Spontaneous wit, bubbling humour and a thirst for understanding things about India define Jo Henwood, the storyteller from Australia, who was on a short visit to Delhi recently.
It was one of those odd coincidences that work their way into one’s lives. Jo, who was headed to Delhi for a conference got in touch with us through friends of friends of friends. “Is it possible,” she queried on an email, “to conduct storytelling sessions in Delhi considering that I will be in your city for a week or so?” It was. And that is how we worked out her tour to a few schools in the NCR.
Storytelling is a serious business at the best of times. And who better to turn to than someone who is an accredited storyteller, the president of the Storytelling Guild of New South Wales, Sydney and who has a Master’s in Cultural Heritage and qualifications in library science, conducting tours, museum studies and gifted education.
Most of Jo’s work is as a tour guide or education officer at several heritage sites in Sydney. It certainly gives her some interesting raw material in her real love, storytelling. She regularly conducts storytelling workshops at community colleges and museum theatre conferences. Her specialization includes heritage sites, people with disabilities, draw-stories, science fiction, mysteries and historical stories.
In all this, her professionalism stands out. Landing in New Delhi, for the first time in her life, on a cold Monday night, Jo was ready – on a blustery Tuesday morning, pink hair swept back – to leave for a ‘storytelling-tour’ to four schools, spanning two days.
The first school we visited was Pathways in Noida. After a quick visit to the well-stocked library, Jo was raring to do what she loves – tell stories. The session started off with a simple question, ‘Who likes stories?’ All the children responded with a resounding ‘ME.. ME… ME!!’ It set the ball rolling and there was no stopping her after that.
She started with a story called ‘Belonging’ by Jeannie Baker. The school library happily allowed Jo to use its copy of this wordless picture book, brought to life by Baker’s vivid illustrations and Jo’s interactive style of storytelling. This was followed by five stories ranging from The Little Old Lady who was not afraid of anything! to the story of a Kookaburra Bird. The children were mesmerized and just didn’t want her to stop. In the end, the teachers had to reluctantly step in and end the session – and only because Jo was getting late for her next school visit.
The next school on the itinerary was Shiv Nadar, Noida where all of us were treated to a delicious lunch. Jo was careful, for very obvious reasons, with the tempting delicacies spread out on the table. She started with a very interesting topic talking about her time as a dinosaur keeper in Australia! All of us wanted to know what that meant.
Jo explained that her work with museums included taking care of robotic models of dinosaurs. Jo went on to speak about her work with children with disabilities, as a tour guide in historic gardens and an educational officer in botanic gardens.
The children were all in awe of the Dinosaur Keeper. Aptly enough, the session started off with one about dinosaurs which amazed the children even further. Once the story ended, many hands went up and Jo was bombarded with questions ranging from ‘Where did you learn theatrics like these?’ to ‘Why did you become a storyteller?’ and finally the inevitable why-her-hair-was-pink query.
Day Two started nice and early with a session at Pathways Gurgaon where Jo captivated the audience with her unique style. The students were curious to know where Jo had come from, what all she did and what storytelling meant to her. “A good story,” explained Jo, “gets into your head and teases your mind. It plays around in your mind and makes you wonder!”
Jo’s final session was at The Shri Ram School Gurgaon, with a lively and exuberant bunch of 6-7-year-olds. Jo’s stories also included one about an old couple enjoying their lives in the Australian Outback. Little did we know that such a lovely start would lead to such a scary climax. Everyone in the room got goose pimples when Jo repeated ‘Give me back my golden arm’ in scary whispers, loud monotones and finally a bloodcurdling scream. To top it off, she ended the story with one final whisper that was the scariest of all! The sessions also included a few Irish and Chinese stories among others.
We don’t have to say it, but she got a standing ovation at every school.
By Vineet V George