“Their story- yours and mine -it’s all we carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.”
-William Carlos William
A Workshop on Stories and Education
Education around the world is strongly predisposed towards outcomes rather than process. In our present schooling system, we seldom make our children question their understanding of the world, and they are required to pick a variety of life skills to navigate the heaps of knowledge floating today in infinite proportions. More importantly, they must find alternative means to educate themselves better. These storytelling workshops aim to provide young children an exposure to various mediums of conveying stories and build their artistic understanding. The first class introduces the storytelling structure followed by classes structured around different mediums including theatre, cinema, animation, short stories, comics and photography among others. With a strong focus on following process oriented education, I modulated the structure of each session such that there is scope of activity oriented pedagogy and lot of visual exercises. This first workshop was conducted in Mahamaya Balika Inter College girls school with a batch of 40 students.
Revisiting the Delhi Ethos
I have reflected a couple of times on the fact that my trips to Delhi are always quite dramatic in nature. They are more or less filled with all those core moments of adventure call, falling back, rising action and finally a deeper self-revelation. I have been fortunate to experience it once more in this 5 day visit to our popular capital- my creative instincts did not bother much about the warning pollution signals this region was sending constantly. However, this journey was perhaps much more than simply a dramatic pull. I was about to present my very first Storytelling Workshop series for school children. As a personal independent project, this workshop was much more than teaching because I myself went through the ecstatic process of learning art yet again with the much needed opportunity.
Day 1: Setting the Context
Nothing can hold great ideas, they reside not only in your mind but your soul. I wished to convey this expression to my students- all of them being young teenage girls isolated from the power of art. Early morning, I began navigating the outskirts of Delhi to meet my companions from Young India Fellowship. We shared some nostalgic moments and one of my friends there, Rajshree, accompanied me to the destination of Mahamaya Balika Inter-college. The first day of the workshop pushed through a variety of uncertain interactions with girls trying to make sense of this supposedly different engagement with little or no interest. I continued with my conversations and a few enthusiastic and curious heads kept my momentum going until the first half. “Education is about you and your world. There are two major ways we educate ourselves- books and experience. But what if I tell you that there is a third way which attempts to borrow a little from both sides but leave you fulfilled in the end”, I voiced my thoughts in a cheerful and frivolous character voice. Although difficult, I felt that the first half managed to set the tone for the dialogue that this workshop intends to exchange with them for the next 5 days. Rajshree proved to be a valuable support and there we started our second half of the workshop. With more energy and personal engagement, I tried channelizing everything I got from Bombay with me to them and thus developed an association that remained throughout the coming days. While narrating them the steps to build a great story, I also focussed on making them understand the meaning of human needs, weakness, desire, relatability, personal battle and empathy. As characters of this world, we all go through this evolutionary path and that allows us to communicate something that is inherently common in our kind. We concluded the class with the stories of Mulan and Alice in Wonderland. Here they began to notice that not only these stories because of the gender focus can touch them but educate them about the way human life endures in this fascinating world.
Day 2: The World’s a Stage
I believe that storytelling can be a humbling and a character building experience. For me, the process and exposure mattered much more than immediate outcomes. I felt that the girls had immense potential to absorb and contribute but as a facilitator it is upto my pedagogy on how well this can happen. The second day built their understanding of a performance and we had a theatre class to learn key techniques of using the stage as a representation of the existing or imaginative world. To complement the energy of the sessions, the classroom now shifted to the huge library basement. It was the best thing that happened. With exercises that portray organized chaos to still images, the curious young minds were made to visualize the key elements of constructing any performance: space, rhythm, mood and composition.
Probably, this was the most physically demanding class for all for them and yes the girls ended up building their own composition of a temple invaded by the distractions of technology. By visiting the silent art of mime, we reflected further on societal customs and the theme of irrelevance to deconstruct the fixated nature of human civilization in a few notable examples. Theatre paved some way for the unexplored imaginative pulses of these beautiful souls.
