Story of a Storyteller

(Katha’s Story, part 1)

Katha’s journey is synonymous with Geeta Dharmarajan, its founder’s quest to eradicate illiteracy, translate stories and transform lives..

So, to know Katha’s story, we have to trace Geeta’s journey so far. Let’s look at Geeta’s childhood and her life before Katha came into existence — what influenced her, how the idea of Katha germinated and was long in the offing, what drove Geeta to translate her passion for stories into an organisation that revolved around “story” and how she was geared to make it a ‘profit for all’ organisation.

Geeta’s upbringing was enriched in the arts and culture.

Geeta was creative as a child and loved the arts and literature. Her early exposure to “story” which later formed the ethos of the organisation she started, were the many stories narrated in temples, which she frequented often with her family. That left a deep impact on her mind.

She was also influenced by the dance form ‘Bharatnatyam’, which she was learning — how it expressed a “story”. Much later, the idea of teaching through a “story” which found a place in the pedagogy of her unique school model, struck her through the dance form, Bharatnatyam. That was the inspiration behind the idea.

Geeta was introduced to literature by her grandfather. She imbibed charity from her father, who was a Doctor, and indulged in charitable work and her creativity stems from her mother. She studied English Literature from Chennai, and embarked on a career in Writing.

Geeta’s interest in writing and education ran hand in hand.

She had a big interest in writing and editing. That was how she expressed the “stories” that came to her mind. Her quest for a “story” as a medium of education soon took shape. She was playing with various forms of a “story” (the recurrent theme and ethos of her future organisation) — by being a prolific contributor to newspapers. She was giving shape to fiction for children, and articles on various topics.

Apart from all the writing she was doing, Geeta had a deep interest in children’s education and poverty alleviation. She was passionate about it and wanted to do something phenomenal so as to be able to make a difference. The ideas of doing some work from grassroots were forming in her head. She wanted to turn it into a movement, a revolution in education — she was extremely motivated. There were ideas of an equitable India floating in her head — she wanted to make the child the center of her efforts.

After marriage to K Dharmarajan, an IAS officer — who was a calming presence to her headstrong nature, a balm to her soul, a partner in crime — her commitment towards working in education and early education increased manifold. She was equally gung-ho about her writing — she was writing children’s stories for Children’s World and also did a stint at Target as an editor.

Stint in the US

When the Dharmarajans moved to the US, Geeta used this opportunity to learn more about education, which she was extremely passionate about — she undertook specialised courses in education. She wanted to train herself as much as she could for the huge task that lay ahead. She also continued with her editorial career — working as an Assistant Editor in the Pennysylvania Gazette.

Once in a bookshop in the US, Geeta noticed that there were shelves full of translations of French, German, Spanish, Japanese writers and others from across the world, and not only American writers. That’s how the seed of making books of translations of Indian regional authors was sown in her head.

She wanted to bring out books that would represent the cultural diversity that was India — translations of quality Indian regional authors — the idea had just occurred to her. This would later become Katha Vilasam, which would bring out the much lauded and most popular, Katha Prize Stories.

In Sort of a Training to start an Organisation which would Pioneer in Translations and a Unique School Model

When the Dharmarajans were back in India, Geeta was still experimenting with various forms of the “story” — she was trying to establish herself as a writer. She had hired a literary agent in London; was contributing in some magazines and was writing a weekly column in Indian Express — Plumbum Corner.

At the same time her work in children’s education was gaining momentum — she was heading a programme of INTACH, which was associated with poor children. She was also teaching in a school nearby and was appalled to see that children were struggling so much with reading. This further strengthened her resolve to do something substantial in children’s education and make sure quality education is within everybody’s reach.

She had not predicted yet that soon she would head an organisation, Katha which means “story” and it would become a metaphor for reading and education among the poverty-ridden children in India. Katha and how it will make a difference to society was forming and taking shape in her mind.

Written by Lakshmi Nijhawan