Storytelling in Modern Times — Have We Come Full Circle?

Written By: Barnali Sarkar

What is common between a person who loves cave paintings and someone who is a social media butterfly? Or what is the common thread linking someone who digs paleography and one hooked to the latest gadgetry? If we look closer home, do you find any similarity between your grandparents and the millennial Instagrammer in You? Well for starters, each one is a Storyteller! Whether we realize it or not, technology has redefined the way we tell stories and given them more color and wings of glory yet storytelling in the 21st century not only bears significant similarities to the way stories were told or presented in the ancient times, it has also come full circle.  

Stories in the oral, visual, or written form preserve memories of the past, offer snapshots of the present, and may even foretell the future. Oral storytelling in the centuries gone by has laid the foundation stone of communication and modern-day forms of telling stories. In 1895, the invention of the radio changed the way spoken-word narratives were presented to people as it brought storytelling right into the homes of its audience. It widened the scope of storytelling as the medium could reach a large number of people at the same time. Moreover, it created a feeling that a storyteller was directly addressing the people tuned in to his/her program and thus made the stories more plausible. And although the airwaves have reached far and wide from programs broadcast on the humble radio to present-day digital audio technologies such as podcasting, the age-old appeal of oral storytelling has remained sacrosanct.    

Cave drawings were the earliest forms of visual storytelling. Recently, archaeologists from the Griffith University in Brisbane published their findings in the journal Nature about Indonesian rock art discovered on the island of Sulawesi. According to the researchers, the more than 44,000 years old cave-wall art, is one of the oldest figurative artworks depicting a hunting scene that shows therianthropes or animal-human mythological figures. It is believed to be the world’s oldest recorded story.

Over the past centuries, visual storytelling has changed forms. From shadow puppetry, live theatre, movies, television, animation, streaming services, laptops, and smartphones, visual storytelling has evolved and expanded the scale and scope of narratives. But the ethos of storytelling has remained unchanged. The urge or need to communicate and create a story or share an incident with others and wait for their reactions or responses has remained the same.

In the olden days, people gave life to their stories on cave walls whereas today we do it on our Facebook walls. Rock art has morphed into Instagram feeds. 

The Sumerian cuneiform script, one of the oldest systems of writing, had pictorial and symbolic representations of life and survival in that era such as depictions of a king, flood, or war. Although written storytelling has covered a lot of ground, the only difference is that these engravings were done on clay tablets while today we read stories on tablets albeit of a digital kind.

When American scholar and educator Henry Jenkins introduced the world to the wonders of Transmedia Storytelling, the literary and digital worlds collided as now narratives could span multiple platforms. It took audience engagement and participation to the next level. Now, one could continue to follow the characters and build communities with people who shared similar tastes. For instance, after one finishes reading the Harry Potter series or watching the movies, one can join a Facebook page or follow a Twitter handle with like-minded people and continue enjoying trivia or other related stuff. 

But at the end of the day has the art of storytelling progressed much? From cave walls to Facebook wall posts, we are still sharing our stories. Whether it is a limestone Kish tablet or the latest digital tablet, the core intention has remained communicating our thoughts, emotions, and feelings. Although the forms of storytelling have changed, the essence remains intact as we have indeed come full circle.   


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