When Tellers Rise and Stories Fall… The Voice of a Storywallah

In our Linkedin Age where storytellers outnumber the stories worth their salt, what may help us tell a true story and its narrator from the rest of the world? A seasoned storyman tells us.

LILA: Let us begin by situating a ‘story’ in today’s time. Historically storytellers were an integral part of society, recording and narrating humanity’s journey though time. But today, in the age of new media and a variety of resources, what role do you see storytellers playing in society? 

Ameen Haque: There is no single role that storytellers have played in the past. They have always played multiple roles. One kind of role was that of preserving and retelling the story of a family. Storytellers, patronised by kings and wealthy families, would be called at times of birth, death, weddings, etc. to tell the stories of the patron family – of grandparents and their adventures; great deeds done by the family, etc.  

Another role of storytellers was to apply balm. When somebody dies, you need something to ease the pain and bring closure. Storytellers would serve this purpose by telling stories from religion and drama; stories of loss and letting go; stories of moving on and making peace with the cycle of birth and death.  

At one level, the longest running story we have been told is – where do we come from? Where do we go? What happens after we die? One form of it is religion; another form is all the texts we see around us. I call them how and why stories. There are very deep philosophical ones there – why do we exist? How did the Earth come to be? Why is it that the sun chases the moon, and the moon chases the sun, and they keep going around like they do? Every culture has a story about it. People made up stories to explain things, and religion became a part of it. There are simpler versions of these stories too. For e.g. Why does the elephant have a long nose? Why does a beetle have black spots?  

Then there are stories that raise questions instead of answering them. At one level Laila Majnu is a tragic love story, but it is also a story which raises a question about the way society deals with love. Is this how society should create restrictions and hierarchy of class? Like Anton Chekov said (and I paraphrase): all art has only one objective – to provoke thought, and to question. So, there are storytellers who have questioned.  

I don’t see these roles changing fundamentally. Even today, storytellers do all of that. At some level these stories were entertainment, at some level they were like balm, and at some level they carried wisdom, questions and answers. So that role doesn’t change, because human needs are fundamental. You’ll see that storytellers – and that includes everyone from visual storytellers who work with a camera or paint and a canvas, to verbal storytellers like rap artists or dastangos, to novelists, poets and short-story writers – they do all of these things even today. Only the way in which we tell these stories keeps evolving.  

LILA: The way we tell stories are largely driven by the intention behind the telling. Within the various forms of storytelling, we could broadly categorise stories into two types – one that are commissioned, and one that is a story that you as an artist want to tell…

Ameen Haque: Yes, absolutely. That has always been the case and continues to be so. There is always the song that is sung because the singer is commissioned to sing it. Only the people commissioning these songs and stories change, and with each change, there are some songs or stories that are allowed to be told, while others are not. [Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]The mainstream will always be the commissioned story, but for every mainstream there is always the countertrend. In fact, I have come to believe that it is the mainstream that gives rise to the countertrend. In stories also, the dominant narrative gives rise to the subversive or the alternate. These are forces that feed on each other. The trigger for the latter has always been politics, or one’s personal pain. A lot of artists’ work has come from a personal sense of aesthetics and politics.  

LILA: What is your own process of working with both these kinds of stories – commercial and personal? 

Ameen Haque: I dabble in oral stories, which is almost like solo-theatre or a one-act play where you don’t need a set, costume or props – you could tell a story under a tree, or you could tell a story on stage with a basic accompaniment like a harmonica or a dafli. The primary thing in this format is the text itself, that is, the story which connects the listener and the teller. When that is your work, all the topics become non-mainstream, because you’re working in an environment which is not mainstream. The audience which is drawn to it is also not mainstream. They have a certain sense of aesthetics, and certain ideological leanings. So, a kind of ecosystem develops in this way. All artists work within such an ecosystem.  

I believe I am still quite mainstream in my approach to storytelling. I don’t think I raise too many questions to ruffle too many feathers. I could, but now I have responsibilities – two daughters – that I have to consider. For example, one of my favourite stories is from the Ramayana, which I don’t narrate anymore. In it, a woman infatuated with a man professes her feelings to him. The man rejects her advances saying, “I am taken, but my brother is available.” Her heart breaks, but she approaches the brother instead, who responds by chopping her nose off. This is the story of Surpanakha. Today, so many men present unwarranted proposals to women, like on Valentine’s Day. We don’t go around chopping their noses off.  

It’s also interesting that this is the man we term as maryada purush, or ‘role model’, who never does anything wrong. It is common knowledge that Ram, Lakshman and their brothers all married at the same time, at the same place. Ram was married to Sita, and Lakshman was married to Urmila. Sita accompanied the brothers in their exile, but Urmila was left behind in the palace. So, when Ram said that his brother was available, he didn’t mean that he was a bachelor. What he meant to say was that his own wife was with him, so he couldn’t have indulged Surpanakha. But since Lakshman had left his wife behind, she could approach him. Is this right? But to narrate this story today is not easy for me. I can say it in one-on-one conversations like this, but not otherwise.  

So, whether you work in the mainstream domain, or in more niche domains, there are boundaries that every artist has to negotiate. Within the constraints of that you try and raise questions, entertain, and provide wisdom and answers.  

LILA: Along with your own practice of storytelling, you have also started something called Storywallahs, which is more corporate-oriented. Can you tell me more about this organisation, and how your entire ecosystem of storytelling comes together with both these formats in mind?

Ameen Haque: I use storytelling in the widest sense possible. So I see a rap artist who raises questions as a storyteller; I see a painter as a storyteller. To me storytelling is a broad spectrum. I don’t hold a flag saying it is only oral storytelling and nothing else. In that broader sense, I look back at my past and how I have arrived at the work I am doing now. There are two influences that I’ve had: one is advertising and the other is theatre. My career in advertising was spent telling stories of brands and trying to increase their market share. In the evenings I used to do theatre. While I was in Delhi, I learnt photography, and did a course in film appreciation. So, my influences have come from movies, cinema, poetry, photography – all kinds of narratives, in that sense.  

So even at Storywallahs, we don’t restrict ourselves to one kind of storytelling. We are open to all kinds. I have this belief that no matter which business we are in – and I say business not in the commercial sense, but in the literal sense of the word ‘busy-ness’ – we are also in the business of storytelling. A potter needs to be able to tell stories of his pottery, otherwise it becomes a commodity. The moment you need to stand out, you need to be able to tell a story. You can do it in whichever way – through your sense of aesthetics; the way you distribute; the way you display your craft; the way you do your pottery with a flourish. Chefs, educators, teachers, they are all participating in the act of storytelling in some way or the other. 

At Storywallahs we do about five things. The first one is performance storytelling, where we tell stories to children, adults and senior citizens. The second is our work with schools. I have always believed that storytelling is a better way of learning than rote learning, and that teachers need to be good storytellers. Right now, teachers don’t learn storytelling as part of their curriculum. They become teachers by doing B.Ed. or Montessori courses, but the big thing that’s lacking in their training is storytelling. We convert teachers into storytellers, so that they can teach their subject through storytelling rather than just asking students to mug it up. If I ask you today what Archimedes principle is, or to explain gravity, you may not be able to. But everybody remembers the story of a man sitting under a tree when an apple fell; or the story of a naked man running down the street shouting eureka after he sat in a bathtub and he saw water spilling out. That is the power of stories. Teachers can use that power to make education so much more fun.  

The third thing we do is to work with start-up founders. When you are trying to bring in a new idea, establish new technology or new ways of working, you need to be a storyteller to attract talent, raise funds, and generally be able to tell the story of your venture. We build that storytelling capability. We really believe that the moment we are born as human beings, we are all storytellers. But some of us don’t exercise those muscles. So we work with start-up founders to exercise and build that muscle and become better storytellers.  

The fourth area is leadership. Leaders need to be better storytellers in any sphere – not just business leaders, but also change-makers. We coach such individuals to become better storytellers. This is not oratory storytelling. I’ve always believed that oratory is like a good garnish to a dish, but if the dish itself is not good, no amount of garnish will save it.  

The fifth is an assorted mix of things we do. We work on diversity and inclusion; we work with children with special needs, autistic kids; we work in areas of sexual harassment and mental well-being and we use stories there to raise questions or build sensitivity and empathy. These are specific applications of storytelling.  

LILA: While you say that everybody can build the skill of storytelling, but without substance no amount of garnish will help it, that is not quite what we see in the public space today. Responsible storytelling is alarmingly fading in the public discourse… 

Ameen Haque: See, it is your aesthetics that will guide you in terms of the kind of stories you want to tell, especially in the performance space. I’ll give you an example. There is a lot of stories that should not be told. There is an expiry date even for stories, not because of the market – the market may still demand them – but you should be able to judge whether it is the right story to be told given the context. For example, when we were growing up, most of the stories we listened to were stories of wicked stepmothers. With the divorce rates that we see around us today, and the conventional and traditional family system breaking away, what right do we have to poison a child’s mind by telling them stories of wicked stepmothers? Why can’t stepmothers be good? For whatever reason, if the couple can’t sustain their marriage and have to go their separate ways, the child will always look at the stepmother with a coloured lens. What right do we have to colour that lens? So that story is past its expiry date.

I’m just giving you one example. There are actually many stories like that. For instance, stories that look at the girl child in a particular light, reinforcing various gender stereotypes: “Ram and Geeta came back from school. Geeta helped her mother at home, while Ram ran out to play with his friends”. As a child when we grow up repeatedly listening to some of these stories, every telling reinforces a certain kind of stereotype. The more we retell these stories, the more we create fixed notions, which lead to issues of toxic masculinity, rage; of assuming that certain genders come with a certain set of responsibilities, etc. Ultimately, in a larger sense, story is the cultural surround that we grow up absorbing, and that’s what shapes our worldview. We become the stories that we consume: just like the food we eat shapes our body, the stories shape our mind. So, the kind of stories we read, listen or generally consume become very important. 

Beyond the individual, they also shape our collective consciousness. For example, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was built on the narrative of minority appeasement for a long time, and that became the narrative we all bought into. “The laws are different for them”, “they are allowed 4 marriages”, “this was our country, they came from the outside and took over, tore down our temples, and built mosques by force”, “they forced our women to marry them, in order to convert them”, “we need to turn this around because now we have the power”. These are the stories we hear, that go on to produce rage, hatred and violence.[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]Even these were needed at a time, to restore balance. Every story is born out of some kind of imbalance that needs to be restored. Though a story may be sent out to restore balance, sometimes it takes on a life of its own, just like Pandora’s box. It becomes hard to shut it back down. Story is like power, it has to be used responsibly. Like science is also a power. You could use it to make medicine, or you could use it to make a bomb. Just like that a story could be used as a remedy, or to instigate fire, hatred or anger. A story is a story, it is neither good nor bad. It is about how you use that story. Even the man who says there are 72 virgins waiting for you in heaven is just telling a story.  

LILA: What is the possibility of responsible storytelling being realised today? For instance, on the one hand you mentioned that it is difficult or dangerous to narrate certain stories today, but at the same time we also see a book like The Forest of Enchantments come out today, that subverts Surpanakha’s story in a non-confrontational yet subversive way. How can we tap into this creative and subversive potential of stories?

Ameen Haque: It is interesting that you use the word subversive. Actually, it is restoring balance. That’s what stories do, they restore balance. Things have been out of balance for a long time, for instance, gender has been out of balance for a long time. So, some of these stories are a way of correcting those gender roles by questioning and saying how can we bound femininity, or proscribe limits of a certain kind. Stories of these kinds are an attempt to open those locks. They are searching for the keys that can help us open them. They are not subversive. They are just pushing back and restoring that balance once again.  

