tea. I watch the peaks, which look taller from here.
As I walked up the curve of the road that bends downward, tracing the snow-filled mountains an old woman was also walking up the slope. She had a huge bundle of wood ten times her weight on her head. She could balance it without holding it with her hands. Her face was freckled but her steps were firm. She walked sure-footed with confidence talking to her colleague along the way. She asked me if I was fine as I was trying to put one leg after the other towards the upward slope.
She must have thought of how urban bred people like me find it so difficult to walk up the slope. All with good intentions as the mountain people here are quite innocent, plain-hearted people perhaps living in the moment. I wondered if they even knew what Ego meant. Their lives are busy tending to the cows, cutting collecting and carrying the wood from the forest, traversing the mountain ranges and walking up like the spiders. Then again walking to the nearby spring to fetch water, cook and fend for themselves and their families.
Remembrances like a pleasant perfume lingered from the past and as I watched the golden sun turn a deep orange and dressing, the white peaks in the distance.
I remembered that it was during a similar trip to a mountain when the mind was still young fresh and happy that I had been to *Tiruvannamalai –south India in 1996 when I actually heard the mountain speak to me during my parikrama around it. I had found my first story.
That was the Story I found to embark my career upon as a storyteller in 1996. Every time I narrated that story, I had my listeners completely engrossed.
As the evening lingered and the sunless sky turned into dusk the stillness within and without began to grow more intense. The wind heralded me to return to the tree and I pick up a book to read, relax, and allow my body to wrap itself into sleep.
The chapter I was reading was the story of the woman saint called Tenzin Palmo who meditated for 12 long years on Tibetan side of the Himalayas – 13200 feet high in a cave as late as 1976. As my eyelids drooped off into sleep, I remembered that face of the saint who helped me when I first climbed the peaks of Gomukh in 2010. Well, that is another story and perhaps will recount it for you the next time.
Into its fold
The folds of the Himalayas
Filling the space between
The Earth and the sky-
My hands stretch out to reach them.
As I walk past the curve of the road.
They shrink towards the horizon
As they merge into the golden dusk.
Marten, any of several weasel-like carnivores of the genus Martens (family Mustelidae), found in Canada and parts of the United States and in the Old World from Europe to the Malay region. ... Martens are forest-dwelling and usually solitary. They climb easily and feed rapaciously on animals, fruit, and carrion.
*Tiruvannamalai is a temple town and a major pilgrimage centre in Tamil Nadu. Tiruvannamalai is named after the central deity of the Annamalaiyar Temple, Annamalaiyar. Every full moon, tens of thousands of pilgrims worship Annamalaiyar by circumambulating the Annamalai hill barefoot. The circumambulation covers a distance of 14 kilometres (8.7 mi) and is referred to as Girivalam. According to Hindu legend, the walk removes sins, fulfils desires and helps achieve freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth.