Once upon a time …
… THERE WAS A STORYTELLER
VIKRAM SRIDHAR is a modern day storyteller from Bangalore, India. Here he shares with MEGHANA ANAND some insights about the art of storytelling and how it is an enabler of the wisdom bridge.
Q: Hi Vikram. Tell us how you came to be a storyteller.
VS: Storytelling connects three broad areas of my interest – theater, conservation and social work – though my academic qualification is in engineering and management. Theater for me meant acting, production, backstage, and ticketing; basically producing a play. I used to work with wildlife organizations in the rescue space in Bangalore, rescuing kites, monkeys and snakes. I also used to work with children, senior citizens and others in the social sector.
Storytelling first happened once when someone asked me, as a theater person, to come and tell a story. But when I looked at the story world a little more deeply, I understood that actually every folktale has flora and fauna deeply embedded in it. And if you extrapolate that into Indian mythology also, every deity has an animal or a bird and a tree or a plant. That means conservation is not outside, it’s already there in our households and folklore, and these stories are what we today call folktales.
Conservation is not only about flora and fauna. It can be about our languages, the textiles we wear, and even our emotions. For example, how do you express anger? How do you use it? That is conserving your own emotions. The Bhagavad Gita says, “Ahankaram balam darpam kamam krodham,” meaning, “Arrogance, strength, pride, lust and anger.” These are all part of our emotional palette. Every story has these emotions. Either as a listener or as a teller we are going through these emotions. That’s what makes us human beings.
What I love from a theater perspective is that it is not about performing on stage, where I need to learn lines by-heart. Storytelling is more candid and more open. Second, I can see the audience’s reactions and change or adapt, by listening to their voices. And third, now I had a tool for social work, and in today’s times you definitely need a tool to make a change. That’s what happened.
I realized that I love being in spaces with children, telling them stories. Who doesn’t like to laugh? So from the Spastic Society to an old-age home to an orphanage, even in hospitals sometimes, story is a medium that I use. It is not only about going to different spaces; even speaking to another human being itself is social work. In today’s times, when people need a lot more of a human voice, just listening itself is therapeutic.
Q: Absolutely. So what kind of stories do you narrate? From where do you get your inspiration and what is the source of your stories?
VS: In today’s world, a huge chunk of what we call folktales, which connect us from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Gujarat to Arunachal, are found only in the children’s section of bookstores. That is my source. A lot of revival has happened in poetry today, but these folktales that have come down to us through generations, are today to be found in books in the children’s section mostly. Of course I give credit to the writers who have documented them. But this is an oral tradition of our country, and when it is no longer orally transmitted, there is no longer life in it.
So my source is just these pure simple tales – The Panchatantra, The Jataka, and even The Stories of King Vikramaditya. If you go deeper into the Vikramaditya stories, there is so much more from an adult’s emotional perspective. Today who knows these stories? They are profound, and told in a simple language which can be understood. For a child it may be just a joke, but for an adult it’s such a strong thing.
So my source is digging the folktales of our country itself. Every state has thousands and thousands of folktales, and that’s where I start my collection. The word ‘folklore’ means ‘wisdom of people’, so it could be anything from Tenali Raman to Birbal, Rabindranath Tagore to Bharatiyar. It could be stories from the history of known people and unknown people, stories about the origin of food and so on.
So one source is definitely folktales, and the other is listening and digging deeper, questioning. When I question, I discover that everything has a story.
Q: Who are your audiences? How do they respond to your sessions?
VS: My assumption is that human beings like to listen to stories. We assume that children are the ones who love stories, whereas I feel that anybody who is emotional will love stories. And I think everyone is emotional.
It’s also a journey for me. Even if I don’t achieve a certain emotional response today, it may happen tomorrow. I am not a storyteller; I am trying to be a storyteller. I may be a storyteller tomorrow and then I will connect more with someone.
Each person responds based on their baggage – on their mindset, how their day passed, and so on. For children there is absolutely no yesterday, today or tomorrow, and that’s the ideal state that we all try to reach. As adults, we are constrained by the traffic, what we are going to make or eat for dinner, and in that, how we express our emotions. So, depending on the day people react to the stories differently.
Q: Storytelling for children is popular, but what triggered you to reach out to adults through this medium?
VS: One trigger was definitely discovering a deeper meaning to the stories we generally tell, like The Hare and the Tortoise. It’s a story we tell children about life, but if you look at it deeper, are we a mammal like the hare or a reptile like the tortoise? Are we running life like the hare or are we walking life like a tortoise?
The original story is in Aesop’s Fables; Aesop was a somewhat romanticized character who is depicted as a Greek slave who was freed because of his cleverness, and ended up becoming an advisor to kings and city states. From the little bit of travel that I have done, I have come across the phrase “Haraka haraka haina baraka”, which is a proverb in Swahili that means “Haste makes waste” (Literally it means “Hurry, hurry, no blessing”). In Hindi, it’s dhire dhire (slowly, slowly); in Tamil, arakka parakka (hurry-burry).
And in Sevagram, where Gandhi lived, there’s a huge placard which says “Mad Rush,” and he talks about how the world will keep running. He quotes Aristotle, Socrates, Vivekananda, Buddha, and says that every generation will have people running, running, running. There will only be a few who run slow. And when these runners look back in life, it will be an empty road. Now if you look at The Hare and the Tortoise story from this perspective, it’s symbolic of this fact of life. And that for me was a trigger.
The second trigger was when I went to the Sabarmati Ashram about two or three years back. I was at their bookstore, and there were these three monkeys that Gandhi is famous for.
A grandparent was showing the three monkeys to the grandchild, asking, “You know what these three are?”
And the grandchild said, “Speak no evil; hear no evil; see no evil.”
