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Ratna Pathak, Kalki Koechlin and others tell stories for children under lockdown

Apalam Chapalam is a multi-lingual story sharing initiative that unlocks the imagination of children and adults alike

Actor Ratna Pathak is one of the storytellers in the project.

In late April, when thousands of flamingoes visited Mumbai and the streets were spectacularly silent, Leher India, an NGO for women and children, made some noise by launching a multi-lingual story-telling initiative called Apalam Chapalam on YouTube and Instagram.

Aimed at underprivileged children, it has videos of folk tales retold through songs, original poems or stories accompanied by sketching that progresses with the plot. The narrators are from diverse backgrounds and age-groups, be it grandmothers, young professionals and well-known names. There's musician Ankur Tewari strumming his guitar while sharing a story from Uttarakhand, writer Jerry Pinto reading a lockdown poem and actor Ratna Pathak retelling an original story.

Using video as a nod to oral storytelling and a focus on regional languages are the two mainstays of Apalam Chapalam. Last week they posted three videos in collaboration with the Chennai-based children's publisher Tulika Books to recite a poem about the novel coronavirus in English, Hindi and Tamil. One of the narrators was actor Kalki Koechlin, who dressed up as a mischievous red-haired witch.

A few days ago, Pathak narrated a story called Chuhiya ki Shaadi (Miss Mouse’s wedding). She had penned it in 2000 for the primary education curriculum of municipal schools under the purview of Avehi Abacus Project—an organisation that works to strengthen the quality of public education for the marginalised. Her playful retelling on video was shot at home and was edited with illustrations for a wholesome listening experience. The underlying message is about the harmonious co-existence of all beings and forces of nature from fire, water, wind and sky. On the phone, Pathak says, “Stories are simple yet powerful pedagogical tools to communicate with children. They are a springboard to share ideas quickly and effectively.”

You can contribute a story to Apalam Chapalam, too, following the instructions on their Instagram page. “It’s a collaborative platform that is owned by none and yet belongs to all of us,” say co-creators Mandovi Menon and Aliya Khan. The astute magazine-like approach of content curation is unmissable and is backed by the co-creators’ editorial experience.

Menon is a media entrepreneur and former editor of the platform Homegrown, while Khan is an aspiring film-maker who worked with Conde Nast India and BBC Studios in the past. The stories on YouTube and Instagram are streamed for underprivileged children across locations such as Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur, Ahmedabad and the rural district of Madhubani in Bihar by the Leher India network. They reach out to organisations like Salaam Baalak Trust, Save the Children India, child care institutions and community workers. The stories are first shared with a parent or elder in the family who interacts with the community workers.

In childcare facilities, an adult sets-up story viewing on a computer or television. The feedback from the children has been heart-warming and includes original work by them, such as poems themed on favourite fruits and vegetables, a video with children using puppets to tell a story and artwork depicting tales. “We had this lovely girl who wrote to us from a tea estate in Coorg. She used these stories for children who live on the tea estate,” says Menon.

Although it was intended for underprivileged children, content on social media is accessible to all. Apalam Chapalam leveraged Instagram to go beyond videos by featuring children’s books, music and movies. Of the many books they recommend, one written by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni titled The Conch Bearer is about societal discrimination, apt for the times we live in. “We want to use this platform to provide interesting ways that enable conversations with children on difficult subjects,” says Menon.

Just over a month-old, Apalam Chapalam is proving to be immensely cathartic for its creators, narrators and those who view their stories. Adult listeners are involuntarily transported back to their childhood of languid afternoons steeped in stories, while narrators have found a renewed sense of purpose. One of them is Khan’s elderly relative, Kummi Chagtai Niazi, who shared a story about three princesses. Niazi was a host at All India Radio during her younger days and many years have passed since she interacted with an audience. After the release of this story on Instagram, Niazi’s daughter informed Khan that her mother was brimming with confidence.

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