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V R Devika: Story telling has always been popular
- Lalitha Venkat

December 3, 2008

Passionate about working with children, Devika came to Chennai as a young woman from her native city of Mysore to pursue higher education, but was asked to join a position as a Kindergarten school teacher. She loved it so much that she forgot all about doing a Masters (she did pursue a Masters in Gandhian Thought later). Devika also started learning Bharatanatyam from the Dhananjayans. She started to compere for dance shows, gave lectures on dance and became a dance critic in The Indian Express and later The Hindu and The Week magazine.

Acknowledged for her innovations in linking art and education, Devika was invited to become the director of education and culture at INTACH and the Madras Craft Foundation. Drawing on her years of experience in the field of art and education, Devika gained the confidence and support to launch the Aseema Trust. Her extensive international travel has exposed her to various cultures and forms of educations that also continuously enhance Aseema Trust projects. She is doing PhD on Gandhi and Communication at the University of Madras.

Do you think the story telling tradition is still as strong as even a few years ago when you were a child, listening to grandma's stories?
Surely. It has taken on different dimensions. Don't we all sit and gossip? Talk about events etc? These are the story telling sessions of today. I had no grandparents telling me stories as a child. I always talked about events and other matters to others in a story telling way. But I learnt the Mahabharatha and Ramayana only through reading but also talked about them with friends and others.

With most parents working, where have the story times gone? Some organizations hold story telling sessions during weekends for kids. How popular is that?
Another entertainment event. Why not? We have different ways of knowing. It is getting very popular. I was called the story miss during my school teaching years. I did my teaching with a lot of story telling. Story telling has always been popular and will always be. But it takes different forms in different times.

Do you think Ramayana, or for that matter, other epics, still hold attraction for children? Is enough being done to popularize our epics with the young generation?
I think many children know these stories better than the previous generation as the medium in which these are available are increasing. The NRI crowd has made sure the stories are listened to there. But it is when the stories take on political tones and become linear and people say their version is the authentic one and refuse to look deeper into the story that the danger happens. I always told my students, look at the epics as great stories. Don't do value judgements from today's point of view or political points of view.

You work a lot with children. Can we make children more interested in our arts and heritage?
Yes, of course, when one opens minds and not force it down their throats. It is in the way one celebrates it. We are small specks in the vast cosmos. Let us celebrate the diversity and look at our culture and its manifestation in art and heritage as something to be celebrated, not fiercely battled over.

The role of performing arts in education...
Never emphasised enough. Teachers have always told me that the arts come after lessons. But is not literature art too? Knowledge is got after skill. Art is skill. Knowledge can easily be got if one knows how to get information. Any expressive medium only helps the child understand better. I have proven it again and again in my teaching time. My theory students were never asked to by heart but were given stories for each word. Even after years, each one can recite the entire Abhinaya Darpana without prompting. They were never asked to recite back to test if they had learnt it. You can ask Sangeeta Isvaran.

Can you tell us about your project 'Using traditional performing arts as an empowering tool for vulnerable young girls'?
The title was given by Dr. David Kahler, Vice President World Education, who observed some of the sessions that were done earlier in a project called 'Using traditional performing arts in education' because I was always looking at harnessing the power and dramatic elements in our performing arts as something to look at our body, our control on our situations, our refusing to be humiliated. I believe success is being happy in whatever situation one is and not just bettering one's lot with more money. It is how one is treated in the surrounding environment that is the success of one's life. This is what I keep talking to girls about. Bharatanatyam and its form, Koothu, Devarattam, Oyilattam, etc are to not only connect to our traditional expression forms but also to look at rural India's strengths. Dr. Kahler talked me into agreeing for my Aseema Trust to take a three year grant from World Education to do this project with the girls of Avvai Home and Navbharath Matriculation School. I am also deeply involved in bringing Mahatma Gandhi's ideals of spinning and thus looking at the value of living by the sweat of one's brow, cleanliness of public toilets, simplicity in living and respect for diversity. I call this project 'Spin a Yarn - Self and Society' and The Aseema Trust had a year's grant from Sir Dorabji Tata Trust to do this project in 10 schools of the city with class 7 and 8 students. You won't believe it, but children were hungering for something like this. They want to be taken seriously and will take part in sharing their thoughts with stories leading the way.

Your comment on the Chennai season.
The season is the season. Cooler climes, mood for music and dance. Opportunity to see some great performances. It is getting more and more difficult, so no hopping around like earlier. One has to choose a venue and stick to it. I like the frenzy of the season and the discussions that go on over coffee and bonda in the canteen. Love meeting old friends and changing the evening program depending on the mood of the moment.


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