By Azera Parveen Rahman
JORHAT, ASSAM India, 05 September 2016 - Stories are wonderful vehicles. They can transport you to a different world, one with endless possibilities. Seventeen-year-old Lipika Murah of a tea garden in northeast India’s Assam, understands the significance of these fantasy tales—not just for entertainment, but also for steering change in children’s lives.
It was, after all, the various storytelling sessions that she attended as a child of nine years that helped her learn Assamese, the language used in schools here. Not only did this help her learn better in class, but it also gave her self-confidence to surge ahead in life.
Started in 2009 by UNICEF, in partnership with a local NGO, Heritage Assam, the storytelling initiative has been a harbinger of change in the lush tea gardens of the state. Built on a simple idea—of developing children’s language skill through oral storytelling sessions—the programme has been successful on various parameters in achieving its objective.
The tea garden community in Assam constitutes nearly 20 per cent of the state’s 31.21 million population. Having migrated to the state from different parts of India—West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh—more than a century back to work in the tea plantations, the community has its own social and linguistic culture. The language that they speak, therefore, is different from the language spoken in the rest of the state, Assamese.
This difference makes a huge impact on the tea garden community’s children because they have difficulty in comprehending Assamese—the medium used in schools—thereby resulting in loss of interest and ultimately dropping out of school.
Narrating her initial struggles in class, Lipika says, “Since I could not understand Assamese, I found it difficult to follow my lessons in school. I would be scared to interact with children outside the (tea) garden because I couldn’t speak the language well.” This, she says, changed when she was in class 5 and the storytelling programme was introduced to them.
“I loved going to the storytelling sessions on weekends. The baideo (storyteller) would narrate the story in Baganiya (language spoken in the tea gardens) with lots of action, so there was no difficulty in understanding it. Every Saturday we would look forward to these sessions. Slowly the baideo started replacing some words in the stories with Assamese words, thereby helping us understand the meaning. Then, after a few sessions, she started narrating the stories in Assamese,” Lipika says.
Armed with their new-found comprehensive power of the language, lessons became more interesting in class for the children. So much so, that Assamese soon became Lipika’s favourite subject. “I scored the highest marks in Assamese in my class 10 board exams. I scored an overall 52 percent and was awarded a scholarship and a tab by the state government,” she beams.
Fourth among seven siblings, Lipika resides with her parents in the workers colony of the Bandarchalia tea estate in the Jorhat district of Assam. Her mother is a permanent worker in the garden, while her father is a casual worker, which means that he gets work as per the need and availability in the tea factory. They earn a daily wage of Rs 124.
“Initially I thought the kids were just having fun at these storytelling sessions,” says Lipika’s mother, Jamuna. “But when Lipika told me how this helped her understand better in class, I was impressed. She would narrate these stories at home, to her younger brother and sisters, thereby helping everyone learn Assamese. Over the years even I and my husband have started speaking Assamese better, thanks to her!”
In the nearby Govindpur lower primary school, the head teacher and storyteller, Binita Rajput, was amid one of her beloved story sessions. The children sat cross-legged on the classroom floor, wide-eyed and completely immersed in the narration.
“This was an impromptu session, usually the storytelling happens on weekends, outside school hours,” Binita later said. Hailing from the tea garden community—from the Govindpur tea estate, in fact—the energetic, bespectacled teacher said that much of her enthusiasm comes from the knowledge of the hardships that children from the community have to face in classrooms because of the language barrier.
“I remember being teased for not knowing Assamese by other children of the Assamese community. It was not easy—to interact or to understand lessons,” she narrated. She however pursued her studies, and after graduation, was selected for the storytelling programme in 2009.
During the three-day residential workshop, those selected for the programme were taught the nuances of storytelling by experts like Prakash Borpujari, dramatist, and Santisaya Saikia, recitation artist.
“We were trained the proper pronunciation of words, of ways to make stories interesting, through acting, voice modulation, poetry, dance and songs. We were given a set of about 30 stories to be told to the children; we were also given instructions to refrain from stories that were violent, reflected gender or caste bias, or any negativity,” Binita said.
“Now that the children understand Assamese fully, we sometimes use stories to break the monotony between different lessons and get back the children’s attention,” said another teacher of the same school, Anjali Sharma. “As compared to earlier times, children’s attendance in school has also gone up, and girls especially have higher self-confidence to speak up in class.”
According to Dr. P. C. Tamuly of Heritage Assam, the programme, which started in 20 locations in 2009, is now being implemented in 70 locations in the Jorhat and Dibrugarh districts, covering more than 8,000 school-going children in the age group of four to 14 years.
Further reinstating what the teachers have said, the Deputy Commissioner of Jorhat district, Solanki Vishal Vasant said that the drop-out rate of students has seen a drop since the programme’s implementation. “Programmes such as the storytelling initiative are an important tool in minimising the drop-out rate of school children by bridging the language barrier,” he said. In 2015, this programme was extended to cover children of the Mishing tribe in the Majuli island of Jorhat district as well.
What is even more heartening is that children who had benefited from the storytelling sessions and are now studying in higher classes, now volunteer to do some storytelling themselves for smaller kids in their tea gardens.
Mrinalika Rajput, a student of class 9 from Govindpur, is one such volunteer. “If not for those storytelling sessions, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to sit here and speak to you,” Mrinalika says in a straightforward manner.
Mrinalika was in class 3 when she was introduced to the stories. “The stories are told to lower primary class students, but even now, every Saturday, I take out some time to go for these sessions. Difference is, I am now the storyteller!” she says with pride. Although not trained formally, the young girl’s confidence in getting a noisy group of 20 kids’ attention in minutes, and then holding on to it through an interesting narration, is impressive.
Lipika, who also volunteers as a storyteller in her tea garden, adds that storytelling helped her realise her potential in the artistic field. As told by her present teacher in the Simoluguri middle school, Ajay Singh, “Lipika writes beautiful stories and poetry as well”.
“I also have these storytelling sessions to thank to realise my love for acting...I hope I can become a professional actor someday,” she says with a smile and a hundred dreams twinkling in her eyes.