India's Corporate Shift: Telling Ancient Stories to Stamp Out Prejudice
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
To boost diversity and communications, India’s corporate culture turns to storytelling steeped in traditions — from ancient epics to folk tales.
By Tania Bhattacharya
Ameen Haque begins the story, corporate listeners seated before him. Ravi is camping in a forest with his wife, Shefali, and brother Shyam. Ravi goes foraging for dinner — berries, wild plants and fish — and sees a beautiful girl strolling by the river. The stranger walks up and strikes a conversation. Ravi is enamored but also on guard. The girl says she finds him attractive, and Ravi recoils. Years of Indian socialization have taught him to treat sexually uninhibited women as immoral. But that doesn’t stop him from directing her to his brother.
Now, the punch line. The story, Haque points out, mirrors a nugget from one of India’s most popular epics, whose characters are worshipped. Gasps of realization fill the stunned room as they acknowledge the deep-rooted patriarchy, gender insensitivity and attitude of shaming women they’ve long accepted, almost subconsciously.
Haque, 45, is part of a band of entrepreneurs increasingly teaching Indian corporate and nonprofit clients new ways to approach their business, relying on India’s ancient storytelling traditions. Corporate storytelling isn’t new in the West. But in India, businesses have largely ignored questions of social schisms within their workforce as deserving external intervention. Now, as corporate India’s workforce — traditionally dominated by men from historically advantaged communities — grows more diverse, companies in the world’s seventh-largest economy are increasingly turning to storytellers for help.
The best way to break biases is through stories.
Ameen Haque, corporate storyteller
Deeptha Vivekanand, based in the north Indian city of Chandigarh, founded her firm Ever After Learning in 2013. She got her first corporate client the following year. Since then, she and her team have worked with six companies and nonprofits. Haque launched his company, Storywallahs, in 2012 and has since been recruited by more than 40 companies and social organizations to speak with their staff.
Kathalaya, a Bangalore-based art center, has been training storytellers for nearly 22 years. But it’s only over the past eight years, says its founder Geeta Ramanujam, that corporates have begun to reach out to the group. Kathalaya has now worked with nearly 40 companies. Helping with communication skills is often what these storytellers are hired for. But companies keen to build truly diverse workspaces also know they need to break cultural stereotypes employees may have grown up with.
“And the best way to break biases is through stories,” says Haque.
From India to divisions of multinationals like Bosch and Royal Bank of Scotland and multiple software firms to nonprofits like Child Rights and You (CRY) and Dasra, which runs a capacity building program for community-level organizations, the range of organizations turning to these storytellers is wide. As are the reasons they want to hear stories.
At the Escorts Group, an Indian heavy engineering giant that has worked with Kathalaya, storytelling is increasingly a tool the company employs to communicate effectively with employees and potential leaders within the organization. Though it’s early days, “at Escorts, converting everything into stories is now considered imperative for leadership development,” says Praveen Sinha, a senior executive in the company’s corporate HR division.
Other companies hire Kathalaya principally to help employees “communicate effectively and present their ideas with maximum impact,” says Ramanujam, 61. “We realized that while their employees were sound with technology, they didn’t know how to speak.” Ramanujam, who digs through history, mythology, fables, legends and contemporary life to fuel her stories, says her work is also about making employees recall the art of “listening, which has taken a back seat especially in the corporate world.”
Strong communication skills are also vital for nonprofits, says Kavneet Kaur, team lead at Dasra, especially as donors become increasingly cautious about their investments, leaving community-level leaders nervous. “Many NGOs are doing great work, but their leaders struggle with effective communication with donors and stakeholders,” says Kaur. The group hired Haque to help out, and Kaur says it worked. “It helped the [community leaders] reflect.”
Vivekanand tries to help her audience see beyond binaries to understand multiple perspectives on any issue. “Everything is about gray areas, about being non-judgmental,” she says. “Because every experience is true for that moment, there’s never really just one story.”
Haque says his mandate is often to help companies build a culture of diversity and social inclusion. These practices align with the identity a new corporate India is trying to forge, while also shielding itself from harassment lawsuits. At nonprofits like CRY, storytelling helps “initiate conversation around the rights children are entitled to,” says Anupama Muhuri, associate general manager of volunteer action at the group.
But binding these storytellers is a reliance on ancient epics and folktales passed on from generation to generation over centuries. They serve as useful tools because most Indians are familiar with these stories — even if not as mirrors to society’s warts. In the story about the brothers and the beautiful stranger, replace Ravi with Ram, Shyam with Laxman and Shefali with Sita, and you have a slice of the epic Ramayana.
One of Vivekanand’s favorite stories revolves around two goats. They live on two separate mountains and come down to pasture alternately, crossing a bridge to graze at the foot of the other goat’s mountain. One day, they come down at the same time and face each other on the bridge. Do they allow the other to pass first, do they squeeze past each other or do they fight? Instead of offering closure, Vivekanand always ends the tale asking, what kind of goats are we? “There is no absolute when it comes to stories,” she says. “The story about the goats could highlight aspects of conflict resolution or encourage diversity and acceptance. Participants can take whatever they want out of it.”
Their work can be tricky, especially at a time when India, under a Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is showing growing streaks of intolerance over its history, culture and traditions. For Haque, who is Muslim, to ask his audience to scrutinize an epic like the Ramayana isn’t easy, nevermind that he explicitly lays it out that he has no intention of hurting anyone’s sentiments. Many Hindus worship Ram as the epitome of a perfect king — and indeed man — Sita as a symbol of purity and Laxman as a loyal brother.
But shattering stereotypes around religion and gender is something these storytellers love doing, even if subtly. Take Ramanujam, who dresses in traditional Kanjeevaram silk saris. When corporate employees first see her, she laughs and says they often “wonder what this quaint lady” can teach them. “But by the time I am done, their preconceived notions have collapsed.”
So, how about an ancient story to test your prejudices?
- Tania Bhattacharya, OZY Author Contact Tania Bhattacharya