Storytelling used to be an important way to preserve linguistic, cultural and national identity. It was a key source of knowledge as well, besides a surefire way of giving children the gift of imagination. Sadly, that gift is not being presented to our children anymore and Instab Sahi tells us why we should consider making storytelling a part of our traditional education system.


Education is often believed to be an exclusively bookish endeavor, with all emphasis placed on classroom learning. But over the past few years, the trend of supplementing education with various activities that could help in language acquisition, memory building and cognitive development has been gradually gaining popularity in local institutions. From co-curricular activities such as dramatics, debates to in-class storytelling sessions, the schools have begun experimenting with models other than rigorous lecture-based teaching methodologies. There is a plethora of information available online, and elsewhere on how debating in school years can build confidence or how sports can build stamina and team spirit and dramatics instil spontaneity. But all these activities happen outside of classroom, which is why inclusion of storytelling sessions are an absolutely refreshing addition for classrooms in Pakistan. 

A HISTORY OF TALES 

The subcontinent has had a longstanding history of storytelling, and one of its remarkable culminations is Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, a page-turning story of conquests, trickery, treachery, grandiose and what not. The origins of storytelling can be traced to as far back as the 13th century. It was a source of entertainment for the locals. Often an individual storyteller would entertain communities by telling enchanting tales, indigenous folklore and local legends. Without the aid of any props, lighting or script, the storyteller would create an atmosphere of elevated emotional bonding between the characters and the listeners merely through his sheer command over words and expressions. 

In ancient days, storytellers would entertain communities for hours by telling enchanting tales, indigenous folklore and local legends, without the aid of any props, lighting or script.

Moreover, storytelling was never solely a form of entertainment but a means of education too. It was an effort at promoting language and literature. Urdu storytelling, in particular, has aided the expansion of the language because no story told by the ancient storytellers was ‘one.’ They would borrow from different narratives, create intertwining plotlines and add in a wee bit of personal flair, thus creating more stories out of existing stories.  Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, traditional storytelling has not only experienced a decline but has almost faded-out of the conscious narrative and linguistic discourse. The society has evolved such that the current generation falls in the glued-to-the-screen category. Regardless of that, it would be a hasty generalization to assume that no one ever tells stories anymore. Still, the traditional concept of the elders narrating stories to gleeful saplings is fading away, fast. The stories narrated by the grandmothers served multiple purposes. As much as they were amusing, they were equally a way to teach young one’s linguistic nuisances and important cultural and ethical values. The incessant questioning of inquisitive children and the relentless effort of a storytelling elder were a method of imparting lessons and instilling a certain linguistic discourse in the conscience of a child at an early age. 

WHAT’S THE STORY?

Pakistani society to a great extent has had to bear the burden of imposed bilingualism. ‘Burden’ is a loaded term nonetheless, but it applies to a society of those inherently confused by a national, regional and post-colonial linguistic identity. For example, a child born in a Punjabi speaking household, grows up as an Urdu speaking individual who is then expected to be fluent in English because it is representative of how articulate and educated one is. That is bound to be daunting and perplexing experience.  The schools hardly help as they thrust upon a child an all English curriculum and only one class in Urdu, of Urdu. So, a child ends up struggling to adapt to any of the linguistic moulds he or she is supposed to fit in. This is where having Urdu storytelling session comes to aid the unbalanced language scale. 

Traditional storytelling has not only experienced a decline but has almost faded-out of the conscious narrative and linguistic discourse.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi, for instance, is an author, translator and storyteller who has created a one of its kind STORYKIT Program. Farooqi and his team of storytellers visit schools and even hold sponsored storytelling sessions to help children acquire Urdu, develop reading skills, improve cognitive abilities, all while enjoying an interactive storytelling session.  Programs such as Farooqi’s UNESCO-approved project not only aid in reviving the storytelling tradition but, due to their efforts at engaging schools in underprivileged areas, they create a wider scope for language development and acquisition across the board. 

A STORYKIT package includes a tiny storybook with illustrations which can be coloured in, a game of some kind to play after reading the story, and on the package is a code which can be scanned to listen to an audio version of the story. The three rung process of listening to a story in class, reading it home and playing the game provided in the package, aids memorization, cognitive development, and language learning. 

BEYOND BOOKS

We no longer live in times when education is limited to classrooms and textbooks. There is more to learning and to learn. By retelling stories of local origins, in the local languages, local identities can be preserved. Another positive of including storytelling in education is the creative development of children at an early age.  In conversation with Academia Magazine, Naveed Gondal, one of the storytellers working on Farooqi’s project said storytelling “in Urdu is our way of promoting the language. There are several languages spoken in this country but, Urdu is understood by a vast majority irrespective of regional identities. From Muzaffargarh, Bahawalpur to schools in Sindh, our teams have visited remote areas and every time children have thoroughly enjoyed and understood a story in Urdu”.  “It is an absolute delight to sit in a storytelling session with children, listening to the stories we heard in our childhood a long while ago,” said Rizwana Ilyas the principal of Eisar Trust School. She told Academia Magazine that street children “are the ones most neglected. A storytelling session simultaneously provides them with an opportunity to learn and enjoy”.

By retelling stories of local origins, in the local languages, local identities can be preserved. Another positive of including storytelling in education is the creative development of children at an early age.

According to Rizwana, Urdu storytelling is a brilliant initiative because it is only supplementary to education and can help increase children’s interest in an otherwise classroom-intensive schooling.  Storytelling can prove rather helpful in not only promotion of indigenous languages, but also increasing interest in learning. The gift of a story allows for the development of creative imagination at a young age. In a time when everyone is hooked to a screen, storytelling is a refreshing and effective way of pulling away from the mundane and letting children create an imaginary world of their own. We hope more schools and school administration, as well as policy makers take cognizance of its effectiveness and use the power of tales to set our children on the path of imagination.  For Einstein truly said, imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited.

 

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