The Art of Storytelling – Deepa Kiran

Swapna Narayanan

Stories are a lifeline of any society. Folk tales, ballads, poems, mythological tales, lores, rimes etc. are the conduits to build cultures and societies.

Sadly, with rapid modernization and technological gadgets making its way into our day to day lives so intrinsically, this art of storytelling is at the verge of extinction these days.

While I have nothing against the technology, for we must accept the fact that, with technology turning intuitive, a 1.5 year old child is today able to make a Skype call on a mobile device without any intervention from an elder. The child understands that searching for his granny’s picture and touching the green (primary color) button next to it, will enable him to speak to her.

That said, whatever happened to that simple and beautiful childhood immersed in stories narrated by our elders that enabled the children to paint an imagery and visualize the story in their minds.

Fortunately, while it seems to be a trend dying down to history, there are people who are working towards keeping it alive.

8345b630-7da5-4733-a668-8077f0bd0d91.jpgPeople like Deepa Kiran – a globetrotting professional story teller based in Hyderabad – are today working actively towards reviving this art form, not only for children but for even teachers. While it does give immense benefits for children, it plays a critical role in empowering teachers and enabling them to develop a teaching approach that is exciting, inclusive and most importantly not boring!

Let us talk to Deepa today and see how she is making waves in a unique and unheard role of a story teller.

Swapna: Deepa, Eyra is so happy to get an opportunity to have this conversation with you. For us, you are an amalgamation of a creative woman, a strong mother and a professional storyteller – beautiful yet strong.

You have a formal education in English literature. Yet, you left the oft chosen career paths and became a storyteller where you can not only write and speak, but also sing, dance, and act. How did that happen? Tell us about your childhood and your journey so far?

Deepa: Thank you Swapna. Well, I think it was a natural progression. My childhood was rooted in being curious and acknowledging different cultures and exploring literature and arts. While my father ensured that there was enough curiosity for the world of literature by supplying adequate books to read, my mother worked towards building my foundation in performing arts. I learnt Bharatanatyam and dancing to Rabindra Sangeet music. And we used to be avid followers of all forms of art – Carnatic music, Kathak etc. I remember my mother used to regularly record and replay DD programs and I watched hours and hours of these recordings and also live performances, soaking in the mudras, abhinayas and rasas of renowned performers. My world, during my growing up years, included curiosity and warm appreciation of the world around me – the culture, cuisine, festivals, language and more.

Formally, I graduated in Nutrition, completed my masters in English Literature followed, after a gap, by a post graduate specialization in the Teaching of English. I had accidentally come into education, when I took up a contractual appointment with Kendriya Vidyalaya as an English teacher for class 11 & 12.  And the journey continued with many KVs across India.

To capture the attention of my students and to generate interest in English, I often used stories and even songs. Any school I joined, in a month I would be quite popular with the students. It is during those years that I realized two things – the magic of storytelling and my love for telling stories. Using a story always ensured there is an excited, inquisitive and an engaged bunch of students eager to learn more!

Between 1997 and 2002, I was also working with All India Radio (AIR) where I learnt many things about audio work – documentaries, interviews, talk shows, drama, music shows and storytelling – Alice In Wonderland. And the finer nuances of voice modulation and intonation developed during that grueling training phase.

And then in 2008, a critical ailment urged me to sit down and put things in the right perspective. It was one of those moments of epiphany, realizing that I have only one life! I decided to tell stories and teach dance – decided to follow my heart. There on, I slowly moved towards the structured format of storytelling. I remember my first summer camp, I had called for 15 students, and I got an overwhelming number of 25 registrations.  And thus my journey began, and continued (after a hiatus) in doing what I love.

Swapna: Children are the foundation stone of our society. Keeping them engaged, igniting their beautiful minds, empowering them to visualize and paint an imagery in their minds, and encouraging them to open up and articulate their thoughts is a tough task for any teacher. It only gets a lot more difficult in today’s times with the influx of technological gadgets all around. Yet, you are at it. And how! Your workshops are always packed! So how are you able to achieve that?

Deepa: Swapna, for me working with children is easy! I think it is primarily because they are not conditioned yet on ‘how to respond’. They have no inhibitions and so are open and ready to walk with you into the beautiful world you create together with them. I believe they allow their imagination to be sparked easily. And, I love doing that. I connect with children, bond with them; trigger the creative seed and together we travel on the wings of words, across time and space, beyond the possibilities of logic and reasoning.  And they are ready, to feel, to experience, and to love and laugh.

