By MARINA WATERS
The Town of Jonesborough is accustomed to the founder of the National Storytelling Festival, Jimmy Neil Smith, gallivanting through Tennessee’s oldest town on a regular basis. But last week, Jonesborough was also graced with India’s international storytelling pioneer, Geeta Ramanujam, ready to share her stories and ideas on storytelling right here in Washington County.
One might ask what a woman such as Ramanajam who has told stories across the globe and even started her own storytelling centers in India is doing in Jonesborough, Tennessee. But for the international storyteller, the answer is simple—to see a friend.
Ramanujam got in connection with Smith after a woman at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. asked Ramanujam, who was in the U.S. for a wedding, if she knew Smith. After Smith sent a couple of storytellers to give Ramanujam a ride from Atlanta up to Tennessee, Ramanujam rescheduled her flight back to India and Smith found his new friend a place to stay, a friendship was officially born.
“I think it had to happen. It’s so strange,” Ramanujam said. “For me my belief and my thought was in the U.S., everything had to be organized well ahead, whether you want to meet someone—but this just happened. And I began to believe in a lot of things after that. It all fell in place.”
After attending the National Storytelling Festival in 2003, Ramanujam returned to India and began what would become India’s first storytelling festival and would land the event in the Guinness Book of World Records. But her story doesn’t start there; Ramanujam began her journey as a teacher who simply wanted to spark interest in her students’.
“I felt that it was so monotonous the way people talked. They were bored of the subject,” Ramanujam said. “Teachers were bored of doing the same thing over and over again and I felt when I was a child that it was more of a ‘fact fight’ being told. It’s like seeing a documentary and seeing a film. So there was no interest. Children sat in the class from 9 to 4 feeling bored, not having any interest in the subject because the concepts were not made interesting. So I thought, ‘Why don’t we have stories related to the concept so once you tell them a story, they would be interested in that particular concept.’ ”
After she created a storytelling movement in the education system, she began her storytelling centers in order to educate teachers on how to use storytelling as an educational tool. Before long, the international storyteller had lawyers, advertisers and all sorts of professionals asking to learn the art of storytelling
“If I had had the chance, I might have probably would have wanted to rewrite the entire education system itself, change the way it’s been taught.” Ramanujam said. “It’s just been coming through for years and years and years and no one has been questioning it. Like an engineer would come out of learning and he wouldn’t know how to fix a bulb. So what’s the point in learning and doing all this if it’s only on paper and it’s not application?
“And if there is a system that is not open for learning, then I think that system is not going to exist. I think there should be learning happening. There should be room for change and for things to happen within. I think in a large way, life is like that. What is constant is change and to teach children to adapt and to be flexible and that we are not permanent.”
One of these changes has been due to today’s advancements in technology; Ramanujam said she has seen a shift in the ability to create beautiful stories like the ones her mother and grandmother would tell when she was a child to the inability of today’s generation to come up with stories as humankind has since the beginning of time.
“And you know they didn’t need a skill (older generations). It was natural. But now, you need to train them because they have lost that skill.” she said. “They don’t know how to put words together into a story. To think out of the box or creative and spontaneous thinking, it’s completely gone. With more technology, people are glued. You don’t have to look for answers because the answers are available. So it’s just cut and paste so I’m not thinking. What do I do in this situation? How do I learn common sense. There’s no need for that anymore. They’re not seeking. You click a button and you get it. So there is no need for a person to innovate, to think. So they’ve completely the art of thinking to thinking.”
“What was naturally grown and was not even thought of was just pick and eat and cook . But after the fertilizers and the insecticides, now we’re talking about growing them again naturally, how to grow them naturally. So the same things happen. Things come back. And when they’re coming back, they don’t know how to do it. So again, storytelling helps there—to come back.”
These stories not only connect parts of a person’s life, but Ramanujam also says she’s seen these stories reflect a person’s personality and experiences in a way that teaches them about much more than how to intrigue others through stories.
“I identify myself as the mountain or I identify myself as the bird or as the cloud or as the sun as a silent witness,” she said. “So it brings a lot of their inner-selves and they relate to it very beautifully. So there are some stories I feel opens up larger horizons. Maybe it’s a story that has touched many people. Many people find the story very transforming.”
Storytelling isn’t just an art form and a nearly lost way of entertainment and communication; for Ramanujam, it’s also a way to better life in all aspects instead of just education or just professionalism.
“What is good? What do you mean when you say good? To look at that holistically and practice it. We are teaching more now that people cannot wear masks. What kind of mask can I use? I will use this for my business, I will use that one for this. Most people die without knowing who they really are because from childhood, they are only using masks,” Ramanujam said. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people who come to the course, they are not coming only because they are learning about storytelling, but they love that I help them to ponder. They don’t want to leave at all. They ask for more time. They ask if they can come back. So it’s just a space. That space can be something different. A space that helps you to reflect.”
The woman that brought the storytelling revolution across the ocean and throughout her homeland of India and back again is still out there, telling stories as she did while she was performing in front of Jonesborough audiences like the Jonesborough Storyteller’s Guild, the Crumley House, The Yarn Exchange, University School and East Tennessee State University.
But it’s not just the actual stories of vibrant gold finches and crying mountains who, in their sadness from missing their bird friends, revitalize their earth with their waterfall tears—in fact, it’s the people hearing these stories that keep Ramanujam telling her stories and changing lives.
“I think for me it’s more the gratification of people when they come back to say that they feel good. And when they say, “ I think I’ve found my calling. I want to be a storyteller. And I want to do something, maybe an outreach program.” Because you need them to continue your storytelling.
“As long as they feel transformed and they feel inspired, I think that’s great. Many of them have started (a program). And that’s what keeps me going because I don’t have to keep knocking on the door which is closed.
“It’s still opening. As long as it’s open I think I will continue.”