Keeping the Art of Storytelling Alive

When was the last time you heard a story from your grandmother or father?

When was the last time you heard a story from your grandmother or father? Your answer, most probably, is “it’s been a long time”. The fast pace of our lives, nuclear families and high-end gadgets have suppressed the simple yet beautiful art form of storytelling which had served as a bonding activity within a family or community. 

But all is not lost, thanks to a bunch of passionate storytellers. They come from varied professional backgrounds and ages, but are bound by the thread of storytelling.

Meet Peter Viegas, an entrepreneur, who entered into the world of storytelling after attending a conference in Bengaluru. It was hosted by Acoustic Traditional, a group working to archive and preserve tribal stories. It was there that he attended a workshop by Eric Miller of the World Storytelling Institute and made a promise to the group to bring storytelling to Pune. In 2012, Peter along with a few other like-minded people, started meeting up at Empress Gardens and Nallah Park to narrate and share stories. Soon ‘The Storytellers’ group took shape.

What makes a good storyteller?

Besides an interest or passion, what drives a person to become a storyteller? Chetan Shetty, who works with Extentia Information Technology, initially chose storytelling as an easier alternative to amateur theatre. “With no rehearsal schedules, no production hassles and no tickets to be sold, it was a perfect choice”, says Chetan. 

But as he ventured deep, he realised that storytelling has the power to start debates, inspire people, change perspectives and above all, aid in healing. Bhavna Dubey, a final year student of MA Economics from Savitribai Phule Pune University discovered the beauty of storytelling before lockdown, when The Tathapi Trust hosted an interaction on Sexuality at her hostel. At the end of it, Bhavna was fascinated and found herself asking the storytellers how she could listen to more stories. Bhavna relates, “I like the fact that storytelling gives me the space to choose the story I want to narrate and how I want to unfold it before an audience.”

Different storytellers move ahead with their craft for different reasons. “Conveying a myriad of emotions in a neutral and non-threatening manner,” is what motivates Somnath Sanganeria who comes with an experience in Human Resource, Behavioural Training and Counselling. He adds, “Storytelling no doubt entertains and educates but it also has the power to provoke thoughts and emotions.”

Storytelling may not demand a refined skill set but what makes a good storyteller? “Everybody is a storyteller and has a story to share. Even when a person does not read, there’s so much happening in their lives that they can relate it as a story”, says freelancer Sunita Shetty who was in the corporate world for 29 years and made an entry into the storytelling world four years back. 

That brings us to the question, how do they hold the attention of the audience? “What is important is having a connect with the story, only then can you portray it to the audience,” says Sunita. “Once the connection to the story is made, you are confident to tell it,” shares Bhavna. “Conveying the emotions I felt from the story gets audience attention,” adds Somnath.

Is the art fading?

Some people feel the art of storytelling is fading. Remarks Chetan frankly, “I am not armed with data to say if the art is dying. Yes, there is a great need for us to connect with our fellow humans outside of social media. Storytelling is a good way of doing that. Almost every regional language has a strong tradition of storytelling – be it Ramleela, Kathakathan or Dastangoi. In English, storytelling was never a thing, not in India at least. Storytelling in English is always associated with children; storytelling for grown-ups is alien to most people.”

With that as background, what are storytellers doing to keep the art alive. Peter, who is also a facilitator/coordinator at ‘The Storytellers’ group says, “We engage in discussions with the audience after a story is narrated. Workshops, coaching and mentoring one another and new entrants ensures the baton is held high and passed on. Events for corporates, NGOs, colleges help spread word about storytelling and so do mega events like Chouboli and Munshi Premchand stories. And as the group has storytellers of all ages, with the youngest being eight years old and the oldest being 65, there’s a lot of momentum built.” 

He goes on to add, “Most storytellers operate individually. If they are planning an event, they have to invite other individual storytellers. The group is unique in the way they operate – as a guild.”

So, let’s raise a toast to these individuals who are passionate about stories and storytelling and are working to preserve the art.