Kamini Ramachandran, as a profession, enchants many with the tales she tells, carefully plucked from the expansive repertoire she inherited from her maternal grandfather who often regaled her with stories growing up, of the village fool and colourful tales of tropical Kerala – where he was from – and of the many hilarious adventures and escapades he found himself in during his youth. Much of the richness of her stories come from her travels around the world, visiting the village communities of the Indian cities of Thanjavur and Shillong to understand Khasi myths, and closer to home, the Temiar people of Perak to exchange stories.
But it’s the mysteries of the Malaysian jungles that to this day still captivates the Singapore-based storyteller. “My entire childhood was spent in jungles across the Peninsula; I am comfortable with this realm of supernatural tales, stories of alternate worlds and creation myths. I also love animal tales like Sang Kancil dan Buaya (based on a series of traditional fables about a clever mousedeer) and those from the horror genre.
“Stories help to explain the workings of the universe – what happens when we die; why it rains; how did the mountains and lakes come to be; and how did the tapir get its stripes?They help us navigate this world we live in. Cautionary tales warn us about certain situations and behaviours; wisdom tales provide us with methods to solve everyday problems; and pourquoi tales help us understand how things came to be as they are.
“But it is important to seek permission in re-telling these stories,” Kamini cautions. “Sometimes permission is only granted to me (as the storyteller); sometimes permission is granted to me to re-tell and to any listener of mine to also re-tell; at other times there is no permission to re-tell certain stories.”
“Sometime reality is too complex. Stories give it form”
– Jean Luc Godard, a founder of the French New Wave in moviemaking.
Kamini is best-known for producing site-specific storytelling experiences, story walks, object-based and in-gallery storytelling sessions working closely with various museums and the National Gallery Singapore as well as The Arts House, the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay and the Singapore International Festival of Arts, through MoonShadow Stories, the first contemporary storytelling entity in Singapore, which she presides over as director.
“I read a lot and am constantly researching and finding versions and variations of regional stories. A lot of my work is in heritage and cultural institutions. The exhibitions and artefacts I bring alive through stories require research in specific areas – this helps to widen my repertoire and deepen my knowledge.”
The storytellers of old were instrumental in quelling fears of families and the community through oral narratives imbued with folklore, myths and legends of a place, its animals and people, often told through the journeys and adventures of certain characters, heroes and animals, Kamini explains.
“Storytellers were tradition bearers who passed on the ways of being of a particular community, tribe or culture. Traditionally, a storyteller would pass on his or her repertoire of tales to an apprentice – usually a family member – to carry on the practice.
“In Japan, rakugo storytellers go through a 10-year apprenticeship attached to a master before they ‘graduate’ and are recognised as a rakugo practitioner. This is still practised in Japan. A friend and fellow Japanese storyteller described how he started by cleaning his master’s premises and making tea, before slowly learning the stories, gestures, sound effects, props, etc.”
But what makes a good storyteller?
“Someone who ‘believes’ in the story they tell,” Kamini says. “If I believe that a mousedeer can talk and jump on the backs of mighty crocodiles, then I am able to tell the tale with conviction and passion. This ‘belief ’ is translated through my non-verbal storytelling: in my sustained eye contact, hand gestures, facial expression, vocal modulation – all of which create a natural flow with my choice of words.
“A good storyteller is also able to adapt stories based on duration, situation and target audience, so that the listening experience is customised to the group of listeners.”
“Stories help to explain the workings of the universe.” Here, Kamini enchants her audience with the tale “Flowers of the Night”. Photo: ArtWalk Little India.
Indeed, the storytelling craft is no stranger to evolutionary changes; from the drawings in the Chauvet cave in France which date back some 30,000 years ago, and oral traditions that have transcended time solely by word-of-mouth, to present-day narratives that are visually shaped through written words, photographs, videos and movies.
“We are all influenced by archetypes, metaphors, motifs and symbols. And we build upon these to create our own expressions. Since everything is easily available, we consume on demand, information is short and highly visual, and the pace is fast. There is a need for the pared down, the slow and the ancient. People want to simply just sit and listen – which is why adult storytelling is so important,” she observes.
Storytelling for Adults
“Many grow up without being told stories, nor do they have the awareness of fairy tales, myths and legends. I feel everyone will benefit from listening to tales from their region and culture, as well as tales from around the world. Folktales have universal motifs and structures that can be recognised by all people, regardless of where they come from. And these oral-tradition stories show us that we are not alone, we all have the same struggles, and that there are ways to overcome hurdles in life.
“I have many adults who attend my family audience storytelling programmes simply because they missed out on this experience when they were young. Some of them just want to sit and listen and allow their imagination to soar. Others want to know more about the regional folktales so that they can pass these on to their children or students. Some people wish to discover more about their own identity and find a sense of belonging.”
“People just want to sit and listen and allow their imagination to soar.” Here, Kamini performs the story, “In Search of the Gelam Tree”. Photo: Arts House.
In describing her adult storytelling repertoire, Kamini says “the stories are much longer and more complicated. There are tales within tales, intricate plots and mature themes. I am able to explore longer durational stories that have violence, sex, horror and abrupt endings.”
In 2016 she established the non-profit The Storytelling Centre Limited to foster and advance the art of storytelling, mainly through producing the annual StoryFest Singapore. “We also nurture and develop emerging talents under the Young Storytellers Mentorship Programme. I have six Young Storytellers who work with me, and have weekly storytelling sessions where they perform for young audiences.
“It is important to spend time training and guiding the next generation of storytellers to sustain the art form,” says Kamini.
Kamini Ramachandran will make an appearance at the George Town Literary Festival, which takes place November 21-24.
Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.