Editor's note: In 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak upended lives and livelihoods of people in Tamil Nadu in myriad ways. The novel coronavirus threw up new and unprecedented challenges, especially for people from marginalised sections of society. In a multi-part series, Firstpost explores how individuals from different walks of life lived through the year of the pandemic. This is part seven of the series.
Student: “Ma’am, are you from Africa?”
Rathy: “No, I am not, but why are you asking me this question?”
Student: “Because you are dark, ma’am.”
This was a question Rathy was asked when she was visiting a school in Erode for a storytelling session. This exchange resulted in gasps from her colleagues and other teachers but Rathy wasn’t upset. She was intrigued.
Wanting to know what made the student say that, she told him to stretch out his hand.
Then, she put her hand next to his and asked him to compare their skin colours.
Rathy: “Now tell me, who is darker?”
Student: “I am ma’am.”
Rathy: “Oh. So are you also from Africa?”
This exchange set off a 40-minute storytelling session just on colourism. Rathy had planned something else for the storytelling session, but switched to colourism impromptu, where she also shared her experiences.
When she visited the school again in a few weeks, three girls ran up to her and exclaimed, “Ma’am, because of you, the boys have stopped calling us karuppi!” (a derogatory term used for people who are dark-skinned).
“One 40-minute session on colourism had such an impact. That is when I realised how powerful storytelling is, especially for children. That is when I decided to take the plunge into storytelling,” says Rathy.
In the quaint village of Thenkalam, nestled between two hills and its embankment, lies hidden a box. The minute you open the box, out come tumbling a plethora of characters, each carrying a story of their own.
Or the story that their keeper weaves for them, giving most of them a new name almost every single time. These puppets of different forms, sizes and shapes, belong to Rathy S.
From 2009 onwards, Rathy practised as a theatre artist before deciding to embrace storytelling as her full-time profession in 2014. She started learning different art forms and familiarising herself with all kinds of stories from all across the world.
Rathy's variety of puppets, a form that she uses more often than the others, gives some idea of how she has tried to integrate cultures from across the world. The transition to storytelling was difficult, as theatre itself, to begin with is hardly a lucrative profession.
To make a living out of storytelling posed as a challenge initially, recollects Rathy: “To explain that this is my profession isn’t exactly simple. And usually when I do, people have all sorts of reactions, the most popular being 'what? How is that a profession? I also know stories, I can also tell stories!'”
But eight years later, she's still at it. Even after COVID-19 disrupted a career she'd built painstakingly over the years.
When 2020 began, Rathy was working in Chennai as the vice-president of an organisation which worked with schools to create an interest for stories and reading through storytelling. As a storyteller, the role was a perfect fit for Rathy.
But the onset of the pandemic resulted in her having to step down from her position in March. She managed to live in Chennai for a few more months on her savings, but come June, with her money having run dry, she decided to move back to her village in Tirunelveli.
For the first time in 17 years.
How does a storyteller work her audience without a stage?
While making her way back to her native village, she grappled with, for her, the most important question: How does one continue as a storyteller in this ‘physically-distanced world’?
“You need to understand that my personality is very important to my storytelling. I am an extremely animated person, and that assists my storytelling. There are various facets to telling a story, and all of them involve having a stage to perform and tell your story. How was I going to do that now, with no stage and an anxious COVID-19 world?” Rathy wondered.
We can perhaps understand her apprehensions better if we understand that Rathy as a storyteller breaks into a story anywhere she could and that her energy is infectious. She draws her audience through this energy.
Apart from performing at festivals and at schools, Rathy’s also puts on impromptu sessions.
Which is why she always carries two puppets — Savitri and Ravi Varma — in case a storytelling opportunity presents itself.
During one train trip from Chengalpattu to Chennai, she spotted a bunch of children who looked tired. Out came her puppets and a story followed.
The realisation that this world was changing into an isolated one wasn’t easy for Rathy to process.
“But we’ve to keep swimming,” she says.
As everybody was taking to Zoom, Rathy decided to try it for a storytelling session. The platform was new.
Doing a session on Zoom meant that the screen was the extent of her stage. She had to define a marked area for herself, in front of the camera, and she couldn’t use any space beyond that.
It meant that she had to restrict her body, her actions, her props and pretty much everything.
Anybody who meets Rathy would instantly understand why this might have been a major challenge.
“But I hey, I figured it out,” she quips.
Since, all her shows have been sold out.
“People also pitched in, to make it easy for me,” Rathy explains. She'd run out of her money and there was only so much she could invest into online storytelling. But as her audience realised that she needed help, either with a Zoom subscription or with better equipment, they started doing what they could, even without any such requests from Rathy.
“My audience really looked out for me, they in fact made it easier,” says a thankful Rathy. Another person who made it easier was her mother Vadivammal, who set up an entire screen for her online session.
In a typical zoom session, Rathy picks names of people from the audience and uses them as characters in the stories that she narrates. From time to time, she tries to keep her audience engaged and watches for their reactions through the small windows on her laptop.
Of course, it is not the same as a live session, but she manages. At the end of the narration, she interacts with her audience if they’ve queries about the story.
But isn’t telling a story, offline or online, tiresome?
“Storytellers are witches. I might be completely out of energy but the minute I enter a classroom and I hear a student say ‘storytelling miss is here’, it is like I instantly draw that energy. For the 40 minutes after that, you get your energy from the children, from your audience. You are sapped after that, but not during a session. All the claps and the reactions is what translates into energy, for me as a storyteller,” explains Rathy.
And for Rathy to be the master storyteller that she is, there is a lot of prep that goes into it, something which most don't realise.
Rathy spends 70 percent of her timereading stories. Her usual process to turn a story into one which she can narrate is this: she clubs stories according to themes, such as grandma stories, horror stories. She has an entire database to which she refers, from time to time.
Her favourite stories from this database are Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights, popularly referred to as Arabian Nights. Once she selects a story for a session, she tinkers with the characters according to the age group of the audience.
If the story is a regional story with regional names, she retains the important names from that story. The names of the rest of the characters are taken from the audience. All of this, plus improv.
One also needs to factor in the amount of research and resources that Rathy has invested to in her puppets, masks and props.
Even after all this prep, Rathy encounters fresh problems from time to time. On one occasion, to her shock, she discovered high school kids hiding their physics books inside story books.
But the trick to storytelling, Rathy says, is to never force it on anyone.
“I told the students to read physics if they wanted to and to close their story books. This has been my formula, to adapt to any given situation if it demands it.”
But online, how does a storyteller adapt when a viewer is munching on food loudly during a session, while you are on mute and are narrating a story with full gusto?
“Twenty minutes in, somebody from the audience messaged me and that's when I got off mute, and told this person to go easy on the munching,” laughs Rathy. “This would have been handled differently if it were offline, yes, but we gotta do what we got to do.”
She quickly adds that such issues only crop up with the adults. All the children she has done online sessions with were real darlings who do not interrupt.
“At times, if they get restless, parents help out,” says Rathy.
Rathy has lost more than half the income that she would’ve made in 2020 and she feels that it is going to be difficult in 2021 as well. But she has no intentions of looking out for any other gigs.
Once a storyteller, always a storyteller.
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