Come, let’s tell stories

Ambika Shaligram
Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Geetanjali Kulkarni, who is spearheading the Goshtarang Fellowship programme, tells us how performance tales can instill the curiosity to read among rural children

Enrolling a child in school is half the job done. Getting him/her to read, write, speak, engage with constructive and enriching activities is the remaining half, and needless to say, significant task. Legislations in academics, education sector have ensured that the doors of schools are open and welcoming of every child. But first time goers often have a tough time at school, because of the complete disconnect between their world and the world they are introduced to in school. In most cases, children from tribal, underprivileged sections of society can’t bridge this chasm and their reading, writing skills don’t develop as much as they should.

Quality Education Support Trust (QUEST), an NGO active in the education sector, is working with students of government-run schools. Managed by a team of experts headed by actor Geetanjali Kulkarni and her actor husband Atul Kulkarni, Nilesh Nimkar and others, the QUEST has a ‘Reading Writing Enhancement Programme’ to promote language advancement amongst the tribal children. 

In a decade’s work, the team realised that the best way to achieve their goals would be through Goshtarang — or storytelling performances. They introduced Goshtarang fellowship for students, who were willing to work in tribal areas and hinterlands of the state, and of course had performance skills. 

While in Pune for the culmination of Goshtarang fellowship, organised by IAPAR, Geetanjali gives us more details.  

“The QUEST works with Zilla Parishad schools, in the primary sector and in the hinterland. In the tribal belt, there is no reading and writing culture as such. The parents haven’t attended schools due to the social structure prevailing in the past. The first generation school-goers find it tough because they haven’t seen a book or a newspaper and they haven’t seen their elders reading,” begins Geetanjali. 

When these children start school, they see the textbooks for the first time and then they are expected to learn how to read and write. It’s not easy for them. Also, they speak a different dialect at home while the Marathi they learn in the school is different. These differences result in their alienation from studies. They take no interest in school work, she points out. 

“In the West, there has been research on how to teach a language, for instance, English to non-English speakers. We don’t have that kind of research to teach Indian languages. A few linguists have done some research, but when it comes to teaching tribal children, we had to work on different modules,” says the actor. 

“At QUEST, we have a few team members who have worked with the tribals and had a few ideas on how to teach them Marathi, which they are taught in school, but don’t speak at home. These ideas have been incorporated in Reading Writing Enhancement Programme. What we realised is that they need to hold a book in their hand. We need to read aloud stories to them before turning to textbooks. So we started ‘Active Library Programme’. Typically, in a library, you are supposed to maintain silence, read quietly. According to a new research, a library should be active, engaging and a vibrant place to be in for children,” she adds.

The team then introduced ‘Pustak Peti’ for the children. A trunk containing books is lugged around from village to village. On reaching the destination, the books are spread out on a carpet. When the children gather around, the library educator picks up a book, reads out from it. If there are younger kids, then picture books are chosen. A little older children will have more text interspersed with pictures. 

“While doing these read aloud activities, we realised that if there was a ‘live’ element, like a performance, then that would interest the children more. If the characters from the stories come alive, then their interest would be piqued. The research supports this and we as actors too have experienced this. I have worked with teachers, children and with this we got a focus. We used drama, theatre as a tool to promote children’s literature. Thus we started the Goshtarang programme three years ago,” adds Geetanjali, who has acted in Court film.  

Started in 2016, the Goshtarang programme got together local artists to tell stories to kids in Palghar belt. A year later, the team thought that they have to spread out considering the gravity of the work. “We planned to reach out to as many kids, get them hooked to reading, and so we had to expand our network of storytellers; we needed to groom them. So we decided that the five fellows for this programme should be selected from across the state. We spread the word through social media and connected with institutes like Lalit Kala Kendra. This year we performed in 25 districts of Maharashtra,” says Geetanjali.

The five fellows, who are paid a stipend of Rs 18,000, are chosen on the basis of their storytelling skills, their theatre experience and their readiness to stay in rural areas for nine months. 

“We need someone with performance skills because we don’t have time to teach them that. We also look for people who have different dialects. We can’t have all the storytellers speaking in the same tone with no variation. Nuances is what we look for. One of our fellows, Sagar Landge is from the rural part of Amravati, who knows how to speak Korku,” she adds.

From this year, the fellowship programme has been extended to 10 months. Besides working with children, the artists too are learning anew — how to act without lights and sounds, by focusing on your voice and body. “These are tools for any new actor. They can fall back on this form if at some point they get no work in television, theatre or films,” points out Geetanjali.

Any actor performing before children will tell you that they are an unpredictable audience. Sagar Landge too learnt this hard way. A Goshtarang fellow for 2018, Landge and his friends had put up a play. But before performing in Palghar, they decided to have trial shows in local schools. The response shocked Landge and his co-actors. “They just didn’t respond. We thought the children would laugh, join us in our performances. But nothing of that sort happened. In a shock, we went back to Geetutai and told her what happened. We then tweaked our play and then we got the response we anticipated at our next show. The children in Palghar are now familiar with performances that Goshtarang fellows put up. They laugh or point out our goof-ups amongst each other. They now know what theatre or storytelling performance is like. However, when we perform in rural parts of Vidarbha, Amravati, it comes as a surprise to many. They haven’t seen anything like this before,” he says. 

Landge now wishes to work with children, tell them stories in his native place in Amravati.  

Ganesh Jadhav, another student of Lalit Kala Kendra and a Goshtarang fellow, calls it a life-affirming experience. “We were not just entertaining the young ones, we were educating them and ourselves in the bargain. We learnt how much effort goes into making of a play, even if it is without the paraphernalia. What I learnt was how to think before acting,” he adds.

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