The costume is pretty simple — cuddly little devil’s horns, an adorable kohl moustache and edible yellow teeth. But the myriad expressions that popular storyteller Jeeva Raghunath can bring with that costume is astounding. Here in the city to tell the story of The Pleasant Rakshasa, a book written by Sowmya Rajendran with illustrations by Niveditha Subramaniam and published by Tulika books, Raghunath is nothing but a blur as she goes about talking, laughing, singing and making kids (and inadvertently, adults) do what they do best — smile.
“They love it. They laugh out loud. They’ve (adults) forgotten to smile and nurture the child within them. They’re pressurised all the time. Whatever I do for kids, I do for adults and they enjoy it as well. I don’t have special material for adults or anything like that. They are all an audience, after all,” she tells City Express with a smile.
Raghunath grew up listening to folk tales from her family around her. “You can say I’ve also eaten stories along with my food!” she laughs. But her professional storytelling career started 15 years ago when she was working in Tulika Books’ marketing department. “They asked me to translate a book into Tamil. For the book launch, I did the story in Tamil and presto! — the storyteller was born,” Raghuthan explains.
This lively storyteller has since then travelled to over 17 countries to tell stories and has written about seven books for Tulika, including Malli, Gadagada Gudugudu and others. And she has also translated a number of childrens books from English to Tamil. But for her, the storytelling takes precedence over everything else. “I love storytelling. Every story is my favourite. If it doesn’t touch my heart, I don’t tell it. Storytelling is not from head to head. It is from heart to heart. I strongly believe it is a bonding experience. And only if you like a story can you tell it,” she says.
Raghunath’s specialty is folk tales, not just from India but from all over the world. “I love folk tales, because there are no copyrights. I can do what I want, I can change what I want or tell it in a different manner. I can make it very contemporary as well, and also tell children about how life was, way back then. I find that aspect very interesting,” she says.
One session with her and you immediately know why her manner of storytelling is so endearing — there is some singing, a lot of dancing and a whole lot of love that Raghunath pours into her craft. Her antics are the toast of the kiddie crowd and there’s just something about the way she makes the kids sit and listen without them moving an inch. “Right from my young age I’ve been quite a clown. I’ve always loved being myself. It was natural and I think I didn’t know there were different ways of telling a story. I thought this was the only one because I was exposed to such a kind and I thought ‘okay, this is how it should be’. Whatever I enjoyed as a child is what I think children will enjoy,” she says. Her storytelling is not only packed with energy, but also with elements from other types of storytelling and art. “From Therukoothu I take the songs. From the dance I take rhythms, so you have a lot of Indian elements thrown into it, which works wonderfully well outside India,” she says adding in the same breath that while Indian stories are quite popular outside, it’s not always so in India. “They want to learn other tales. The funniest part is when they hear their own stories and they say it sounds different. I think that’s the magic of a storyteller, it becomes his or hers. It’s just they are anxious to know more about other cultures.,” she says.