Children sway in unison to an action song – An Elephant goes like this and that, He is terribly big, terribly fat. He has no fingers, has no toes. But goodness gracious what a nose!
The lively warming up session over, the story unfolds… “A long time ago all the elephants had wings and were able to fly up, up in the sky. But something happened that caused them to lose their large wings……
With the right pauses, intonations, good pronunciation and enunciation with appropriate gestures and actions, right emphasis on words clarified by exaggerated yet appropriate sound, actions and interactions, Kamini Ramachandran the Storyteller, cast a spell on the listeners, children and parents alike, and enraptured them in a world of fantasy.
About how receptive are the various listening groups: adults, teens, children to her stories….
Kamini: “I don’t think any age group is less or more receptive! It just takes different skills to engage different audiences. It is always fulfilling to tell to young children for their responses and reactions are instant and unfiltered. They come up and thank me and remember me from previous sessions. Sometimes they retell stories I have shared years ago! That is always rewarding!
Adults are easier to tell to for they have longer attention spans and can sit still for longer durations! I can also explore more complicated story plots with adults.
And both children and adults enjoy a story that is mysterious and chilling. Spooky tales and dark stories have a firm fan following!”
Her story unfolds:
Stories formed an integral part of her life. Born in Malaysia, living in extremely rural and remote parts of the Peninsula she grew up listening to Malay stories, orang asli (aboriginal) and Indian stories. She reminisces, “My earliest memories are perhaps aged 3, seated beside my grandfather, listening to animal antics from The Panchatantra and the funny family stories he told”.
Her interest furthered her to study English Literature & Language at the University of Reading (UK) and her parenting instincts spurred her to make storytelling her career. “I realised that children did not have access to folk tales and fables from Asia in schools, and bookstores were filled with Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. I felt a responsibility to breathe life into the stories I inherited from my grandfather.” (Kamini)
She moved to Singapore in 2001 and in 2004 co- founded MoonShadow Stories Company with the aim of promoting the lost art of the oral narrative.
Kamini is a founder member of the Storytelling Association (Singapore) having served four terms as its President and is currently its Vice-President.
Kamini is also the Artistic Director for the annual Singapore International Storytelling Festival and initiated World Storytelling Day in Singapore in 2005. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, United Kingdom.
She has been commissioned several times to research and create storytelling content for animation projects, folklore publications as well as curated museum exhibitions.
She is the first Resident Storyteller at The Esplanade for Octoburst Children's Festival and the first storyteller to be commissioned by The Arts House to create a Night Walk With The Storyteller; multi-sensory experience for their 10th anniversary celebrations.
She also created a multi-disciplinary storytelling performance for Kalaa Utsavam, 2013 with Forest Fables featuring live sand-art drawing and musicians together with her storytelling.
She has been a featured storyteller at Britain's oldest storytelling festival, the Festival at the Edge. Was a featured artist at the Festival Internazionale Di Storytelling Raccontamiunastoria in Rome, participated in the Sydney International Storytelling Conference, and she represented Malaysia and Singapore in the prestigious Scottish International Storytelling Festival. She was also a featured storytelling artist and trainer, resident at The Storytelling Castle for the Alden Biesen International Storytelling Festival in Belgium. Kamini also participated in the Federation for European Storytelling annual conference in Italy in 2013. She has also done workshops and participated in various Storytelling projects in India.
She lectures, The Storytelling Intensive for performance arts students at LASALLE College of the Arts. And has also embarked on the Tribal Tales project collecting the oral folklore.
Her recent collaboration with a clinical psychiatrist explores the role of stories and storytelling in counselling and healing.
And now to my queries ….
Which is your favourite story that you have repeated most for children?
I don’t have favourites, for they change quite often! In Singapore, the audience numbers are not as large or varying as compared to bigger countries. As such, I have a lot of repeat audience and repeat engagements with the same clients and arts venues. I am constantly developing new content so I can expose new stories to my regular audience. My aim is to revive stories and breathe life into them, so I try to share new stories as often as I can.
How long do you take to plan a story presentation?
Some stories can take as long as 6 months of intense work to craft and refine. Other stories take a week. It all depends on complexity and length of the story. I also work a lot on translation, and I pay a lot of attention to authenticity. I work with mother tongue languages, and this process is longer as I am fundamentally working on two separate stories at the same time. I can read Malay and I enjoy researching regional stories by reading journals, old books and poring over scholarly articles! If I am collaborating with other art forms like working with musicians or visual artists, then the story takes longer to develop. International festivals also require stories from my existing repertoire to be adapted to suit an audience that is unfamiliar with the heritage and tradition.
Regarding the children's books that were taken off the shelves by NLB for gay content would you take up such stories? Would you be comfortable relating these stories?
As far back as 2004, MoonShadow Stories were telling stories that dealt with original and uncensored folkloric content. Most of the stories from the oral narrative tradition have violence, incest, sex and other complex themes. We have always been careful to target our performances with suitable advisory explanations for family audiences or only for adults.
When I tell to children, I am also aware that traditional stories were about life, and in order for the story to be cautionary, the ‘unpleasant’ elements cannot be omitted or sanitized. I have never selected stories just for sheer entertainment or amusement value. I retell stories from a tradition that is very, very old. And I respect the form and don’t tamper with it just to please clients or audiences.
Transformation and shape-shifting is a common motif in folklore. Male gods morphing into females, children being raised by two old women and families with multiple adopted children are all familiar story plots in mythology. The supernatural and the unseen spirit world, as well as nature in different forms, are quite common motifs in fairy tales. Single parent families are rather typical in folk tales and not treated as an anomaly.
Storytelling enhances language acquisition of a child. If a Storyteller is poor in pronunciation and enunciation will it not have damaging effect on the child? What is your say?
The question to ask here is: Am I telling stories to teach language only? Or am I telling stories to bond with my child and transfer cultural and heritage traditions? Am I telling stories as ‘myself’ or as a professional artist?
A parent telling stories to a young child should focus more on the sharing and closeness of the telling and not be unduly concerned about how they pronounce words etc. I can think of far worse examples that can be viewed as ‘damaging’ to a child than pronunciation issues! As a professional artist I am conscious of articulation and clarity simply because it is imperative that a few hundred people in the audience understand my story!
Is your legacy carried on by your children?
My family has always been supportive of my storytelling passion. My sons are the most astute critics for they have witnessed numerous rehearsals, performances and festivals in the last decade. They have seen other storytellers practise in my home and seen the transformations over time. They know my style and are observant; they do give good advice.
I have passed on my stories and my love of stories to my sons. I see it manifest in their deep interest in film through visual and digital storytelling.
Any particular author or books you could recommend for children?
I have always believed in allowing the child to lead in the selection of what they like. Take them to a bookstore or library and allow them to browse and explore. You will observe that some children are drawn towards animals and others prefer buildings and vehicles! Picture books are the stepping stones to developing interest in reading.
Learn to accept that children will have ‘favourites’ that last a very short span! Be prepared to move on to volcanoes or witches!
What’s next on your anvil?
I am studying full time for my MA Artist Educator (Goldsmith’s University UK) offered at LASALLE College of the Arts. The MA is my way of consolidating my storytelling teaching strategies and practices under the umbrella of pedagogy. I enjoy passing on the craft and art of storytelling and I am focusing on the younger generation of storytellers now. I believe that with guidance, mentorship and the traditional master-apprentice model, young storytellers have a bright future ahead of them.
Kamini is proficient in English and Malay and can understand some Malayalam too as her great grandparents were from Kerala.
Storytelling with Kamini Ramachandran, story session for children was held at library@esplanade on 22nd Nov as part of Kalaa Utsavam, Indian Festival of Arts.
Photo courtesy : MoonShadow Stories