The COVID-19 lockdown gave the century-old Assam Sahitya Sabha an opportunity to bring back to life the dying art of storytelling, particularly tales from the region’s dwindling tribes, proving perhaps that even the darkest cloud can have a silver lining.
A brainchild of Kula Dhar Saikia, Assam’s former police chief who now heads the Assam Sahitya Sabha, the campaign that started in July is aimed at popularising once again the art of storytelling and also ensuring that people learn about tribes whose very survival is at risk due to their declining population.
As part of Saikia’s efforts, the Sabha has collaborated with the Guwahati division of All India Radio to broadcast a programme on storytelling for children twice a week since July this year.
The choice of stories is eclectic, some picked from famous grandmother tales and others from Aesop’s Fables, Jataka’s story, Panchatantra, and the like. And also, tales from various tribal groups.
“What is fascinating is that stories selected from different tribal groups are getting wide acclaim from listeners,” Saikia, a 1985-batch IPS officer who retired as Assam’s director general of police and is a recipient of the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award, told PTI.
The listenership is growing with each broadcast, he claimed.
Aimed at promoting the practice of storytelling as a primary tool for learning and teaching, the content and narrative have been chosen with care and with the special purpose of providing values, creative ideas and meaningful entertainment, he said.
Saikia, who has contributed to Assamese literature with over 25 books, said the initiative has attracted attention from all sections of people in the state at a time when children are confined to their homes.
India imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 25 to contain the spread of the contagious coronavirus that has infected almost 64 lakh people.
Saikia, who took over as president of the Assam Sahitya Sabha in January this year, said it is his dream to save regional languages and culture from dying. It is vital, he added, to ensure that children are exposed to diverse cultures so they become more acceptable and open to different ways of life when they grow up.
During his tenure as police chief, Saikia got a book published both in English and vernacular languages. ‘The Little Sentinels’, a collection of short stories, focuses on creating positive values and making the children aware of social menaces such as drug abuse and social prejudices.
Saikia, who also holds a PhD from the Indian Institute of Technology-Guwahati, is one of the founders of Jatiya Vidyalaya, a chain of schools where education is provided in Assamese.
“It has been widely recognised that listening to stories increases language skills and pride in speaking and love for own language. Listening to grandma’s tales enhances the feeling of pride in their mother tongue among children,” he said.
“This aspect has acquired fresh importance as the New Education Policy has emphasised the need for imparting primary education in one’s own language,” Saikia added.
The Narendra Modi-led government recently announced the National Education Policy, which places emphasis on education in the mother tongue during the early phase of children’s education.
“Storytelling is one of the greatest tools for empowering the young ones for growing up as alert and responsible citizens,” Saikia said.
He has also used forms like traditional and modern puppetry for effective and entertaining story-telling and also to revive dying art forms.
Saikia has plans for a post pandemic time as well – he wants to make small groups of “storyteller volunteers” who will visit residential localities and help parents in adding more meaning to weekends with their children.
Assam is home to dozens of tribes. Over the decades, migration, cross marriages and changing lifestyles have led to their numbers dwindling.