Did you know that the people of villages across Uttarakhand’s Kumaon region celebrate a festival to thank crows? Or that there’s a village in Himachal Pradesh’s Tirthan Valley known as Bihar? And that it has a month-long festival dedicated to local delicacies? Rural India is a treasure trove of many such intriguing stories which haven’t received enough attention and appreciation. Well, that’s set to change soon. In a first, Voices of Rural India, a not-for-profit digital initiative, aims to revolutionise storytelling by hosting curated stories told directly by rural storytellers. For instance, the tale of a young astronomer in Ladakh’s Maan village who is breaking gender stereotypes, or that of a postman from Zanskar who is fascinated by petroglyphs.
The coronavirus pandemic has left a huge dent on India’s tourism industry. As a result, rural communities have lost their livelihoods, supply chains have been disrupted and alternate income streams have been severely impacted. Industry experts opine that the effect of COVID-19 on the tourism sector is here to stay for at least a year. This is where Voices of Rural India comes in. The platform has been formed to turn this unprecedented crisis into an opportunity to generate alternate livelihoods by upgrading digital skills in rural India.
The initiative has been co-founded by travel blogger Shivya Nath, Malika Virdi (founder director of community-based tourism organisation Himalayan Ark) and Osama Manzar (founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation). Despite a long tradition of oral storytelling, rural communities are largely excluded from the digital world, Nath says. “With Voices of Rural India, we hope to create a digital storytelling revolution by supporting and empowering rural storytellers". The travel blogger feels that while urban dwellers can leverage digital tools to work and study online, rural India continues to be held back by the lack of digital skills and opportunities.
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In the short-term, Voices of Rural India is creating a revenue stream for affected communities through digital journalism. In the long run, it aims to develop digital storytelling skills at the grassroots level, along with becoming a repository of local culture and knowledge, documented in local voices.
Voices of Rural India is currently working with rural communities in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Kerala, Maharashtra and Gujarat, through on-ground community-based tourism organisations like Global Himalayan Expedition, Himalayan Ecotourism and Grassroutes Journeys. They assist the team in identifying storytellers who are usually guides, homestay owners, tour operators and youth and women from the local community.
Voices of Rural India volunteers share storytelling modules with community organisations, which identify story ideas and storytellers. Rural storytellers submit stories in audio/visual or video or text format. The volunteers and community organisations then select, edit and curate the best story ideas rooted in human experiences. Volunteers finally remunerate and promote the storytellers. Every storyteller is currently being paid Rs 1,000 every time their story is accepted for publishing.
Rural India is a goldmine of stories that the world needs to know, believes Manzar. “There are approximately 6,50,000 villages in India. Even if we have one story from each village, the World Wide Web could have three-quarter of a million stories online, which could not only enrich the country but the entire digital world,” he opines.
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While we carry an English version of each story on Voices of Rural India, we also try to include the original version sent by the storyteller. Each story goes through a rigorous process of brainstorming story ideas, first draft, fleshing out the story further, multiple rounds of editing - powered by our network of community tourism organisations and virtual volunteers. The goal is to bring the story to life in the original voice of the storyteller. Perhaps you've read Soniya's story on Magh Mahina already? Now hear a snippet of the audio (or the full version) over at voicesofruralindia.org. It's amazing how hearing the storyteller will make you see the story in a whole other light ðÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂ¤ÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂ #voicesofruralindia #himachalpradesh #maghmahina #ruralindia #indiatravel
“Landscapes, and communities who inhabit them, are embedded in their own particular stories and cultures. And perhaps, that’s part of what draws the tourist to rural destinations,” says Virdi. She adds that the initiative is an opportunity for rural storytellers, guides and community folk to delve into their life experiences and own their folklore with pride and re-tell them to the world. “With the possibility of physical travel now on hold, learning to own our narratives in this new virtual medium is both exciting and challenging. But what better way to stay connected despite the discontinuities,” she adds.
The organisation is also providing virtual training to rural storytellers. They are focussed on teaching them basic storytelling, how to brainstorm ideas, how to add their personal perspectives into their stories and using smartphones for recording audio and video and taking pictures. Some of the storytellers are also learning typing in Hindi.
In the long run, Voices of Rural India aims to bring these storytellers on social media platforms and leverage online tools which will also help them in tourism and other side businesses. The organisation is also looking for volunteers with editing and social media expertise, who could assist them in developing easy to learn training material.