A humanist at her core, Usha Chhabra has been teaching for close to 25 years now.
From Hindi Workshops in various schools across India to workshops on creative writing, poetry and theatre in National Bal Bhavan, Usha Chhabra has also conducted teacher training programmes. Other than being a source of knowledge, Usha Chhabra has played a variety of roles as a creator: As a Scriptwriter, she has undertaken many national and international projects. And as an author, she has written extensively for children.
Her first book Tak Dhina Dhin, a collection of sixteen poems for children, provided her with the impetus to enter the world of storytelling. A book completely conceptualized by her; From writing to illustrating to editing, she proved herself equal to every task for conceiving this book. Without the support of publishing houses, she went ahead and donated her books to the NGOs like SARD, which make sure, through their network of libraries, that the books reach as many kids as possible.
A unique storytelling journey that began from Dilli Haat (INA), followed by storytelling sessions at Oxford Bookstore (Connaught Place, Delhi) quickly gained momentum, as Usha Chhabra now gets regularly invited by NGOs and various foundations alike, to conduct workshops. She is the recipient of the global civilian honour, REX Karmaveer Award, given by the international confederation of NGO in partnership with United Nations. Recently, she was felicitated by Worldreader and SARD: Society for All Round Development for her efforts towards spreading literacy in India through storytelling and book promotion.
But to her, the real satisfaction comes from the people who often come to her and say, “Your presentations are just amazing. You have greatly motivated our kids. It felt like it wasn’t just a lesson but a motion picture that was unfolding before their eyes. You make learning so interesting and all-encompassing… (translated from Hindi)”
Following is an excerpt from the interview Wonderpublish conducted with Usha Chhabra recently:
Q 1. We have seen the likes of Kamini Kaushal and other voice actors who use their voice to create mesmerizing shows for children. Performance is a big part of your storytelling technique as well. Tell us what is the impact of voice modulation in storytelling? And how do you use it?
A: I like to perform a story. When so many children are listening to a story, voice modulation and kinetic body movements makes them believe in the story, preventing it from falling flat. Children have come to me and told me countless times that they could visualize any story I tell. It infuses energy in the children. These stories then, its words, are imbibed by children, which help in improving their creative writing.
Q 2. How do you connect with shy kids?
A: Shy kids don’t connect easily. You must establish a rapport first. Before starting a story, some warm-up exercises or songs are done. Eye contact with the audience is made to make them comfortable. Some elements of laughter are included. Sometimes, shy children are made characters in the stories. Once they become a part of the story, they relate to the characters in the stories which makes them involved and open up.
Q 3. Do you think women are better storytellers? What are some of the must have traits to be a good storyteller?
A: Storytellers are artists first. It would be wrong to assume that gender could per se be a factor in determining quality. I have seen many male storytellers across the world who are so good and expressive. That said, it is heartwarming to see women being quite successful in this field as well. The storyteller should be able to make a connection with the audience. Should be like a magician.
Q 4. How much do stories contribute in shaping up the conscience of younglings?
A: Stories reflect the problems of the society, they share solution also. Some stories are open ended so that you seek your own answer or solution. Stories of Panchantantra, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Stories of Tenalirama, Akbar and Birbal, Jataka tales, Folk tales, tales of Indian Tribes etc. are a great reservoir of fun, laughter, entertainment, culture and guidance. Stories shape the personality of a child. Children become imaginative, creative as well as sensitive to each other.
Q 5. How can we develop a sustainable scientific temper in the young generation?
A: While stories involving superstition are fun to tell and listen, when children are my target audience, I often try and engage them in discussion on contemporary issues in science, as well as orient them towards thinking critically and grounding their understanding in the natural sciences. I am also actively developing content around basic scientific principles which would help students learn while having fun.
Q 6. You not just color the imagination of kids, but also inspire their parents. If someone wants to become better at parenting or at storytelling in general, what would be the best way to start?
A: As I told, books are a great source. Children as young as 4 months should be exposed to books, with parents talking about and gesturing along with pictures in the books. Then at the age of one or two, they can be shown big picture books with more complex illustrations. Later, picture books with three or four sentences per page can be slowly introduced which would over time lead to bigger stories. Sometimes children don’t want to read themselves, then their parents need to read books aloud to them. But it should be kept in mind that this needs to happen organically- forcing books on children without the necessary groundwork of developing interest would be counterproductive as it could make children dislike book-reading. Children should not be pressurized for reading. Reading should be a pleasurable activity.
Q 7. Reading as an art form is quickly becoming obsolete. Tell us some of the titles that parents can start reading to their kids right away.
A: Parents can start with stories about animals and birds, toys, friends and relationships because children immediately relate these with their immediate environment. Later, once interest is generated, let children select the books of their choice. Children should be taken to book fairs so that they are exposed to wide variety of books. Now a days, many publishers like NBT, CBT, Pratham Books, Katha, Tulika, Eklavya, Takshila Prakashan are developing quality content for children.
Q 8. Lastly, you have also authored multiple books. Can you tell us about them?
A: I have written three textbook series in Hindi for school going children. Apart from them, I have authored ‘Dumdum Ki Kursi’ published by CBT which is an awarded book. I have also written poetry for children in my book ‘Tak Dhina Dhin’, which I illustrated and also converted into rhymes, which can be found in the audio CD attached with the book.