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Using theatre to reach children

This month, a new theatre initiative, which aims to activate the joy of reading among children from some of Maharashtra’s most underprivileged communities, took off in Palghar district. An NGO called QUEST (Quality Education Support Trust) has been running a mobile library programme called Active Library for two years now. They bring books to the fully residential ashram schools that cater to padas, or small adivasi hamlets within villages.

Sadly, progress appears to have passed by these mostly agrarian outposts. Many padas have never seen electricity and even regular supply of water is sometimes considered a luxury. In such an atmosphere, there is no culture of reading or writing. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find reading material of any sort. This would be a travesty of a childhood, but is seen as something routine and inviolable in the villages themselves.

For children sent to the schools, there is also the problem of language. At home, they use a dialect (for instance, Kaikadi) that is markedly different from the more standardised Marathi used in the schools. “They are suddenly placed in an environment where they are expected to read and write as part of routine. And that too in a dialect that is not their own,” says actor Geetanjali Kulkarni, who moonlights as a project officer for QUEST and has spearheaded TARAPA (or The Academy for Research and Application in Performing Arts), which supplements the existing Active Library programme with a range of activities.

A team of theatre facilitators (or Balmitras) play games associated with the characters in the story. The ethos of the tale is sometimes presented via exhibitions, posters or installations. If there is an associated film, it is screened for the children, or the books are read out loud. And now, TARAPA presents Goshta Ranga, a dramatised presentation of three stories. It’s already been performed in ten schools in August with an aim to add several more to the list by the time TARAPA wraps up its seasonal run in November.

“Once their interest is piqued, they can take the books for themselves,” says Kulkarni.

“They lacked the cultural agency to make these decisions earlier, but the activities have opened up new modes of expression to them.”

The Balmitras are young enthusiasts who are local to the area. This creates a sense of identification among the children.

Two of the performers, Shreeram Chaudhuri and Sagar Bhoir, have both trained at the Drama School, Mumbai. Bhoir himself studied in an ashram school till Class X. Chaudhuri, though, had the benefit of being brought up at home, although the conditions at his school would have been the same.

The plays have been directed by Chinmay Kelkar. Although they are performed in standard Marathi, the language is flavoured with colloquialisms easily accessed by the children.

One of the short plays is titled A Tale of Two Dogs, or Don Kutrayanchi Goshta, performed in the style of a hilarious cartoon film where the actors mime dogs. The theatre is not so much dumbed down as it is age appropriate. And it usually takes a lot of skill for the actors to sustain such a physically demanding spiel while keeping the tempo of live interactive entertainment going.

Social observances are brought into the mix by roping in children to act as dogs, which could be owned by rich or poor masters, while taking care not to reinforce class distinctions without allowing them to be questioned. All this is done in a manner that is decidedly not preachy, but is entertaining. “The spontaneous reactions of the kids and their utter joy while participating in the activities is more valuable than anything else,” says Kulkarni. Whether a culture of book-reading is being inculcated as a result is something still to be seen.

The second play is Itku Pitku Akashwani, where two mice travel with a little boy to the radio station. It introduces the children to a multitude of characters represented using stick puppets. Rounding up Goshta Ranga’s offering is Ka Ka Kumari, based on Mahasweta Devi’s story, the ‘Why Why Girl’, which is presented in a street theatre form. The story has been dramatised into one of the local dialects and even features a song popular in the local community.

These worlds have only reached us through the early films of Nagraj Manjule like Pistulya and Fandry. Before them, Manjule had never seen a film in his own language, Kaikadi.

Goshta Ranga is a small step in the right direction to restore the balance of a kind of cultural capital that is losing value everywhere.

The author is a freelance writer and theatre critic


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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 10:24:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/Using-theatre-to-reach-children/article14599863.ece

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