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Kerala group of storytellers with a mission

A group of storytellers in Kerala is creating a community of listeners one Malayalam story at a time

Oru Palathinte Katha (The Story of a Bridge) narrated by Anitha Ranjit is a story about how former Chairman and Managing Director of the Delhi Metro Rail E Sreedharan, at the time a young engineer, rebuilt Rameshwarams’ Pamban bridge in record time after a cyclone swept away most of it in 1964. The story, uploaded on September 28, is one of the popular ones told by the Facebook community of storytellers, Kadalakkadalas.

Among those who listened to it were descendants of khalasis, traditional boat builders from Malabar, who were part of rebuilding the bridge. They reached out to the team grateful for the recognition to their grandfathers’ contribution.

Kadalakkadalas, loosely translated, means ‘the paper wrapping of peanuts’, and the opening montage of each story shows peanuts being roasted seen through a torn newspaper. “Before throwing away the piece of paper peanuts come packed in, some of us read it out of curiosity. Each paper has a story and that resonated with what we wanted to do,” says founder of the group Racika Raman, a teacher trainer and passionate storyteller.

Kadalakkadalas has ‘told’ 40 stories since its launch on July 17.

Collaborating with Racika, on the project, are Anitha Ranjit, Geetha Ananth, Nishi Menon, Sangeetha Sreehari, Ninoj Abraham, and Smitha Nair. All the members attended a beginners’ course by Bengaluru-based Kathalaya, which has branches in various cities and organises storytelling courses across the country. Racika has its Kochi franchise.

Of fun and folk tales

The stories are drawn from diverse sources such as Kottarathil Sankunni’s Ithihyamala, Malayalam folk tales and even originals written by members. Calicut-based school teacher Sangeetha narrated Ente Swantham Upuma (My Own Upma), which she wrote. “If, in the future, we use stories with living authors, we would request permission to avoid copyright issues,” Racika clarifies.

The focus of the group is to tell stories in Malayalam, about Kerala. The reason is that there are very few people doing this, unlike other South Indian languages.

Racika says she had been toying with the idea even before lockdown. As had been retired bank employee Geetha Ananth who also wanted to get into storytelling.

Kerala group of storytellers with a mission

“Lockdown came and I could not get into it. Around this time, Racika mooted this idea,” she says. The project served as a platform to hone their skills as well. The group wants to go slow, preferring word-of-mouth publicity and growing organically.

Kadalakkadalas posts two stories weekly, on weekends, of five to eight minutes and sometimes longer depending on the story. “Initially we were uploading a larger number per week. Followers told us they were missing content, so we decided to fix the number at two per week,” says Geetha. The stories are also posted on YouTube on their eponymous channel.

For most of these people this is a first. Except Ninoj, all of them have given it a go. Work commitments kept the IT professional away but he is getting ready with a couple of stories. He has been involved in the technical aspect and came up with the name for the group. Some stories have been subtitled by Anitha, but later stopped as work on the page increased.

Storytelling is not new to Smitha, but filming was new as was narrating them in Malayalam. “My Malayalam is not ‘literary’, it is conversational. I wasn’t sure if it would work; also, I have worked with a live audience in an interactive setting…all this is new to me,” she says. For Anitha this is a first, “Since I have not practised storytelling, ‘telling’ the camera was not difficult as it is not a live session.” The activity has fostered a bond between the members of the group. It has also given Nishi, Sangeetha and Smitha the confidence to use Malayalam more. “I don’t know so many things about Malayalam and Kerala…I am learning more about things,” Nishi says.

Sangeetha adds, “This was a good thing during trying times, I even started writing on my own.”

Each story is built around a theme, first discussed among the core group of seven members and then with a ‘resource’ group comprising scholars and teachers familiar with Malayalam language and literature. The tales are researched to avoid factual errors.

Although group members take turns, they also encourage people from their network to participate. Guest storytellers such as Leena Olappamanna, Swathee Elamon, and Chakiyarkoothu artist Edanadu Rajan Nambiar add to the diversity.

So far, the feedback has been encouraging, the group intends to keep the momentum going.

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