How Motherhood Inspired Kamini Ramachandran to Become a Professional Storyteller
This article was first published on November 6, 2020, and updated on March 19, 2021.
Additional reporting by Amelia Yeo.
Once upon a time, there lived a little Indian girl in Malaysia whose grandfather was a gifted storyteller. She would sit eagerly at his feet as he regaled her with Asian folktales, fables and legends from his fatherland. And she, the eldest grandchild, would soak up the stories as his spirited words carried her to other realms and realities. That little girl inadvertently grew into the role of “young apprentice”, and the inevitability of her vocation was apparent even then.
In the decades since, Kamini Ramachandran has carved a niche for her craft so inimitable that veteran diplomat Tommy Koh has hailed her “Singapore’s most mesmerising storyteller”, and whose rich repertoire of Asian stories has taken her to castles in Belgium, ruins in Italy, greenfield festivals in England and Wales, sacred forests in India, Scotland and Australia, to name a few.
It was motherhood, however, that compelled Ramachandran to first pioneer the art of professional storytelling. After completing her degree in English and Literature from the University of Reading in the UK, she worked as an editor and by then, a mum of two boys, would tell stories at their preschool.
“Other parents would ask me where I learnt this skill and where did I find these Asian folk tales because they were only aware of western fairy tales. That’s when I realised I was responsible for carrying on this tradition that I was blessed to have been brought up in,” she recounts.
In 2004, Ramachandran founded MoonShadow Stories together with fellow veteran writer and storyteller Verena Tay to promote the lost art of the oral narrative tradition through storytelling consultancy services for museums, educational institutions and festivals.
“I started off wanting to introduce storytelling for adults; long durational stories that don’t necessarily have a happy ending; stories that make you think deeply; stories that take people on a cultural experience,” shares Ramachandran.
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As the first contemporary storytelling entity in Singapore to spearhead storytelling for adults, MoonShadow Stories paved the way for a professional storytelling industry that hadn’t yet existed.
“There was a time in Singapore when people felt that storytellers did not need to be paid. So being part of the movement which changed that mindset, and to have minimum hourly rates that helped create respect for this art form… all this packaged together is a huge sense of responsibility,” observes the well-respected artist-educator.
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Part of that responsibility involves ensuring that the show goes on. In March, the fate of StoryFest: International Storytelling Festival Singapore, the annual festival Ramachandran created three years ago to celebrate and showcase the various styles of storytelling, was up in the air due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“With the inability to have live shows and have live audiences interact with us for something as intimate, personal and oral as storytelling, I could’ve decided to wait it out but I’m glad I made the decision early on, before the circuit breaker happened, to pivot towards the digital sphere and not be afraid of it; to embrace technology while trying to maintain the authenticity and essence of storytelling,” she explains.
Co-presented by The Arts House and The Storytelling Centre Limited (the latter a non-profit organisation Ramachandran also founded), the festival was supposed to take place at the end of June but was converted to a fully digital event called StoryFest Online 2020 in July—but not without its fair set of challenges.
“A good storyteller needs to have a good understanding of all the non-verbal ways of communicating, from your expressions and hand gestures to the way you play with your vocal tones, and be able to maintain that very honest and authentic eye contact with the audience. With the audience somewhere on the other side of the screen, I can’t see them but with years of experience, I also know how to speak to a camera and I’m able to teach that to my young storytellers,” she adds.
Next, she is working on Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts happening at the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay this month. She is also developing the 2021 edition of O/Aural Waves, a silent storytelling experience conveyed through wireless headphones and installations, and premised on the play of the aural and oral impact of words.
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Other parents would ask me where I learnt this skill and where did I find these Asian folk tales because they were only aware of western fairy tales. That’s when I realised I was responsible for carrying on this tradition that I was blessed to have been brought up in.
If she could write the next chapter in her life, how would it read?
“It would definitely be about helping others,” she says. “Whether it’s through my art form or through another capability, if it means just telling children a story that they don’t usually have access to and which makes them brave, gives them confidence, makes them feel that they can break out of a mould that they’ve been forced into, that’s also giving back. If it is changing an entire mindset of a community to be more tolerant and to build bridges, and that changes a lot of people positively, then why not?”
Ramachandran has already begun writing that story, with the Young Storytellers Mentorship Project she created under The Storytelling Centre Limited to nurture emerging talents. For all that she has done to raise the craft, her grandfather would certainly be proud of how she has added a new chapter to their family legacy.
To celebrate World Storytelling Day on March 20, Ramachandran will be hosting a picture-book making workshop at the National Museum in conjunction with its latest Picturing the Pandemic exhibition, where younger ones will be able to experience a storytelling session based on Lynn Wong's picture book, I Wonder, before making their own picture-books based on their pandemic experiences.
The master storyteller is also part of the virtual Goodman Arts Centre open house this year, where she likens the process of storytelling to time spent nurturing a garden in a five-part digital video series, featuring some of Goodman Art Centre's resident artists.
In April, primary and secondary school students can also look forward to Feed Your Imagination, an arts initiative by the Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay. Ramachandran will helm the digital programme titled Stories from Our Shores, which traces the lives of Raja Suran and Badang in an effort for youths to develop an appreciation for oral narrative tradition.
- Photography Eric Seow/Beacon Pictures
- Photographer's Assistant Alfred Ng
- Styling Joey Tan
- Hair Delanie Wong-Bonnefoy using Keune Haircosmetics and Laura Mercier
- Make-Up Delanie Wong-Bonnefoy using Keune Haircosmetics and Laura Mercier
- Grooming Delanie Wong-Bonnefoy using Keune Haircosmetics and Laura Mercier