Day 3: Lights, Camera and Action
The conventional education is merely focused upon the literacy ability of children. But what about the visual literacy? It is an untouched life skill that seldom finds a place in the cramped curriculum of government schools. I felt my preparation for this class was relatively less than the previous two workshops because a lot of time was spent on deciding upon the focal point of day 3 session. This class was a transition from one storytelling medium to another as we had to leap from theatre to cinema. Girls were bound to get overwhelmed with the fact that this class was about watching cinematic scenes and understanding them. The first question for them was how are we understanding them? Finally the time was to activate and direct their key senses of sight and hearing to feel the magnificent impact of visual storytelling. Before we began watching the clips, one of the girls asked me, “sir, are we watching in hindi or english?” My response to her was that all of the things we are watching today is only in one language of cinema. “Lights, Camera and Action”, they said in excitement. In moving images of screen, the girls had to focus on character staging, colours of the light and the movement of the camera to revisit the powerful treasure of relation and empathy. A cinematic translation of a story is undeniably complex but I learned that they can be taught without much technical jargon by carefully directing the human senses of children. Fully appreciating storytelling in films will take some more time for them, however, these kids have now been through the exposure of deeply engaging their senses to communicate with the moving camera.
Day 4: The Carousel of Still, Sequential and Moving Stories
The world of cartoons is mysteriously enthralling and becomes a passage to escape the complexity of reality. While preparing the design of this workshop, I came across this beautiful book on comics by Scott Mclaudd who has crafted an exceptionally comprehensive and moving narrative of the art form by playing with our own vision and reality. Well, I derived the key thought for Day 4 workshop from his wonderful work which asks to what extent is the simplified reality of cartoon detached or related to our own existing creation. My day started with a visit to Jawaharlal Nehru University to meet my wonderful writing preceptor and friend Sayan from Young India Fellowship. Our much intense discussion around education with sweet chai and breakfast gave me the much needed push for executing this slightly complicated workshop day. This class began with reality and capturing stories in moments: the art of photography as we know it. I was accompanied by two wonderful companions, Titas and Anansha. They provided the much needed care and push to my day that perhaps started too early due to a packed schedule. Each of them were given a photograph obtained from a brilliant collection of documentary pictures . Once again, the girls were provided with an opportunity to exercise their visual intelligence and relate to the soul of the personal expression captured in that moment. Not easy at all. They could not do it initially but a little push managed to give them a glimpse of the hidden story behind the photographed subject.
Finally, it was time to pick them from this realistic vision and place an abstract world of concepts they call cartoons to depict some more ideas. Instead of taking an absurd logical jump from reality to cartoons, I planned to build a carousel where the girls can learn about the development of stories in sequential and moving images from a single still frame. We all got carried away in the transformational art of comics and began exploring the traditional ideas on animation. Short films from Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse to Pixar’s Piper stretched the creative path that animation took in all these years. The class concluded with a short discussion on how we will end this 5 day camp tomorrow. The girls will be telling their own stories.
Day 5: I have a Story, therefore I am
Firstly, this day was nothing less than a roller coaster ride for me. Since morning, I realized that the day is going slightly off the track and my attention was somewhere caught up between the preparation of final session and catching the afternoon train for Bombay. Anansha arrived at the school with the much required support. The girls were a little late but nevertheless we started as quickly as we could. I took a long breath and told myself that this day has to be like a concluding class for them no matter what. We distributed the coloured papers to them as their personal canvas. In thirty minutes, we were supposed to witness the unique colours poured right out of the dancing imagination of these beautiful girls. They engaged in writing their stories with subtle expressions and actions vibrating constantly from their positions. Watching them during that time was the most joyful part for my experience. I moved around and passed through their glowing thoughts with delight and pleasure. The final session was perhaps the most unplanned session from my end although I had several alternatives available at my disposal. It was simply about making these girls share those written stories and celebrate them like an artist. All those learned concepts of what storytelling does to us were going to hit back to their limbic centre. Unfortunately, I extended my time to a considerable extent and had to leave without hearing all of them. Although, the girls gave me their written stories and I felt the euphoria of taking them with me on the journey back home.
I left them behind me. They took a part of me to preserve in that library basement. I sat in the train and looked at a beautiful letter one of the girls named Arpita wrote me. It reminded me that I have done a good job. It did something to them and their growing minds will hopefully take some time to realize completely what happened in those classes. The teacher in me smiled and said, “they were just little girls in search of a window. I tried opening the window but now they have to leave their home to someday come out and explore.”
“There’s more to life than meets the eye. All I ask of you is a little faith and a world of imagination.”