What a spectacular welcome to the Under the Aalamaram Storytelling Festival! Our International team of storytellers was met with trumpets and drums and beautifully dressed children in their traditional clothes. Flower lays were draped around our necks and our foreheads daubed with red vermillion as we were ushered into the school like visiting royalty.
The Under the Aalamaram Storytelling Festival was founded by Kathai Kalatta in 2014 to introduce children and adults, teachers and parents, in and around Chennai, to the benefits of oral storytelling. They invite storytellers from all over the world to share their unique cultures, their values, ideas and storytelling techniques with the people of Tamil Nadu.
World Renown Storytellers
It was a such an honour to be invited to tell stories along side some of the best storytellers in the business: Dianne Ferlatte- US, Jackie Kerin- Australia, Roger Jenkins- Singapore, Craig Jenkins- UK, Mochamad Arivo Faridh Zidni- Indonesia, Giorgiana Elena Popan- Romania and of course the great team of Indian Storytellers headed by festival organiser, Jeeva Raghunath with Vikram Sridhar, Ambujavalli Nagarajan & Debjani Bhadjuri.
It wasn’t a festival for the faint hearted as we storytellers were driven all over Chennai, through the incredibly hot, crowded city streets to different schools over 10 days. Many of the schools themselves seemed like mini cities as they catered for up to 5000 pupils. We also flew inland to Coimbatore, surrounded by the Western Ghats, the city pace there seemed a little slower. Some of the Coimbatore school were nestled into the lush green foothills of the Ghats, one school had been built on a well worn elephant track through the mountains… and yes, they did find the odd elephant wandering in the school ground.
On the Hop
Storytelling at the schools kept us all on our toes, despite the organisers best laid plans, we were never entirely sure what age group our audience were going to be. One day we were confronted with preschoolers who spoke no English- or I should say; the poor preschoolers were confronted with a crew of International storytellers with limited Tamil; just as well I had my bottomless bag of Australian animal puppets with me- soon we were all hopping and singing a kangaroo song.
The children from 1st grade up seemed to have a great understanding of English, even with the International tellers’ different accents. All the children, including the teenagers, joyfully joined in with participatory stories- so if you are ever telling overseas, make sure you pack plenty of participation stories- they totally won the attention and the hearts of all our audiences (and perhaps pack a kangaroo or two just in case)
Not only did I thoroughly enjoy my experience of telling stories in the schools but it was a fantastic opportunity to observe the many differed storytelling styles of the other tellers and learn more about my craft. Besides storytelling we also conducted workshops with the teachers, which again was a great opportunity to learn from others.
The festival held two main highlights for me, the first one was storytelling with the lovely Indian Storyteller Ambujavalli Nagarajan at a new International school in Coimbatore. Ambuja and I shared the storytelling sessions, and we had great fun singing a song together.
And the other highlight was at the International Storytelling Showcase at the Chennai Conservatory of Music. It was a beautiful theatre which held an intergenerational audience of 220. The evening flowed effortlessly. I had a last minute change of story and decided that Little Fairy Fifi, an Australian rainforest fairy wanted to her story to be told. Though we had not planned it… every story told seemed to build on the one before it, there was something palpable in the air, and I felt myself fall in love with each and every story, and with each and every teller. Sitting together after the performance, we all sensed that something truly magical had happened. (I'm not saying the magic was all fairy fifi's doing but she did have the 200 strong audience all waving their fancy fairy wands and flapping their wings)
Under the Aalamaram was a fabulous adventure, challenging with the heat, humidity and noise of an Indian city, but so rewarding with the enthusiastic participation of the children and teachers and with the new friendships forged. I think that India is much like a fairytale forest… once you enter, you can never be the same again.