Being honest and forthright with you – children are wonderful teachers, if only we are willing to listen with care and openness.

Swapna: You do a lot of sessions across the globe, and in each of these you have been bringing out the innumerable tales of our country, our rich cultural heritage. Tell us something more about your global experiences.

Deepa: It has been an enriching one and continues to be only more rewarding. I have toured many countries as part of International Storytelling Festival invitations and workshop presentations and am amazed that always there is a significant audience wanting to hear you.

Each country and its people have a story to tell and stories to listen. Now, let me tell you a story!

In 2016, on my arrival in Tehran, Iran, the moment I answered the taxi-driver that I am a storyteller, I could tell that for him, I had transformed from a tourist into a celebrity. And I discovered why in the following week spent in Iran.

Well, Iran has a strong culture of storytelling called as the Naqqali form of art. It is similar to our Hindi form of storytelling – KissaGoi. And this continues with immense support from the government and the storytellers are as popular as our film actors in India.

e4e88bbb-08ac-4e0a-a670-ba91d5af2421I love connecting with new cultures in the different countries and find it pleasing that most international storytellers have encountered some stories from India – Ramayana, Mahabharata, Panchtantra, Katha SaritaSagara, folk tales and more. The stories are quite popular.

Whether it is Austria or Scotland, narrating a story to a rapt audience is very fulfilling.  Being a trained dancer and with some basic background in music, I find it a beautiful way of expression to weave in music and movement into the narration. Also what stands out is the Indian context to the telling and the style, yet reaching out through the English language. This brings the connection for an international audience. The language-bond is a strong bond in any situation.

And the audience is able to connect and live the story along with me. For instance, the story of Meera was super successful in Scotland, as the entire visual imagery of Meera’s life being told in English language by me wearing traditional Indian attire, interspersed with bhajans and chants in Indian languages, offered a strong multi-sensory experience with the literature, the visual appeal, the music, the sound effects, all building the rich ambience.

Swapna: Teaching is an art and a science. And you seem to strengthening the artistic aspects of teaching by conducting programs for English language teachers and enabling them to weave a story or two into their teaching methods. How does it work?

Deepa: I help teachers in using the art form of stories while teaching English in their classes. I have specialized in English Language Teaching and help teachers use music, drama and theatre while teaching the syllabus. I have a semi-structured framework that encourages these teachers to strengthen the language and identity issues in students while learning English.

So you will see English teachers who enmesh a story of Tenali Rama or Birbal in their classes, or you will spot a teacher singing the JolaPatalu in Telugu to create interest and support language learning in the classroom.

Learning can be made more engaging and can follow a natural path of learning by using the arts and the local context, making learning relatable.  So I try and build an amalgamated world where literature, Indian and western, can be presented to the students using the core stories of our own culture. And, so far we are finding an overwhelming positive response.

Swapna: A woman does not have it easy. You did not either. What kept you going and pushed you towards making you what you are today? And, what would you like to tell other creative women who are sitting inside a shell, completely unaware that it is they who have to take the first step of resistance?

Deepa: As a single mother of two boys, alongside the beautiful chance to be a parent and to avail interesting professional opportunities, life continues to throw up challenges as well. One of the reasons we feel overwhelmed is that we women attribute too much power to the existing ecosystem around us – be it our family, society etc.

Who gave them that power? We did of course as we knew no better.

We are also attributing very little power to the possible ecosystem we can choose to create around us to influence – be it our friends, family, society etc.

I have now realized that, if you are clear, there is no one to stop you (they can try!). And as you keep going without giving up, there are those who will come and support.

I live a life where I have chosen to earn a living by doing something that I am very passionate about. And let me tell you it does not make it very easy to pay my bills. It is a balance, a choice to do it this way only. I guess I have learnt how important it is to be aware of the consequence of our choices, prioritize and take responsibility.

So, if I am asked to share any of my learnings from life, it would be –

Dear women (sitting inside a self-created shell) – Step out, find the courage, trust yourself, start the journey, make the mistakes, learn and keep going, ignore the naysayers, keep away from those who pull you down. Please live your life.  Yes, it will be tough, but it sure is worth it.

At the age of 41, I have come to totally agree with the simple adage – we have one life. Live it with all your heart and compassion, and live it fearlessly!

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