Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Woohoo, Bookaroo!

Writers Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran took snow kings, sky monkeys and a merry rakshasa with them to Bookaroo. Sowmya shares notes on their sessions.

Who wouldn’t like to listen to stories in the shade of a big banyan tree? 

The stories we had chosen for our storytelling sessions were The Snow King’s Daughter and The Sky Monkey’s Beard. The Kahani Tree sessions are all 30-minute ones and are conducted for different age-groups. We had planned to do dramatized readings of the stories for the 6-8 age group. But when we actually got to see some of the sessions at the venue, we realized that despite the age-group indication, children of all ages were sitting in the audience, expecting to be entertained! 

Most of the storytellers for the Kahani Tree sessions chose to perform stories with songs and a lot of repetition – a smart move since it allowed the audience to participate and follow the story despite the distractions that an open space with thronging crowds offered. I was quite apprehensive of doing The Snow King’s Daughter – a story about a child living in exile – for this audience. 

The subject isn’t light and doesn’t lend itself to an if-you-are-happy-and-you-know-it kind of song and dance. The text is also rather subtle and layered in places and if the audience isn’t listening carefully, it’s likely to be lost on them. And an uninterested audience of children can really be merciless, especially since they don’t realize they are being so. 

Niveditha and I racked our brains to see what we could do. I had taken along a pair of hand puppets – a zebra and a monkey – and we decided to use them somehow. At least, it would give the really young kids something to look at! So, for The Snow King’s Daughter, I began the story by asking children where they went on their last trip and how they had travelled. Some had been to Indonesia, some to Darjeeling. Some had travelled by plane, some by car. But did they know how Keshav from the book travelled? With the help of his straw mat and atlas! He simply makes a huge red ‘X’ on the place he wants to visit and hey presto! He’s there! And on his last trip, Keshav went to Africa and made friends with this…this zebra! One of the kids in the audience named the zebra Avi and I told them that Avi was a very naughty zebra who had to be shushed now and then. They promised to take care of that and so we began!

Instead of doing the dramatized reading that Niveditha and I had originally planned, I simply ‘told’ the story in the language and words that came to me at that point. Niveditha showed them the pictures and the zebra made annoying interruptions (‘Where is this cold place?’ asked Amma; ‘Chennai! Chennai!’ said the zebra). The children shushed in the right places and were also obliging enough to answer the questions I asked them on what was an ‘independent country’ (‘a free country’), who ruled India previously, the location of Tibet and China and so on. The zebra shook hands with all those who answered. 

Niveditha, too, chose to tell the story rather than doing a dramatized reading. I held up the book so the children could see the pictures. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that children love monkeys and so, from the start of the story, they were hooked. The floating sky monkeys with their bubble-like yellow eyes held their attention and when Niveditha’s naughty little sky monkey made faces and pulled the ears of the tiny members of the distinguished audience, there were happy giggles and smiles all around. 

And of course, when she asked them to wiggle their bums and pretend they were sitting on a cloud, there wasn’t a kid in the audience who didn’t want to do it. At the end of the story, Niveditha blew out bits of the grandfather’s beard (wads of cotton, inspired by storyteller Jeeva Raghunath’s take on it) into the crowd!

Neither of us is a storyteller (we’re more the type that sends out manuscripts and sits impatiently in a corner waiting for the publisher to get back), so this experience was quite challenging. But one lives and learns and I’m glad that we were able to manage the situation fairly well!

For The Pleasant Rakshasa, our new book together which I’ve written and Niveditha has illustrated, we had signed up to do a reading and activity at the ‘Crafty Corner’. The Crafty Corner is the arts and crafts section where children draw, paint, and make stuff. 

Since this was a registered session, there were about a million parents (okay, maybe not a million, but it sure felt like it) trying to get their kids in. Jo Williams of Bookaroo, the self-acknowledged bouncer of the Crafty Corner, finally managed to sort out the fifty who were to attend the session and we began the session by singing a silly rakshasa rhyme. The children were impatient to get their hands on all the lovely sketch pens and pencils but they were obliging enough to sing along and humour us. Karimuga’s hairy legs and big belly were a hit, as were his awesome yellow teeth. 

After the reading, Niveditha showed the children how to draw Karimuga and before you could say ‘rakshasa’, an avalanche of children fell over us, demanding paper, pens, sharpeners, and nuclear weapons. The volunteers handled the situation admirably and not before long, the fifty odd kids were settled at their desks, drawing away happily. We helped them cut out their masks, punch holes, and tie the threads. By the end of the hour, there were quite a few rakshasas romping around Bookaroo!

Two days, three sessions. Each with its own challenges and happy moments. The two of us had a whale of a time dealing with all of it and next November, we’d be sure to sit inside our respective straw mats with an atlas in hand, a huge red ‘X’ over Bookaroo on it!

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