Stories of Mumbai by kate sheahan

In a city of 12 million people, addressing some of the world's most polarising issues might seem like a huge task. These two inspiring Indian women are taking up the challenge in their own way - by telling stories.

Usha Venkatraman is a puppeteer whose folktale expertise sees her performing for children and adults across the country.

Usha Venkatraman is trying to change the world. She says that storytelling, especially folktales, are much deeper than simple fables.

Usha says her introduction to professional storytelling was an easy one as her affinity with stories and other people made it a natural fit.

"I've always connected to people. I listened to a lot of stories as I grew up - mostly told by my grandmother. They would allow me to enter another world - a dream world of visual imagery. There were no puppets back then, just storytelling and song. My grandmother would always sing to me."

With a passion for helping others, Usha has come to understand the reach of storytelling and its possible use in therapy and counselling.

"I've been in discussions with the counsellor from a prominent university in Mumbai about the possibility of me developing a program for students. We're trying to create an innovative way, through storytelling, to address the mental well-being of students."

A 2013 census reported that suicide was the leading cause of death for Indians aged 10-24. Usha says that there is an immense amount of pressure on students in India that comes from themselves, their schools, and their families. Usha says that students can be reserved and reluctant to talk about mental health, but when given a creative outlet - such as puppets - they often find it easier to reach out. Usha hopes to connect with students via storytelling and puppetry workshops which would allow them to discuss serious issues in a more creative environment.

The classic tale of the Two Little Frogs is a perfect example of the kind of story that could benefit students.

Samvedna Amitabh is a successful journalist; published poet and writer; and Mumbai-based storyteller who's passion for the environment and gender-equality drives her work.

Like Usha, Samvedna's path to professional storytelling was a natural one.

"I've been a journalist all my life, but I began writing poems from a very early age. It was probably during Kindergarden when I wrote my first verse - I know that I gave it to my father who kept it with him always. From there I just continued to write. I had a passion for dance and music and I was a folk lover very early on. I've always been a story teller. I have a performer within me."

The day she realised that storytelling was her calling, Samvedna was overwhelmed.

"Although I'm still a poet and a writer at heart, I think that I was always on this path. My journey as a storyteller is ever-expanding."

Samvedna often performs folktales that talk of environmental issues. As a supporter of Greenpeace and other environmental activists, she says that delivering messages through her stories are an important aspect of her job, but also something that she takes very seriously.

"You have to be very conscious. I can't tell a story to a group of business men one week, then tell the same story to a group of school children the next. Even if they want the same folktale I have to deliver it a different way. There's a lot of sexism and violence in the old stories and you have to be responsible with that. It's the same for stories about the environment."

Like Usha, Samvedna is also mindful of the way storytelling could be utilised in counselling. She says that her involvement with underprivileged children and schools has given her a different perspective, and allowed her to develop her own writing.

The following poem, read by Samvedna, tells the story of two teenage boys. One, living a life in the slums and fighting for his life on a daily basis; the other, an upper-class university student who has decided to take his own life. Samvedna's poem tells the story of these two young men and gives a comparison of their attitudes towards hardship. It is presented here in it's original Hindi, and is a poem very close to Samvedna's heart.

The power of storytelling in India is both a rising force and an untapped well of expression. The women and men around the country who have dedicated their lives to creative expression and connecting with others through story lead a fulfilling life. Both Usha and Samvedna work with NGO's and educational institutions, working towards improving student communication. Usha is working towards developing a storytelling program for mental health in Indian universities. Samvedna will be travelling to China to present a paper on the pedagogy of storytelling.

Created By
Kate Sheahan

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