In today’s media saturated world, videos, websites, apps and social media are all constantly vying for our attention. Is there a place for oral storytelling in the midst of this? Is there still a place for myths and legends? Kamini Ramachandran, 50, director of MoonShadow Stories and full-time storyteller, certainly thinks so and has been resolutely preserving the oral tradition of storytelling in this age of digital narratives for the past 15 years. Here, she shares with us the importance of storytelling and the challenges she faces to keep it alive.
The Ultimate Storyteller
Listening to Kamini Ramachandran relate her encounter with a shaman in the jungles of Perak and Pahang in Malaysia, how she crossed living root-bridges in Meghalaya, and her reimagined origin of Singapore as a flourishing fishing village, one cannot help but be held in rapt attention, immersed in lush landscapes brought to life by her mere words.
“My grandfather, to me, is definitely the ultimate storyteller”, professed Kamini. Her grandfather was both her inspiration and mentor. Kamini is a living testimony of his mastery of the oral tradition and, if her talent is anything to go by, one can only imagine how great he must have been.
Kamini recalled the time spent with her grandparents with great fondness. She lived with her grandparents on a plantation in Johor from the age of 4 to help ease her mother’s struggles of raising three very young children, which included her two younger brothers.
“My grandfather told the stories of his family in Kerala, India, the Japanese Occupation and the epics from the Mahabharata to the Ramayana.” The eldest of nine grandchildren, Kamini had spent the most time with her grandfather and when he passed away, she inherited both his repertoire of stories and gift of telling them.
“I felt a huge responsibility to carry on the tradition, not just with my children at home or my nephews and nieces, but with the public. He was more like a community storyteller, a family storyteller, but I wanted to take it to a different level because if these stories are to survive, they need to be told outside of the community of the family,” Kamini said, reflecting on her place in the bigger scheme of things.
Besides being a professional storyteller, she is also a mentor and trainer to young storytellers and hopes to influence and inspire future generations to keep this art form alive.
Kamini (seated in the foreground) with her grandfather at his home in Kota Tinggi, Johor in 1975. Photo courtesy of Kamini Ramachandran
The Journey to MoonShadow Stories
MoonShadow Stories was so named as it was inspired by the moon as a muse for artists as well as the Southeast Asian tradition and art of storytelling using shadow puppets in wayang kulit. However, the course of MoonShadow Stories did not run smooth as Kamini was faced with skepticism about the value of storytelling for adult audiences as a performing art. “Storytelling is an art form?” and “Why should I pay? You should do it for free” were refrains she constantly heard.
When MoonShadow Stories formally began in 2004 its shows at The Substation were non-ticketed, but accepted donations. Back then, audiences would drop $2 or $5 into a donation box, which was indicative of the perceived value of storytelling at the time. But halfway through the year, the donation box began to see $10 and eventually $50 notes. It was then that Kamini realised they were ready to ticket and with the fan base that had formed, she created a database and sent them newsletters.
Kamini performing on World Storytelling Day at the Guinness Theatre, The Substation in 2010, six years after MoonShadow Stories had built a rapport with local audiences. Photo courtesy of Kamini Ramachandran
Kamini had been clear about establishing herself as an artist and not a mere hobbyist dabbling in a sideline. Storytelling is an art that requires research and preparation regardless of whether the audience are children or adults. Kamini has maintained that “it was very important to establish value and not everyone can do that, to add value. And the only way to change mindsets – that storytelling is an art form – was to put myself on stage. Once people saw those photographs and video footage of me at an international festival with an audience, they were convinced.”
Even the choice of performance venue was instrumental in re-shaping the perception of storytelling; Kamini strategically opted to perform at The Substation, a known arts venue rather than at a community centre, which helped change the mentality of arts programmers. This arduous crusade lasted for five years and, looking back, was victorious seeing how far MoonShadow Stories has advanced since then.
“Storytelling teaches you how to understand the universe you are in and how to feel rooted in the tribe you come from,” Kamini explained.
Beyond the mere narration of a story, storytelling ingrains one with a sense of identity, if not, questions it. It invites one to look back at their past and the tribe they belong to. Kamini recalled an experience where she was invited by the vice-chancellor of a university in Shillong, India to tell the tribal stories of the Khasi tribe.
The vice-chancellor shared how “when the colonials arrived they regarded the [Khasi] tribe as pagans and converted them all to Christianity and [forbade them] to tell their creation mythology. This resulted in a current generation with a cultural disconnect not just from Shillong, but from India altogether,” Kamini said.
Having no prior knowledge of their tribal stories, she was given a translated book of mythologies written by an established Khasi poet and writer. With some apprehension, she selected two of the biggest mythologies to be told in what turned out to be a big event at a town hall attended by both young and old. She recalled her anxiety, “It was really scary, going into a place you are unfamiliar with and who was I to tell their tribal stories? And telling [them] in English, I didn’t even know if it was right or wrong.”
Kamini retelling Khasi tribal tales on stage at a public performance in Shillong, India in 2011. Photo courtesy of Kamini RamachandranBy the end of it, her fears were assuaged when the Khasi elders honored her by draping a shawl around her. Grandmothers approached her after the performance and told her how she had triggered many memories and helped them to recollect those lost pages of their lives. Kamini’s telling of the two myths grew into a dialogue between the two generations, inspiring them to recapture and rebuild their lost heritage.
The Boy Who Became President
While Kamini has travelled far and wide as a storyteller, one of her most memorable storytelling experiences was right here in Singapore with the late SR Nathan who had wanted someone to tell his life story. His was not a story of glorified achievements but one with humble beginnings, and setbacks such as family problems and not doing well in school. Kamini understood that such powerful stories needed to be heard because they would spark hope and inspire individuals and show that doing poorly in school need not spell the end of the road.
The late SR Nathan’s story was told in front of an audience of 2,000 at the Singapore Teachers Conference. “It was so emotional, I remember my voice cracking when I told the story… it was all about a little boy and at the end it was finally revealed that the little boy was [in the audience], [and SR Nathan] stood up and then the spotlight was on him,” she recounted.
Kamini with the late SR Nathan after her performance at the Singapore Teachers Conference in 2014. Photo courtesy of Kamini Ramachandran
The Story of Our Future
Like the characters in the tales she tells, Kamini has evolved as a storyteller. She has embraced being a mentor and guides young emerging storytellers through the Young Storytellers Mentorship Project – a project that’s part of the non-profit organisation, The Storytelling Centre Ltd, which Kamini founded. She helps to develop their repertoire and talent as storytellers. She regards it as her sacred duty to train the next generation of storytellers to ensure that the art of storytelling and the stories themselves live on.
“That person is not going to fall out from the sky. I have to invest, I have to nurture and guide, and support them,” she said. She is currently working with two young storytellers, helping them build their repertoire and providing them with some much needed performing experience with the eventual goal of giving these stories cultural longevity.
But that will not be the final chapter of Kamini’s story. As a storyteller, Kamini will always have another tale to tell and we can sleep soundly each night knowing that there are those among us who will ensure that the stories and lessons of our tribes will be passed on to the future generation.
Written by: Terence C. Fong
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign