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Michael Kusugak in a session with the children.
Michael Kusugak in a session with the children.

The new storytellers

Storytelling for children gets a boost with a growing number of festivals and a new interest among publishers

The growing number of literature festivals for children and new children’s book stores are clear indications of a resurgence in storytelling as an art form. Many authors, as well as imprints such as Zubaan, Tulika and Tara, are focusing on children-centric or young-adult (YA) writing.

Each festival comes with a distinct flavour but common aim. Be it Bookaroo in November, Katha Utsav in December, the first of a four-part Kahani Karnival earlier this month, or the Kathakar—International Storytellers Festival, slated to be held in the Capital from 30 January-1 February.

Kathakar, for instance, will see the convergence of stories for children and grown-ups on one platform. Each year, this festival, started in 2010, highlights the storytelling traditions and methods of a country or region. This year, the spotlight will be on Scandinavian folk stories and tales from the Silk Road, says Rachna Bisht, president of Nivesh, the non-profit which started the festival and also organizes the Ghummakkad Narain Travelling Children’s Literature Festival every year. Nivesh works on women’s and children’s health and education issues.

It will also be highlighting Indian traditions like the khongjom parva ballad-singing style from Manipur and the folk theatre form baithak ni bhavai of Gujarat. Artistes such as Britain’s Emily Parish, and Hungary’s Daniel Hall, will perform at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, alongside Indian storytellers.

Indian themes

Writer and educationist Shamim Padamsee’s, launched in 2011, is on the same page. Padamsee and her team, who have posted more than 400 book recommendations on the website, review and promote India-centric books for children. “Most books read by Indian children are written from a Western perspective and this extends to the treatment of the natural world in children’s literature. This disconnect in their formative years may lead to a complete disregard for issues that are uniquely Indian. A child who reads books about native flora and fauna is more likely to work towards conserving it as an adult," says Padamsee.

Padamsee believes that the children depicted in today’s books grapple with real problems. The quality of language, and not just the illustration, is better. “Publishers do not shy away from publishing books for kids on sensitive topics—female infanticide and drug abuse are no longer taboo topics. A good story does wonders for the healthy development of a child’s mind. It allows a child to experience both far-off worlds and to see those close to home through new eyes," she says.

Libby Hathorn, an Australian poet-writer and winner of that country’s 2014 Alice Award, who was here for the Katha Utsav, would agree. “When I first came to India about a decade ago," says Hathorn, “I interacted with a lot of Indian female writers who told me that children in India read a lot of British books. There were, of course, Ramayan stories and other myth-fictions, but there was a dearth of contemporary Indian writing, which is not the case today. Katha, I believe, has had a role to play in the proliferation of these books in schools. The level of sophistication in kids here is higher. What I liked about Katha was that the essence of storytelling is being valued, with writing sessions, aspects of art and creative thinking."

Encouraging writers

Katha, a Delhi-based non-profit, has been at it for nearly a quarter-century. Founded by Geeta Dharmarajan, it began as a children’s health and environment magazine, Tamasha, in 1988, hoping to introduce children of non-literate families to the issues of family well-being, girl empowerment, and sustainable development. A year later, it launched its “I Love Reading" initiative. In 2013, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) came on board, encouraging the effort to recognize emerging writers and reach out to thousands of schools.

This annual programme culminates in a shortlist of children selected for a three-day national writers’ workshop at the Katha Utsav. In end-December, the second edition of this programme saw more than 600 CBSE schools and around 8,000 students taking part. Around 400 students were shortlisted for the three-day national creative writing and illustration workshop held at the Capital’s Sanskriti School. Twelve writers, illustrators, journalists and theatre practitioners were chosen to help hone the children’s creative writing and painting skills.

