Monday, August 20, 2018

Golpo - A slice of life through stories

Janaki Sabesh in action
Janaki and Dhwani Sabesh run Golpo - Tales Unlimited, a storytelling initiative that takes the power of simple stories through lived and experiential narrations with the added power of music and games. Here is their story.

The beginning
Janaki: A long time ago, in Chennai, there was a place called "Goodbooks," where Dhwani literally grew up. They had a little space where we could do a sing-along, and because I sing and we used to have occasions curated for specific days, we used to involve children who came to pick up books. The space allowed children to read and place the books back on the shelves. One Independence Day, Dhwani and I sang a few songs. At least two Saturdays a month, I used to hunt for songs from all over the world - Russia, Bengali songs and the like - and the kids used to love it. It was about a half-hour to forty five minutes long. I used to love doing this. 

Many years ago, I released an audio casette called the learning train to make maths simple for children. Through music, I would relate the concepts of addition, subtraction and the like. Working with children was always there, but never full time - work took over and then Goodbooks shut down - and then Hippocampus came up - and I conducted sessions there as well. Most of my work in these places were specific to occasions. 

About 4 years ago, Geetha Ramanujam came into our office. We curate a series where people from different domains come in and speak to us - and when she spoke, I was absolutely impressed and realized I wanted to do this. We named it Golpo, which means story in Bengali - because I grew up in Calcutta. 

It began in my house, where we had three children, of which one was differently abled. Every Sunday, we picked up a book and I would tell the story. I tried different things and had the kids tell their stories, too. It moved to my Yoga Teacher's place, she had a covered terrace. I had 7-8 children. I was not animated then, I used to just sit down and tell children stories. A good friend of mine runs a school, and told me I could use the space. The space has a tree growing through one of the classrooms. I agreed, and we did a minimalistic marketing campaign, and the session was packed. I began to look for stories and did a lot of research on different types of stories and evolved my own. I did a 3-day diploma course in Kathalaya - surprisingly it's all about looking inwards and understanding what kind of a person you are - and of course, other things were also taught. From then on, there has been no looking back. 

Dhwani, telling a story
Every story makes a difference
Janaki: The interesting thing is that publishers allow me the room to play around with the elements. While they tell me not to change the story arc and  the characters, they're perfectly okay with me situating the story anywhere. For example, there's this sweet story of an endearing elephant called Gajapati Kulapati, an elephant who simply must sneeze, which I brought down to Mylapore and situated around the Kapaleeshwar Temple. Another story is that of Ruparam, who would fashion a whole range of things out of one cloth, evolving what he created each time the original form wore out. I've generally not used props, but for this story, I did - we used the safaa cloth that Jodpur is famed for. I'm excited about taking this story to Jodhpur. Another interesting story we told was as part of some work being done by an expert on the Bakherwal community. 

Dhwani: That was an interesting story - the expert had spoken to the children and told them about the community and its practices. One thing she mentioned was that the community used to have tea with salt. In the story that mom shared, she mentioned that they had tea with salt and sugar - when a little one vigilantly picked up on the dissonance. We had to think on our feet - but that was a really beautiful reminder of how much children imbibe and learn. 

Growing and learning
Janaki: As you start performing it is instant gratification. If the children laugh, you play to the gallery and want them to laugh more. Dhwani began accompanying me to almost all the sessions at Sprouts, and take photographs. She was observant and would come back and tell me what worked and what didn't work. I stayed away from throwing the moral of the story on the kids to avoid preaching. We started looking at books to find stories everywhere. I saw different styles of storytelling, especially among Africans - they introduced me to a completely different genre and how they present themselves. They've lived a story - and that makes a lot of difference. That's when I realized that I need to live with the story and stay with a story for a long time. Kids are so innocent, they just give. You don't even have to ask, they just give.


Janaki with a bunch of kids after a session

Dhwani: There is this one story that we found online, that a kid fell in love with. The story was on an old lady and a pumpkin - and one day, he came up to my mother and said that he had a storytelling contest at school, and he said he had chosen to narrate the story of the old woman and the pumpkin. Mom asked him why he chose that story and the little guy said the story had a moral, that one should never lose their presence of mind. The old lady hides herself in a pumpkin to avoid a tiger, a lion and a wolf - and it was incredible to see that he had taken home a whole moral from it! Another interesting thing is that children are watchful and very vigilant. There are times when some of them have come back to tell us that they've already heard the story we're telling - and then you have those kids that come back and ask for the same story, over and over again!  

Janaki: Every story has a hook, a song, and something that holds the attention of the children. The oral tradition that we once had is now lost. Parents engage their kids with smartphones and screens that the kids are missing out on just listening and enjoying the good old art of storytelling without getting distracted. It is all part of the focus to stay true to a story. I've been collaborating with Tulika books and Karadi Tales and Pratham's Champion Challenge. It's not just for children - if I can manage to get parents to sit quietly and not look at their phones, they are excited. I want to reach as many children as possible - and it's really something that cuts across all kinds of barriers and identities. I would like to, especially, take these stories to children who may otherwise not have access to the joy of listening to stories.  

Find Golpo Tales online here: