The Art Local | Storytelling and Uncomfortable Conversations


The Art Local is a monthly column by Jerin Jacob that intends to look at how art can be used as a medium of social protest and engagement, a catalyst to encourage and mediate social change.

We all enjoy a tale well told. The power of storytelling is undoubtedly tremendous and yes, proven to be impact worthy. There are stories that make us cry and laugh, stories that make us love, care and feel compassion, stories that inspire action, stories that leave us in awe and wonder, stories that enrage us and make us question the order of things, stories that teach, enlighten and change us.

It was only long after I had read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin that I got to know of the magnificent role the book had to play in the abolition of slavery in America. While grappling with my understanding around the discourse of naxalism and the naxal movement in India during my teenage years, it were the powerfully stirring stories of Mahasweta Devi that came to my rescue. It was through the stories told in Vijila Chirappad and Meena Kandasamy’s poetry that I understood caste politics in India in its true gravity. Over and over again, it has been stories, in all its creative forms, that have helped me mould my awareness of issues and topics that aren’t usually discussed around a middle-class, conservative family’s dinner table and sometimes not even in the company of friends, even the closest of pals.

Stories have always been my go to mantra when it comes to initiating a usually uncomfortable conversation with others, be this while trying to take awareness classes on child sexual abuse for little kids, menstrual hygiene or social leadership classes for adolescent girls hailing from a vernacular background, classes on social media usage for parents or even, even while talking about ecological sustainability and eco-friendly spiritual practices to elders. Stories always make the perfect ice-breaker and catalyst for conversations, which allow us to add just the perfect tinge of seriousness, joviality or sarcasm, depending on how much the situation and subject demands.

Kamini Ramachandran, a professional storyteller and the founder of MoonShadow stories, describes the art of storytelling as the carrier of a plethora of ideas and information, a potent language passed on through generations and the perfect conduit for change. She strongly opines that stories pave the way for engagement, and thus are capable of having credible social impact on and among the hearers.

The idea behind a well-presented story is that it manages to do the talking in situations where we are uncomfortable addressing the subject. Listeners tend to retain the messages conveyed via stories better than others. Well narrated stories usually appeal to people of all age groups because we are all innately story-driven. “Stories are interesting. They help visualize, they build involvement, they make you want to listen. And when it comes to having conversations that otherwise make us uncomfortable, that is exactly what we want,” says Joseph Francis, an educator who believes in the potential of stories both, in the classroom and otherwise.

With the aid of storytelling, one can build the desired interest among the audience in matters that need attention, only here indirectly so. “Talking in the third person helps in projecting the feeling of discomfort, be it shyness or shame on to a character while being able to project the feelings of the character on to oneself. Thus, it helps build empathy, by keeping aside the discomfort. The feeling seems detached but it really isn’t,” continues Joseph.

The collective strategy should be to tell stories that throw light on the various issues shaping the world around us and thus, inviting the listeners to engage with them. They need to understand and empathise with the information being conveyed by the story and also believe the source. Once we manage to get this right, we can use these stories to initiate discussions and dialogues on topics hitherto considered taboo, thus creating a space and opportunity for meaningful and comfortable sharing and learning.

Once upon a time, there was a cap seller who lost his caps to a herd of monkeys. He couldn’t find a way to make the monkeys return his caps. So he threw the one cap that he had, hoping that they would imitate him. However, the monkeys understood the value of the cap and decoratively placed it on their heads. Our country has many communities that have welcomed minorities and have realised that they only add to their beauty. When a certain cap seller comes and tramples his minority, hoping that we will too, we shall show them that the monkeys can think for themselves and that they’d rather keep their caps,” shares Joseph when asked to give an example of a short but powerful story.

Image credit: Drawing Change

In the present scenario of political unrest with individual freedoms of different kinds, of different people and groups being thwarted by the government in power, I wouldn’t agree to a more suitable time to use stories to spark off uncomfortable conversations, especially among people who are not aware about the long lasting effects of such actions on the part of the government. What does it mean? Why should it bother us? How will it affect us? What can we do? Will anybody hear us? Are we capable of change? And so on, are the questions we need to give listeners answers to. We need to use informative storytelling to change mindsets and to create change makers for the society.

What can you do? Start talking, sharing, discussing. About common topics, and about topics that make you uncomfortable. Be it to your kids, at your workplace, at family functions, during outings and trips or even to the rickshaw driver and the watchman of your building- about topics that matter to them and those that matter to you. Let people know that safe spaces of discussion and dissent can be formed even in small circles. Start engaging people, hear their stories, share your stories and thus initiate this chain reaction #engagetochange.

With the aid of stories, we can positively promote empowerment and social justice thus reiterating the transformative potential of storytelling. Newer stories are the call of the day, stories that connect with and engage people at every level, thus promoting more radical action. Stories that address contemporary challenges and those that suggest probable ways to deal with and respond to these situations. When we are looking at changing the society we live in today, we must be ready to tell and listen to stories, a new set of stories, stories that are both informative and transformative in nature, stories about the world we all envision and want to create.

Jerin Jacob is the COO at One Future Collective.

Featured image credit: Greenbook.Blog

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