Meet the Shreedevi of 'storytelling' on World Storytelling Day

Shreedevi Sunil of Talknig Turtles enthralls her audience as she performs.

‘The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.’ – Steve Jobs

20th March is celebrated as World Storytelling Day. It is a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling.

On this day, around the world events are organised where people tell stories or listen to them in as many languages and at as many places as possible from sunrise to sunset. The significance of this event lies in the fact that it is a major platform that helps establish links between storytellers often working in different geographies. It brings people, ideas, imaginations and stories together. Now more than ever, when we are forced to socially distance ourselves due to the outbreak of coronavirus we need to remain connected through our stories because the stories we tell today will ‘set the agenda for an entire generation to come’

In conversation with Chaitra Anand Shreedevi Sunil, a prominent figure in the story-telling circles of Mumbai and founder of Talking Turtles Storytellers shares her experience and what it really takes to ace the art.

What's the biggest challenge facing today’s storytellers? Is a personal touch still relevant and why?

When I begin a story, within the first 30-40 seconds I need to make an emotional connect with my listener. That is the biggest challenge. I need to build common ground, then go forward together! So, yes it's very important to add a personal touch to your style of telling. What I have done here is let my audience know that we are on the same page, a sense of oneness is created, that leads them to trust what I have to say.It's also vital to choose your forte and focus on that. With the kind of exposure we have today, it's tempting to try storytelling in many areas, but at the end, narrow it down to what you are the best at and what you enjoy the most and believe in the most.

Have you had any formal training the art of storytelling? What is your approach and how do you connect with your audience?

In 2010 I did a short online course with Dr.Eric Miller of World Storytelling Institute, Chennai. Post that, like any art form the artist also grows by nurturing the art. Staying grounded to your strengths, observation and practice is key. For me humour is a vital ingredient while telling, there are many ways to add this to your performance. Your script to begin with and then delivery! Also I'm an improv, my audience guides me. 

Are your stories written from scratch or are they adaptations? Where do you draw inspiration from?

Mostly I adapt classics and folktales, give it my own flavour. A couple of my stories for adults, have been written by me. Any story takes on the tellers style, no two people can tell it the same way.

Is there a real career for story tellers in terms of remuneration and how scalable is the opportunity?

I look at it as business, build an excellent product and deliver with consistency. You have a commercially successful model. Storytelling is part of human nature and can be applied in any field- be it in parenting or telling a corporate story as Steve Jobs did! These days people are telling their stories even on social media and have managed to monetise it. So, how scalable it is depends on what you choose to do with your talent. Know your strength and build on that. Be open to reinventing! 

How competitive is the industry and how do you keep pace in the digital age? Have you extended the story telling to new-age digital platforms?

Competition is also part of human nature! It is part of any work culture! Though I have honestly focused only on my work, haven't had the inclination to check on my peers. Digital space isn't a storytellers first choice, but having said that, I certainly believe it's got it advantages. I quite enjoy posting storytelling audio or video clippings. If done right, it's an excellent resource for a parent or teacher or storyteller. Given the current scenario,I'm happy to offer a performance to the kids and parents in the safety and comfort of their home. Digital platforms give us more accessibility. We have some exciting work planned in the wings!

I understand you have a unique method of story telling. How important are the props and why?

I stumbled upon using puppets as an educator. In 2010 when Talking Turtles Storytellers was formed, we started to  invest in beautiful puppets from around the world as we felt that it is an engaging way to present stories to children. In 2017 our dream of creating a musical took form. We created our first musical puppet play based on ‘The Gruffalo’ written by Julia Donaldson. So far the children and parents have loved our shows, overall we have done over 70 shows. We aim to create a mini-theatrical experience for children.

Have you tied up with NGOs' or perform for charity as well?

A part of our work is to ensure we share the positive effects of stories with people from all walks of life, so I am constantly tying up with NGOs. Here I try to tell humour based folktales, with a lot of drama, humour, music and even puppets. 

What age group do you primarily cater to and how does one get in touch with you for an event?

Work has expanded with experience. I may have a penchant for entertaining children with my style of storytelling, but I don't restrict myself to that demographic.I also do storytelling sessions for adults which revolve around folk stories. These performances are more subtle and look at unveiling different layers within a story as compared to the sessions for kids that are more dramatic and involves a generous amount of slapstick humour to entertain them.

What is your advise to young parents, grandparents, caregivers and other aspiring storytellers about this field?

Storytelling is a tool to humanise concepts. Thomas Edison had actually documented a thousand failures before he discovered the first light bulb. For a child to know it took a thousand failures for one light bulb to happen, is of great importance. Stories are a tool to trigger thought! As parents, educators and storytellers we need to create a space where children can communicate with zero fear, this can be created with the stories we choose to tell. So read and tell stories to your children, create that zero fear bubble! Where the two of you can wander in the world of a story! 

Her love for reading transcended into her classroom. In 2010 she made the choice of becoming a professional storyteller, and founded Talking Turtles Storytellers. Today she performs for children and adults, in specially curated storytelling and puppetry sessions. She facilitates workshops for teachers and storytellers , with an aim to encourage the world around to effectively use the oldest teaching tool...stories!!!

You can find out more about Shreedevi Sunil’s performances and Talking Turtles on www.facebook.com/talkingturtles or www.instagram.com/just_telling_mytales 

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