Five award-winning international writers and illustrators mentored at the Utsav, offering global exposure. Hathorn dealt with figures of speech in writing. Canadian author and storyteller Michael Kusugak brought with him stories of his childhood, and the Arctic and Inuit lifestyle. Costa Rican illustrator Wen Hsu, whose first tryst with Katha was in 2010, when she illustrated Rosalind Wilson’s book For The Love Of A Cat, loved the enthusiasm of the teenagers. Iranian illustrator, designer and freelance artist Negin Ehtesabian describes her experience as a lucky accident.

New Delhi-based arts practitioner Piyali Dasgupta introduced children to narrative therapy and psychodrama in storytelling, veteran actor and theatre director Arvind Gaur encouraged participants to act out plays, children’s books illustrator Atanu Roy helped them capture snippets of life in sketches, and haiku poet Kala Ramesh’s sessions resulted in 195 haikus.

Making it interactive

Storytelling doesn’t necessarily mean using pen and paper, for ideas can come anywhere and in any form. Shinibali Mitra Saigal, one of the founders of the Kahani Karnival, echoes the sentiment. She and four others—Rakhi Prasad, Meetu Agrawal Srikanth, Sangeetha Vadanan and Madhumita Chatterjee—came together to launch the Kahani Karnival in January 2014 with the aim of making storytelling for children more instinctive.

“The main thing that bonded us was that all five us all had a background in children’s literature. Rakhi, Meetu and Sangeetha used to run a children’s book store called Treasure Books, Madhumita has been trained in storytelling for children, and I used to edit the kids’ section for TimeOut Mumbai. Also, we all were new moms and had a great interest in books. We were very inspired with what Bookaroo was doing for children’s literature in Delhi and wanted to do something similar in Mumbai. But when we started developing the idea, it became clear that we couldn’t possibly restrict it to just authors reading out chapters from their or others’ books. We started thinking out of the box and made it a storytelling festival using varied mediums," says Saigal.

The first of the Karnival’s four-part series this year, aimed at promoting different forms of storytelling, was held at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum from16-17 January.

The founders hope that the festival will evolve into a festival of stories with multidisciplinary art forms, from fine art to puppetry, dance and music. So, January saw a mix of reading and performance: It opened with a classical music concert by children, with ragas used to tell the story of a curious little boy, and closed with a performance by the National School of Drama.

The second leg, expected to be held in April, will focus on theatre. The third leg, in August, will be themed on art and films. The fourth and final leg will be held in December, with music and dance forming the core.

With authors being encouraged to make their sessions more interactive, writer Parinita Shetty used Anushka Ravishankar’s book, Captain Coconut And The Case Of The Missing Bananas, to take the children on a treasure hunt in the adjoining Rani Baug area, which has trees that are about 100 years old. Architect and graphics designer Madhumita Nandi Srivastava took her batch around the museum’s sculpture garden for ideas on making postcards. There was a guided tour of artist Atul Dodiya’s ongoing exhibition, 7000 Museums: A Project For The Republic Of India, at the museum. The children returned to recreate their version of the museum. The world of object theatre inspired a session by actor Ratnabali Bhattacharjee where students had to use props like a feather duster, fork, scarf and spectacles to come up with stories.

A changing culture

The renewed interest in writing and real-life themes is reflected in the world of publishing. Karthika Nair and artist Joëlle Jolivet’s book The Honey Hunter (Young Zubaan, 2014) is about the devastating effects of an oil spill in the Sela river of the Sundarbans in Bangladesh. Kate Darnton’s The Misfits (Young Zubaan, 2014) is the first Indian children’s book that talks about the Right to Education (RTE) Act and the inclusion of children from economically weaker sections in mainstream schools. And Himanjali Sankar’s Talking Of Muskaan (Duckbill Books, 2014) is one of the first YA books to take up the issue of homosexuality among teenagers.

India, it would seem, is warming up to a progressive reading and writing culture for children.

(Chanpreet Khurana contributed to this story.)

Arunima Mazumdar is a Delhi-based journalist. She was a mentor at the Katha Utsav 2014.

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