Alli K B is a fascinating storyteller, who can narrate close to 20-30 stories. Ask her how she manages to narrate stories with such ease, and she looks at you in surprise. “I must have been five or six when I first began storytelling,” she says shyly, adding that her aunt and grandmother were better at it.
Alli never thought that an activity she was engaged in from her childhood would ever be put to use in Chennai, where she moved seven years ago after her marriage from Panayakottai, Thanjavur. Alli was among the few storytellers who took part in an event organised by World Storytelling, a few months ago for the fisherfolk in Chennai. She gushes. “The story on mosquitoes; they all loved it,” she laughs, adding that it was her first storytelling event in Chennai.
Alli’s family perhaps has some of the best story tellers in Thanjavur which is a treasure trove of stories.
Eric Miller, who roped in Alli for the event and has been working closely with storytellers from Thanjavur, after exploring the hinterland of Tamil Nadu says, “The storytelling expeditions took us to many places throughout Tamil Nadu, including Madurai and Poompuhar. We found that the best of the storytellers were in Thanjavur.”
The expedition involved stories by members of the many communities in these areas (Kathayam Paatum) and interactive sessions with various community leaders.
Miller explains, “In these places there is no Internet that leaves them with a lot of time for storytelling. It is part of their tradition and there is an educative element in every story. Kathakalakshebam and Villupattu are essentially storytelling techniques. They have existed for many years now and are perhaps as old as classical music. There is no formal training required for them.”
Miller adds that currently storytelling is also becoming tech-savvy with live subtitles for the benefit of the audience.
C Sundaresan, head of the Folklore Department, Tamil University, and the former Head of the Department A Ramanathan have spent years of work to collate interesting stories from Thanjavur and records of story tellers and have published two books on the subject with several interesting stories.
Sundaresan explains, “In these agriculture belts you will find that storytelling is more of a family activity. There is a story for every occasion as means of recreation. The interesting part here is there is no single writer for one story. If a person doesn’t like the ending to a particular story, it can be changed. Sometimes, storytelling is a joint venture by a family. They can spend a whole night weaving a story together. This form of storytelling is usually done when they have to stay awake through the night. And, no one ever gets tired of hearing stories, even if it is the same story that is being narrated over and over again.”
Alli, who has contributed to the books published says that she wishes to keep the tradition going. “Maybe in cities people don’t have the time for storytelling, but it is important that we preserve the stories by passing them on to the next generation, though today TV and Internet are pervasive,” she rues.
Miller says storytelling has many dimensions to it, one being a form of healing. “We are making efforts to take the activity to schools, engaging children in it,” he says.