I wondered, “Is the child seeing evil, hearing evil or speaking evil? Shouldn’t we be instead asking ourselves? That means the stories we are trying to tell our children are actually meant for ourselves.”
That for me was a big trigger. Maybe that is why adults tell stories! It was not for the children but for the sake of themselves. We are telling stories to ourselves and the children are merely spectators. We are bombarding the spectators today and expecting children to know everything, whereas us adults have lost the charm of relating to something wonderful.
Q: How far does this tradition of storytelling go back?
VS: I think it is from the time we had to do time-pass. Somebody told me a beautiful thing, “Life is between birth and death, and in between we are time-passing.” And if you look at our basic needs, and you take them away, aren’t we doing just storytelling in between? For example, apart from hunting and gathering, our ancestors did storytelling. You can see it in cave paintings and cave architecture.
If you look at storytelling as plain art, it has a start, an end, and in between there’s a curve of adventure, and we either go to a new state or we come back to the earlier state, transformed. That is a simple way to look at a story.
Q: Storytelling is an age-old tradition: it’s a pity we see it dying today. How do we keep it alive for the future generations?
VS: I think as long as human beings are there in this world, there will be arts. The mediums for these traditional arts will definitely adapt and go on. Unfortunately the word ‘storytelling’ is skewed, because today everyone is a storyteller. A moviemaker is a storyteller, a photographer is a storyteller. I don’t have a word for myself; I sometimes wonder what I should call myself. I am just a storyteller. The media have changed. There is now a movie maker and a storywriter.
What storytelling means etymologically is ‘something told by a human being orally’. So as far as human beings are there, and as far as there’s a need to listen to the human voice, storytelling will exist. The media of course will change based on distance and time.
Storytelling is an educational tool.
It is a performance. It is connecting.
When you do any art form – not only storytelling –
you express and touch others with your emotions.
Q: How is storytelling therapeutic?
VS: Storytelling is an educational tool. It is a performance. It is connecting. When you do any art form – not only storytelling – you express and touch others with your emotions.
Why do you feel so relaxed when you listen to a song? You may not have even seen the person in your life, but their singing immediately triggers something within you. It is because the human voice is a deeper connector than a visual. So when you throw it on the mike, you are touching the audience in some way – it’s a comfort. And comfort is a therapy in itself.
If I go deeper, when I am performing the story live in front of an audience, it has something to do with Nada Yoga, the Yoga of Sound, which is the bhava, the voice from within. This voice from within is why we do a satsangh or sing together. And as much as there is silence-soundsilence, there is sound-silence-sound. Nada comes from different parts of our body.
The Indian system of Nada is from our nabhi, the navel. When you listen to someone’s voice, you are receiving that voice, that energy, and cleansing your own self with it. Your voice takes a form with your riyaz, your practice, your energy. That is why when you speak to people, you find some energies are positive and some are negative.
And because storytelling itself is an oral tradition, I believe Nada Yoga is a sublime part of it. It means that the sound which comes from me has to be with the right mindset, with positivity, with the right lifestyle. My own riyaz has to be solid, because when it is expressed through the voice, there are at least 20 pairs of ears listening. The voice is flowing into their body and doing something to the listener.
“Once upon a time” for me is simply going into your own self,
away from everything else. It’s detoxing in a different way,
because in that one hour, how many people are actually
thinking of something else? It’s just my space, my spiritual space.
Q: You have practically covered almost all parts of India with your storytelling performances. Do you have any plans of taking your stories abroad?
VS: I want to cover the country more, because I think this country itself is so large. I traveled abroad in my professional life when I was working with an IT giant, but as far as storytelling is concerned, this country itself is enough. If in the process I have to go outside, it’s okay, but the number of children in India itself is humongous.
I can be myself here. When I was in Srinagar in Kashmir, it was amazing to see the children there laugh aloud. I find joy in that. There is enough work to be done here as a storyteller, I feel, and I am happy with that. I think it’s an ocean.
I’ve started to also look at the lullabies of our land. Lullabies are such important oral traditions, which don’t have words. In a recent session I tried this lullaby that I’d learnt for the first time, and the children said, “Can you sing it again? We want to lie on your lap and sleep.” And they slept! One child was lying on my lap while I was singing. It was really beautiful.
Q: Is there any single underlying message that you carry through your stories?
VS: If at all anything, I would like my stories to inspire children to just love being in this world, instead of saying, “Why am I born into this world?” Children should be allowed to celebrate life. Everything is a celebration. Today is a celebration; this moment is a celebration.
And for the adults my message is that no one is perfect. That’s something I have accepted a long time back. I find the perfect in the imperfect. Who has not been guilty? We are human beings, and the idea of presenting ourselves into this world is maybe just to understand this and come back. Imperfection is something very beautiful.
Q: That’s very motivating. What does the art of storytelling mean to you personally?
VS: It’s my mode to fulfill my spiritual, emotional and financial needs. Some people do three different things in life to satisfy these three needs, and I used to do that once upon a time. But today my spiritual, emotional and financial – everything is storytelling. I don’t bring in anything and I don’t take back anything. I am there for today and in that sense I am not cluttering the world.
Q: That brings us to the last question: As a storyteller, what does “Once upon a time” mean to you?
VS: “Once upon a time” for me is simply going into your own self, away from everything else. It’s detoxing in a different way, because in that one hour, how many people are actually thinking of something else? It’s just my space, my spiritual space. I go completely gaga, and I don’t know what’s happening on any side. When I say or hear “Once upon a time”, it’s a different form of meditation in that space. And when so many people come together in that space, it’s a journey that can happen only once in a lifetime.
Q: Thank you so much Vikram, and I wish you all the very best.
Interviewed by MEGHANA ANAND
June 29, 2020
May 31, 2020
May 31, 2020