If you look at this from a historical perspective, whenever the first such story comes out, it requires a strong push to bring it to the forefront. When you have to push that hard, naturally your voice becomes shrill and less refined. These people get labelled as activists and warriors, and their life becomes very hard. So the first few voices are much louder than those that follow. It is after that first uproar that the saner, calmer voices begin to come to the stage. And these stories are deeper, more meaningful; they stand the test of time. They don’t have the rough edges that the first few had. Take a look at the depiction of homosexuality in the public space. When it was first introduced in cinema and other public formats, it was full of clichés and stereotypical depictions, even when it came from the community themselves. But you can’t blame them, because the context was different. You couldn’t even come out in public and say you were gay back then. You succumbed to market pressures, because you had no other recourse. Those stories were shrill and had rough edges. But today when such stories come out, they are much more confident. Time has passed and there is more acceptance, so the voices are more refined, confident and not so loud. [Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]I don’t know if that answers your questions, but it helps us see things on the historical plane. That’s the nature of revolt. Over a period of time, voice mellows, and you are able to reflect and become a more inclusive voice.  

LILA: The kind of stories that should restore balance are themselves becoming a field of competition and shallowness and anxiety about livelihood and survival. Ironically when such stories flourish, the actual storyteller gets anxious about the extinction of her or his livelihood. How do you see this paradox?

Ameen Haque: That’s the nature of evolution. Out of this churning, hopefully nectar will emerge. The wheat gets separated from the chaff only when the going gets tough.  

LILA: Let us look at the role storytelling might play in the foreseeable future. In most industries today, Artificial Intelligence is being touted as a replacement for many mechanical jobs and skills, which has led technology and business leaders to theorise that creativity, critical thinking and compassion – skills that are uniquely human – will be sought after in the near future. Since your work involves nurturing the storytelling muscle, a practice that involves most of the above mentioned skills, do you see it paying a crucial role for the workforce in the near future?

Ameen Haque: My fear with storytelling is that when it goes from niche to more mainstream, everyone becomes a storyteller. When everyone becomes a storyteller, nobody remains a storyteller. It is the same issue of surface vs depth. If at surface everyone is a storyteller, good storytellers will stop calling themselves that, and will have to brand themselves as something else. The law of diminishing returns applies to everything. The ability to create impact using a word reduces the more mainstream it becomes. Then, as an artist, you have to find a new sound, a new voice, a new story, a new visual depiction to shock, arrest and engage audiences. [Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]A simple example is this popular video on YouTube where a beggar is sitting with a sign that reads “I’m blind, please help.” He is not able to raise funds. A lady walks by and changes that sign to: “It’s a beautiful day, but I can’t see it,” and suddenly he starts receiving money from passers-by.

So old messages don’t work anymore. We live in a world which is cluttered with hundreds and thousands of messages inundating us in all kinds of directions. Which one of these will go and stick to people’s ears? To be that voice, you have to stand out. Articulation, visualisation, the ability to create, etc. become important. So, it’s not just what we say, but how we say it that also becomes very important. For instance, there was a time when all photography was in black and white, because that was the norm. Then colour photography was introduced, but it was very expensive. Everybody didn’t have coloured photographs back then because it required different types of chemicals to develop them. So colour photographs became special. But eventually, owing to the economy of scale, colour photography became more common. Once it was common, black and white became special again. So the mainstream vs niche is a pendulum that keeps swinging.[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]Around five years back, storytelling was also niche. It is still a relatively rare profession, but 10 years from now, that will not be so. Everybody will become a storyteller – from pottery artists, graffiti artists, to debate champions, physics teachers, etc. You go to LinkedIn, and you will see so many storytellers – data storyteller, data visualiser, bloggers, food storytellers, clothing customisation storytellers, etc. When storytelling becomes a common practice, the storytellers will start calling themselves something else. So storytelling will remain, but this word will lose its sexiness. 

LILA: Ironically, the people who are actual storytellers, in terms of authors of novels, etc. are not earning any money… 

Ameen Haque: Absolutely. And that form will become niche now. Some will say they tell ‘Kavad Katha’, some will say they work with scrolls, some will become ‘dastango’, which we are already seeing. So people will start becoming experts in different types of storytelling, which is also a good thing.

LILA: Can you tell us about your own future as a storyteller in the changing scenario – who do you see yourself becoming? 

Ameen Haque: I see myself focusing on two things: teaching storytelling to business leaders and going deeper into the craft of oral storytelling. For the last five years, I have been mostly working with children. Over the next few years I want to tell stories to grown-ups.  

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