To watch Jeeva Raghunath tell a story is a bit like being transported back to one's childhood; those days of innocence when you were ready to believe in a world of magic where gods lived, birds spoke and the good always won in the end.Raghunath waves her hand, stamps her foot, rolls her eyes, raises her voice, all just so. And her audience is enthralled: as she flaps her hands and crows "Caw, caw", the little ones faithfully repeat "Caw, caw" after her.
India's tradition of storytelling, or katha, is an old one, found across the ages and across regions. Imagine this scene: Ganesha, the elephant god, one of India's favourite deities, writing down one of India's favourite ancient epics, the Mahabharata, as recited by the sage Ved Vyasa. Before that, it was Vyasa who narrated it, and only to his son and disciples.
As stories themselves go, the Mahabharataremains popular in India because of its relevance to contemporary life and the way we are able to draw upon its characters in our everyday conversations. It is also loved for the fact (though few would admit it openly) that it acknowledges the flaws of all its characters: in the Mahabharata, everyone is human and, therefore, fallible. It holds us in thrall today with its clever story-within-a-story structure - "a story that will grow like a lotus vine, that will twist in on itself and expand ceaselessly, till all of you are a part of it", as described in Vikram Chandra's award-winning book Red Earth and Pouring Rain.
Over time, stories from these epics found many expressions in India through theatre, dance and puppetry. Through these forms, tales of gods, goddesses, demons and even ordinary folk came to be passed down the generations.
This is perhaps what Bill Mooney and David Holt write about in The Storyteller's Guide when they note: "Stories are how we learn. The progenitors of the world's religions understood this, handing down our great myths and legends from generation to generation." And though such performing storytelling forms seem to be losing their relevance, there are a few people fighting to keep them alive.
What is more interesting is how a whole crop of new storytellers has emerged in India, young men and women who are reviving the art of the simple narrative. These Scheherazades of modern India either create new stories or make existing ones more contemporary and fun for the young.
Raghunath, from Chennai, is one of them. She grew up listening to stories and now narrates them to others. Raghunath, who has travelled to 14 countries as a storyteller (when I first contacted her, she was at a literary festival in Sri Lanka), helped set up the World Storytelling Institute in Chennai along with Eric Miller. Miller is a New Yorker who has made Chennai home for the past 10 years, although his first visit to the city was in 1988.
With his soft voice and slightly hesitant speech, Miller hardly fits one's idea of an Indian storyteller, yet his research and work are all to do with Indian stories. The mission of the World Storytelling Institute is simple: storytelling helps people relate to each other, to the past and to the environment and, therefore, needs to be encouraged and cultivated. According to Miller, storytelling also helps develop skills such as listening, articulation and logical sequencing of events.
In Mumbai lives Mayur Puri, who has been telling stories in some form for years now - he writes songs, screenplays and dialogues for Hindi films, his most successful film being the 2007 blockbuster Om Shanti Om.With his wife, Puri also runs Story Circus, a small room in a crowded suburb of Mumbai that comes alive during weekends with his stories and children who hang on to his every word.