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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Going Strong

by Shikha Das Shankar

It is in our nature to hold on to traditions that are valuable to our family, and if the tradition is simple, engaging and has been integral to human evolution, like storytelling, it is worth holding on to.

For decades, a wieldy little blunt knife is a cherished belonging of little children in a Yupik-speaking Eskimo village of Alaska. Their sense of ownership and responsibility is immense for this handmade toy given to them by elders in the family. Carved out of wood or bone, a yaaruin, or a story knife, is used to draw pictures on snowy banks or ground while simultaneously telling a story. Squatted on the ground in a circle, children draw and tell stories for hours, learning language skills, valuable lessons like good behavior and entertaining each other. The tradition continues even today, the authentic wooden or bone yaaruin replaced with the common butter knife oftentimes.

Across the Pacific, all the way to China, a stage with a thin white cloth screen, uncustomary to other forms of puppetry around the world, has been set to entertain guests of all ages. While the concept is similar to string doll puppetry tradition of India, the detailed artwork that goes into creating shadow puppets is unlike any other. The puppeteers have worked meticulously to make delicate paper-like cutouts of characters, joined together with thread, so they can be dangled freely across the white screen to create moving shadows. The dexterity of the puppet operator is worth mentioning as he is skilled to play up to five puppets at a time, each of which has three strings attached to it. Coordination, music and a compelling story, usually derived from a Chinese folklore, come together to create the magic of a 2000-year-old ancient Chinese Shadow Puppet tradition for its audience even today. At the heart of this tradition is a desire to tell a story right out of the pages of Chinese history and continue this storytelling art for generations to come. 

Storytelling was planted in our genes some 40000 years ago when our ancestors, the Neanderthals, told their story of hunting, food, and survival by drawing on the recesses of deep dark caves. They only needed a flickering fire and chiseled rock to do so.  Humans evolved and so did forms of storytelling. Oral narratives became critical to the evolution of human language, culture and traditions. Songs and sonnets or chants and epic poetry became a way of life.  Drawings and oral traditions turned into scripts, scripts into books, and what was previously only word of mouth turned into written records. The advent of technology, media and eventually the Internet facilitated audio, visual and written narratives unprecedentedly. Even in this digital age, traditional forms of storytelling stay close to our heart and continue to be passed down as a tradition. 

What’s your family storytelling tradition? Is rainy day a finger puppet kind-of-a-day with your kids? Maybe a little rush of adrenaline on a dark night, over campfire and toasted marshmallows, is what brings out the storyteller in you? We would love to hear your family’s unique, special or funny story telling tradition in the comments below!

Shikha is a freelance writer based out of a picturesque, hilly, Seattle suburb. Her husband and two children share her love for hiking, traveling and good food.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Unleashing their Imagination

Storytelling from the very young 

by Shikha Das Shankar

As we drove past the fire station, located a few streets from my toddler’s preschool, it had become routine for her to ask why the doors of the fire station were closed. She would ask sometimes, are there any fire trucks in there? Now, which toddler doesn’t like the sight of a fire truck? It’s big, fast, noisy and grade-A fodder for their imagination. So her disappointment at not having seen any come out or enter her favorite station seemed valid. And then one gloomy Seattle-eastside afternoon, the stars aligned and we pulled over to the right to let the siren-blaring ladder truck maneuver its way out of the station, into the street and eventually down the hill, honoring the call of duty. I did not want to notice her expression through the rearview mirror rather I wanted to soak it in. I cranked my neck toward the back to her smile jubilantly. I started to drive and quick came her question, “where is the fire truck going?”. “To save someone,” I said, leaving room for more to come from an imagination that had been fired up from the occurrence. A few more questions, handful of popcorns and two exits later, a story that included her brother, a forest, a deer, a mouse, and brave fire fighters rescuing helpless creatures had been woven, soon to be retold to the remaining members of the family. This is a simple example of how young minds use the art of storytelling to build their imagination, develop language skills and learn to interact with others.

Storytelling is a universal phenomenon as old as time. A well-crafted story—be it tales from ancient times or flights into the future—is gripping and hard to resist. Children make great artists for this interactive form of art. Their vivid imagination, filter-less lens of seeing the world, and animated, and often amusing, ways of telling a story wins hearts and captivates audience. Provide them with simple props, puppets or just your attention and they will take you on a journey of heroic quests and faraway fairylands. In a child’s mind, the realm of fiction and reality are not very different. What begins as an observation on their way from school stretches into an animated story, and what has fascinated them through their favorite books are brought to reality using their imaginations.

A few years ago, my dragon-obsessed son’s world came shattering down when I told him that these fiery creatures are not real. He wanted to see dragons in real life, asking me to find a zoo that had one. Dragon floor puzzles, books about warriors fighting dragons and hours of pretend play, where he burnt down the house a few times a day with his fire-spitting breath, had led him to believe that dragons where real. Age finally caught up and, although secretly he still wants to believe dragons exist, he has come to terms with the bitter truth.

Looking back at those days makes me think what if there is a way for them to bring these creatures to life? What if there is a way to give wings to their burgeoning creative skills even before they can read or write well enough to put their ideas on paper? What if there is a way for our children to use technology as an extension of their imagination rather than one that inhibits it? What if there is a way to collaborate with our children to use the digital space for creating stories that last a lifetime? Like building blocks, if technology allows our children to build their own stories step-by-step, and see them come to life, wouldn’t that be enabling and engaging at the same time? Collaborative use of technology allowing parents to see their child’s mind at work and adding their own strokes of creativity is a win-win situation. An ongoing effort by team PopSmartKids is developing an interface that does just that and much more. Use of imagination, preserving memories, quality time with children will be few of the outcome of what the team has been working on. Keep following us and watch this space for more!

Shikha is a freelance writer based out of a picturesque, hilly, Seattle suburb. Her husband and two children share her love for hiking, traveling and good food.