Conserving the art of storytelling

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In this highly digitalised world, with our noses forever buried in various gadgets, are we losing out on the wonderful tradition of conversing and storytelling? asks Harshad Sambamurthy. If yes, it would be a huge loss for the field of conservation too, he avers.

When you used to tell me stories about animals and the wildlife around us, I listened with rapt attention. You framed it in a language that was both accessible and familiar to me. You gesticulated with great vigour, your eyes glistened and sparkled, you smiled capaciously, furrowed your brows when attempting a foolish frown, and displayed, rather effortlessly, a range of expressions that guided your each intonation, holding the outstretched hand of my imagination in a tight grip as you escorted me through the forking, twisting path of your fantasy. You told me stories that made me feel. For I heard, lingering upon your every word, and in that listening, I learned.

However, it is 2019, and with a phone in my hand, it is difficult to listen to you anymore with full attention. I would rather check the latest Hollywood gossip, or respond to a friend’s message on where to eat, or even, mindlessly scroll through a never-ending live-feed of message after message, tweet after tweet, Instagram post after Instagram post. The saturation of information-overload is mysteriously fulfilling, and I observe, carelessly, that the road to a digital infinity for which I possess and almost addictive affinity towards seems riddled with every possible obstacle to stifle my capacity for listening, and volume for attention.

Nowadays, you tell me stories that are invariably about climate change, increase in global temperatures, the age of humans – the Anthropocene, the rapid deterioration of our forests, the extinction of our wildlife, the numerous social injustices, the gross inequalities between rich and poor, the acidification of our oceans, the greed and acquisitiveness that now seems an almost innate trait of our species. You tell me how it is only with the infusion of story can anybody listen to what is going on in this world, its calamities, and rediscover empathy for both our environment and the wellbeing of our wildlife. You claim we are becoming ignorant of our sense of place, lackadaisical in attempting to re-learn the linkages between our cultural and natural heritages, and practically indifferent in our attention to the environmental issues that do not directly affect us.

I listen, again, with just a feigning recognition, and appreciation for the reality you postulate. The world you paint is too bleak for me and the solutions you provide too quixotic. I would rather escape it, preferring the illusory luxury of my own digital utopia. As far as I am concerned, there is some pliable shape there, some malleable structure that I can tweak to suit my mood, seeing what I want, when I want, while ignoring the rest. And it all goes away with the click of a button. Instantly. You startle me when you ask me to weave my own story. To explore and chart the deepest waters of my mind, and after coming up for air, invite me to dive deeper into the recesses of my heart and soul to touch the resplendent Moon that dwells within. You allude to the Sufi poet Rumi who said there is a Moon inside every human being, and that this poet encouraged us to become companions with this moon, “to give more of our life to this listening.”

Acquiescing, I begin to listen to myself and a memory lets itself in, graciously lighting up a darkened corridor of reflection and recollection. As a child, I used to visit the zoo frequently to satiate my fascination for animals, but mostly the tiger. Like Borges, I stood in front of its cage, and stared at its fiery orange and black stripes, and the amber of its eyes. I noticed the tiger pace up and down its small enclosure tirelessly, sporadically growling, the conflagration in its intense scrutiny forever, undying. There was a lady standing near me, equally spellbound and captivated, muttering something to herself as the tiger relentlessly moved to and fro. I shifted my attention now, to her. She looked over and asked me what I knew about the tiger. I told her whatever little I gathered from an encyclopaedia I had read, essentially summarising the tiger’s taxonomy in one measured swoop. She smiled, and asked if I knew what the tiger meant as a creature of legend, fantasy and mythology? She asked me if I understood its fathomless value in folklore; of its rich heritage as a species in India and the rest of the world? I shook my head, ignorantly. I only knew what my encyclopedia said, and regurgitated fragments of information I had retained from it.

We sat down on a bench near to the tiger cage, and while watching it pace up and down continuously, she told me about the tiger. That the tiger was known to be a steed for the Immortals; and in Korea, was the guardian of the land, and how some believed the white-tiger to be a part of the Milky Way, protecting the Earth from afar. That Jim Corbett referred to the tiger as a “large-hearted gentleman.” That the wind was created from the breath of a tiger, and in Vietnam it is believed that the soul of a tiger’s victim is forced to ride its back, and this is perhaps why tigers — from Siberia, China, Indo-China, South-East Asia and India — are depicted as vehicles for goddesses; like Durga. She recounted the Mahabharata: “Do not cut down the forest with its tigers and do not banish the tigers from the forest. The tiger perishes without the forest, and the forest perishes without its tigers. Therefore the tiger should stand guard over the forest and the forest should protect all its tigers”. She ended by narrating the peculiar tale of Henry Caldwell, who saw a fabled blue- tiger in China many Moons ago. The lady then paused, stood up and wandered away to see a jaguar in a neighbouring cage. I was enchanted.

You asked me to listen to my Moon, and here is what I heard it tell me. I don’t know what such stories are useful for, but they are most invigorating to listen to. You tell me there is a surfeit of scientific knowledge that we utilise for understanding the way the world works, and of the species that inhabit it. That the tranquil river these legends, myths and symbols have flowed through from immemorial time, fundamentally shaping our realities, have now dried up, being disregarded. You tell me there is a profound knowledge in these now antiquated myths and stories, and a timeless truth to them, that can, and should be embedded within our educational systems and initiatives that spread awareness on wildlife conservation. You think that conservation needs to — without solely generating awareness — generate a sense of wonder for nature, with the gradual and organic infusion and assimilation of creative tools like storytelling and folklore in schools and universities. To develop greater public awareness, you say we must incorporate the concept of the sacred in nature that is found in all religions and indigenous spiritualities; essentially using mediums like storytelling, that have been so historically powerful and spiritually enriching in endowing humans across generations a knowledge of self and of place.

Perhaps you’re right. In an increasingly globalised world, and arguably rapidly culturally-homogenising society, it is now paramount to infuse story within our educational curricula, and develop, alongside an environmental consciousness and awareness, an appreciation for the interwoven complexities of our natural and cultural heritages, histories, and oral narratives that have shaped our identities and interactions and relationships with the natural landscape over millenia. The usage of storytelling, as well as folklore can aid in the reframing of the conservation-education space; reviving, rejuvenating and revivifying an environmental consciousness that is culturally, historically and personally relevant to each individual in not just India, but the world over. The Moon within is the story waiting to be told, to be reframed, and re-told a countless times. For this new year, let us re-write and re-frame old, oft repeated narratives in the conservation field, in a language both accessible and relevant to ourselves; that will inspire and revolutionise how we perceive and relate with our wildlife for a more environmentally-conscious, and thereby, socially-equitable future.


Harshad Sambamurthy

Harshad is an environmental educator with a strong foundational background in sustainability. A recent graduate of NYU’s Environmental Conservation Education Programme, Harshad is striving to develop an environmental consciousness that recognises the inherent link between culture and nature by using creative educational and pedagogical tools like storytelling and folklore. He is based in Chennai. He can be reached at: harshad.samba@gmail.com

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