Come summer and the theatre landscape of the Capital comes alive with children's theatre workshops, culminating in productions with children as performers. It is hectic time for theatre practitioners in need of work. Vinod Kumar Sharma, popularly known as V.K, asks why children's theatre is considered worthwhile only in summer? “It is a mere ritual. Children like adults should be offered regular theatre shows. Theatre enriches a child's emotional world and enhances his aesthetic sensibility. Unfortunately, in India children's theatre is the most neglected art form,” he says.
V.K., one of the founder members of Khilona, the first professional theatre group which presents plays for children with adult actors, says “For us every season is hectic. We stage plays regularly at different places. Now, we are preparing to hold a festival of our outstanding plays in Hyderabad after having this festival in Delhi, which evoked a tremendous response.”
A National School of Drama graduate, V.K. is a pioneer in professional children's theatre where adults act for kids. On being part of a field which offers little opportunities for a professional artiste, he says, “Barry John inspired me to work in this field. The opportunity came when after serving in NSD's Repertory company for five years as an actor I was ousted on grounds of being over age-limits. It was the time to do what I cherished most. Three NSD graduates of the 1979 batch — the late Subhash Uggata, Amita Ugdata and I formed Khilona in 1987. More actors joined us. It was the first serious attempt to create and nurture a truly professional theatre by adults for children in the country. Keeping in view its commitment and competence, Khilona was invited to collaborate with NSD to set up Sanskar Rang Toli in 1989, as a theatre company for children.”
V.K. says the condition of children's theatre is pathetic, to say the least. “In India, there are just a dozen repertories like Khilona. In Japan there are more than 300 groups of adult actors performing for children, in a small country like South Korea there are 150 groups and in the UK each county town has 10 companies. NSD's Sanskar Rang Toli has become stagnant. It has shown no vision or commitment to launch a theatre movement in India. Why is Rang Toli not given similar status to that of NSD's Repertory?”
Khilona came into limelight with its production “Golden Fish” in collaboration with Soviet Cultural Centre. Jointly directed by V.K. and E. Zavadsky, it wasproclaimed by critics as the first theatre masterpiece for children. About 650 shows of the play have been presented in different cities since it was first staged in 1987.
Khilona's other landmark productions include “Ek Kahani Panchatantra” Peter Ustinov's “City Without Love”, Bhasa's Sanskrit classic “Madhyam Vyayog”, designed and directed by Robin Das and “Grehon ki Kahani”directed by Anamika Haksar. The “Clown's Cry for Moon”, Brecht's “Chalk Circle” and “Bal Ramayan”occupy significant place in the Khilona repertoire and are directed by V.K.
“So far we have given 3000 performances of our 12 productions in 500 schools and 24 towns of the country.” V.K.'s recent production of Henrik Ibsen's “Peer Gynt” in collaboration with the Royal Norwegian Embassy is remarkable for its technical brilliance, innovation, perceptiveness, visual beauty and captivating music.
V.K. has also acted in several plays, written lyrics and translated plays from English to Hindi which were directed by eminent theatre personalities like Barry John, Fritz Bennevitz, B.M. Shah and Prasanna. For enriching contemporary Indian theatre, Sangeet Natak Akademi honoured him for his contributions as a director in 2005.
V.K. says any play whether based on folk, mythology or fantasy must be reinterpreted in terms of contemporary sensibility so the audience can relate to the characters. “The characters must fire the imagination of the child, express joy, longing and hope.”
While V.K. and his theatre artiste wife Kiran form the core of Khilona, he has been resourceful enough to get support and collaborate with brilliant theatre persons like Robin Das, Avatar Sahni and Chittaranjan Tripathi. However, it is his constant search for new theatrical technique and themes, and his concern for children and their emotional world which is the essence of his success.