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Storytellers adapt tales to the digital age

Storytellers are finding new audiences as young people seek entertainment away from screens

While attention spans are shorter and we are easily distracted, a powerful storyteller can surprise us.
While attention spans are shorter and we are easily distracted, a powerful storyteller can surprise us. (iStockphoto)

Mita Vashisht’s voice rang through the dark tent, delicate and clear. For 20 years, the actor has performed a play about Lal Ded, the 14th century Kashmiri poetess. That night she recounted the story of how she was drawn to the mystic poet’s powerful vakhs (verses), the rhythm, sensuousness, and more. She took the audience through Lal Ded’s life, sometimes in song or by chanting the vakhs. The audience was visibly moved. One of the viewers said she wanted to sit in silence after the performance, imbibing the powerful words and experience.

Vashisht was one of several presenting at Udaipur Tales, an annual international storytelling festival, which took place in January. It was remarkable to observe how in-person narration can hold an audience captive in the digital media age of shortening attention spans, demonstrating a connection and intimacy that is lacking through a screen.

Storytelling is one of the earliest sources of entertainment and learning, with historians tracing it back over 30,000 years. Studies have found that the benefits of oral storytelling in its purest form—without props, backdrops, music—span socio-emotional development, cognitive growth, language skills, critical thinking, creativity and interpersonal skills.

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Later at the festival, I found Cyra Bhatnagar, 14, doubled over in mirth while listening to a trio of monologues by actors Adhaar Khurana, Shikha Talsania and Rohini Ramnathan. With humour and warmth, they animatedly described their experiences with love, dating, Bollywood and discovering their paths in life. “I never thought of storytelling as someone talking about their own lives,” says Bhatnagar. “They were having a conversation with us. Listening to tales from their lives and being a part of the energy and laughter in the audience was something I wouldn’t have enjoyed if I had just been watching a video of them.”

Bhatnagar’s realisation that this art form extends beyond recounting tales from books and that our lives are rich fodder for impactful stories, is evident all around us. Many of our friends, colleagues, teachers or family members are raconteurs extraordinaire, knowing how to deliver the punchline of a joke, or transforming the most mundane observations into an engaging narrative. They are not just entertaining. A great storyteller can be inspirational, helping us understand a different perspective, glean meaning, and connect the dots.

Kashish Kumar, 15, loves listening to personal narratives from her grandparents, parents, siblings and friends because they allow for different perspectives. “Their voices add character to the story, I learn more about them, about their life, and how they lead it,” says the Delhi-based teenager, who enjoys real-life examples of valour, thrill and empathy.

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Across the country, one can find structured sessions dedicated to storytelling. Various events and festivals focus on oral traditions to revive interest in and preserve this art form. Kathakaar International Storytellers’ Festival, which started in 2011, brings in storytellers from India and abroad. Sessions are held at schools in Delhi and Uttarakhand. In Mumbai, the annual Spoken Word Fest is a multi-stage performing arts festival, which also includes oral storytelling sessions.

The popular children’s literature festival Bookaroo, too, aspires to reconnect children with literature in a fun way, and one of the many mediums is storytelling. “Every edition has a Kahani Tree as part of which storytelling sessions are held under a tree. It is one of the favourite spots at the event,” says the festival’s co-founder and director Swati Roy. “Over the years, one has found an increasing number of storytellers to choose from, and diversity in forms that they dabble in—some only use voice modulations, others use props, and then some others, who use instruments or vocals in their storytelling.”

Intimate book reading and storytelling sessions for children and adults are held regularly at bookshops and libraries, like Cosy Nook Library in Bengaluru, co-founded by Sudeshna Shome Ghose and Radhika Sathe Mantri. “Oral storytelling in a group setting is a great way to share experiences, encourage participation and enhance vocabulary. It is also a successful way to model effective communication through words and enhance listening skills,” say Mantri and Ghose.

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Apart from the anecdotes and stories we casually hear around us, how does structured oral storytelling impact the youth, as compared to trendier, attractively packaged digital content? Storyteller Ulka Mayur presented a sweet, humorous piece at Udaipur Tales on naming a newborn baby and the ensuing family chaos and debate with everyone offering their opinions. Mayur’s story was engaging because of its easy familiarity. But she acknowledges it being difficult, particularly with the exposure younger audiences have to so much content. “Cutting through this overcrowded space with a story devoid of visual effects and razzmatazz can be difficult.” A storyteller must make the tale relevant to their audience, she says, using contemporary references to help them relate better to the piece. 

Oral storytelling is an interactive experience. Avnoor Dayal, 10, loves listening to stories, whether it is her dad reading her bedtime tales, or listening to stories at her Gurugram book club. “The storyteller expresses the story, making you feel it. That is very important and why I love it,” she says, adding that the storyteller can connect more easily in person than through a digital platform. “If I have to watch the same thing on a screen, then I cannot interact with it. It’s not as much fun.”

In a world of constant digital connection, in-person conversation is often lacking. Chennai-based story educator JoAnne Saldanha emphasises the importance of regularly engaging children through oral storytelling. For 20 years, she has used stories with elementary to high-school students to encourage dialogue and discussion on their curriculum, popular culture and current events. She explains the powerful process of person-to-person connection, with the listener observing the expressions, words, intonation, and the storyteller responding to their reactions. “There is a feeling of pleasure and a strong bond is formed. They know they can share their fears, anxieties, triumphs, feelings, and joy. This art of talking with the child, which is what oral storytelling is, really matters.”

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And while attention spans are shorter and we are easily distracted, a powerful storyteller can surprise us. “I often don’t have the patience to sit through a movie, but I could have listened to them for longer,” Bhatnagar says, recalling the actors’ monologues at the festival. And that is the impact of powerful oral storytelling—encouraging us to slow down, savour the moment and listen. 

Reem Khokhar is a Delhi-based writer. 

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