As a four-year-old, Kamini Ramachandran sat on her grandfather’s lap and listened as he shared stories of epic battles between deities, animal fables and his encounters during his journey from Kerala to Malaysia. She’d grow up, study English Literature and work as an editor.
After becoming a mother — her two sons are 19 and 20 years old — she started to notice that other parents around her also told stories to their kids. Unlike her own Asian repertoire, these stories were mostly European in origin like Hans Christian Anderson and Brothers Grimm. “It dawned on me that what I knew was quite important, and I took it as my responsibility to tell and share these Asian stories. I was the eldest grandchild, so I think my grandfather might have trained me like a little apprentice,” Ramachandran recalls fondly.
Moonshadow Stories provides storytelling services, as well as custom content for performances, workshops and training programmes. Over at The Storytelling Centre, meanwhile, she’s doing her bit to nurture the next generation of storytellers through initiatives such as mentorships, community outreach and artistic exchanges. As she quips: “Even though I immersed my sons in stories and books, they don’t show signs of becoming a storyteller. So I consider this as leaving a legacy. As I always remind my students, this is not just art but a career too.”
Professor Tommy Koh has called you “Singapore’s most mesmerising storyteller”. What makes a good storyteller?
The ability to remember and recall is incredibly important. You must first be able to sit for a long time to listen to a story to the end, and be able to retell it. My late grandfather, who was a storyteller, would make me retell a story so he could assess how much I remembered of it. You cannot train to become a storyteller just by memorising books or notes; you need to have a love for performing.
A good storyteller must build a connection with the audience very quickly so the ability to read a room, for example by using eye contact, is crucial. It allows you to build a sense of empathy and draw the audience into the experience. You must be responsible too; don’t take liberties for the sake of creativity because you could be perpetuating an untruth; so do your research. For instance, if you’re telling a story about a mousedeer, keep the setting in places where it can be found, like Indonesia and Malaysia — not the temperate forests in Europe.
In 2004, you set up Moonshadow Stories after deciding to become a professional storyteller. That same year, Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook. Has social media helped or hindered your craft?
Social media has taken storytelling beyond our shores and attracted a new audience. People have written in to ask questions like, “How can I be a storyteller?” and “How can I introduce my child to traditional stories?”. While digital media can create global awareness, we have to ask ourselves if it really benefits storytelling as a craft. Has it ignited conversations about ethics in creative practice? Who serves as a watchdog for code of conduct? Technology has made it easier for some to rip off others’ work; companies like Disney and Netflix are very strict about copyright infringement and will sue perpetrators. Unfortunately, we don’t have the same bandwidth and resources. If someone in another country downloads my video and puts it on their channel and passes it off as their work, I’d probably never know.
Digital media has made it more imperative for us to educate the public, especially because an online performance is more likely to be taken out of context. In comparison, every live show comes with a booklet that provides the synopsis and artist biography so the audience better understands and appreciates the context. If there are queries, she is always available to clarify after the performance. Without these opportunities, some people may not get the bigger picture and may misunderstand a performance or storyteller based on the incomplete information. If anything, the experience has made me more patient.
What other insights have you gleaned from taking StoryFest digital in July?
StoryFest was sold out for its last three editions. Circuit breaker meant we had to postpone the event originally scheduled for the last weekend of June. When it was announced that filming for arts events could take place in Phase 2, we had only two weeks to pull everything together.
We completed 23 YouTube videos for the 10-day event, which started on 17 July. Meanwhile, we had to relook programme durations. Workshops used to run up to two-and-half hours but these were condensed into 30-min presentations. Storytelling shows for children used to last an hour but we decided to divide that into videos of 15 minutes each. The experience has inspired me to consider several issues, primarily, what do I want to put out there for free? And how can I protect my artists? Eventually, I hope to return to ticketed live performances.
One story you never tire of hearing?
Classics like Hang Tuah, Legend of the White Snake and Ramayana, the last I’ve come to appreciate for its timelessness and relevance at every stage of my life. When I was in my 20s, I focused on the romance of Rama and Sita, and was particularly indignant when she was put through a trial by fire. When I had my boys, I could empathise with Sita and how she raised her twin sons.
This is part of our series on Grit Before Glitter. For the full story, click here.
The story first appeared in our September 2020 issue of A Magazine.