It is 9am on a Friday, and the start of another day at Bangalore’s M.S. Ramaiah Memorial Hospital. In the paediatric ward, instead of the usual morning round by doctors in white coats, there is an unusual tableau of colour and music.
The sound of children laughing rings out loud as a pair of brightly dressed clowns twirl a young medical student in an impromptu dance down the aisle. Stethoscope tucked away, a doctor matches steps with a red-nosed clown for a few moments. Soon, soft giggles break out and tiny faces light up with joy.
Even the tense faces of D.S. Madhusudhan, a schoolteacher, and his wife Anita, waiting for their seven-month-old son to be wheeled in for surgery, break into a smile when they spot ‘Miss Rose’ with her bulbous nose and ‘Bi-Clown’ with her plastic flute prancing around the wards. The couple croon to their little one, drawing the baby up to watch a clown blowing soap bubbles in the air.
The two-hour visit by members of the Docteur Clown troupe is a much-awaited weekly ritual here. Therapeutic clowning is an alternative therapy that has been introduced in some hospitals across Bangalore.
Since February, this band of merry clowns has performed at St Philomena’s Hospital, M.S. Ramaiah Memorial Hospital, St John’s Hospital and will soon add Kidwai Memorial Institute for Oncology to the list. “We have focused on performing in the paediatric wards till now, as humour therapy is better accepted there,” says Severine Blanchet Bourret, who launched the Docteur Clown movement in the city with the Bangalore chapter of the Alliance Française.
Bourret with doctors at the pediatric ward of M.S. Ramaiah Memorial Hospital, Bangalore. (Hemant Mishra / Mint )
Bourret received her training with the Docteur Clown group in France, which has a 12-year history, and is, in turn, modelled on the more than 30-year-old therapeutic clowning practices in the US. It is a model inspired by the iconic Hunter Adams, regarded the pre-eminent therapeutic clown worldwide. Adams, a medical doctor, established the Gesundheit Institute in West Virginia to offer free medical care through a system that integrates allopathic treatment with alternative medicine including art and humour therapy. In 1998, Hollywood director Tom Shadyac’s movie Patch Adams portrayed the life of Adams and his struggle to find acceptance for therapeutic clowning within the established medical practice in the US. “This mix of music, drama and magic enacted by clowns with a trademark red bulbous nose is drawn from Patch Adams entirely,” says Nazu Tonse, who plays the white-coated Dr Gladys to children in paediatric wards.
In Bangalore, the Docteur Clowns are still an informal group, but their work is based on rigorous practice. Some of them even have prior medical training. Anne Tisser, the 45-year-old ‘Bi-Clown’, for instance, was once an operating room (OR) nurse in a Parisian hospital. Others in the troupe, such as Bourret and Tonse, are theatre artists, mime players and musicians who treat the Docteur Clown movement as a strictly voluntary activity. “We need slightly older people with a strong personality of their own. A clown must be able to reach out and build bonds with the patients,” says Bourret, who conducts periodic workshops for aspiring clowns in the city.
Says Shobhana Schwebke, a therapeutic clown based in the US who plays ‘Shobi Dobi’: “In order for the clowns to do their work, they need to be in a theatrical spontaneous zone. Put this in a hospital full of rules and procedures and you have the round peg in the square hole. Typically, clowns either volunteer or are paid clowns, a split that exists even within the clowning community globally.”
But before donning grease paint, aspirants have to go through a 10-day off-site training, followed up with 10 on-site sessions where they have to watch and observe senior clowns at work in the hospital. “Play therapy is a well-known treatment used largely as an age-appropriate treatment in the care of mentally challenged patients. However, therapeutic clowning in general wards is new to India,” says P.P. Maiya, professor and head of paediatrics, M.S. Ramaiah Memorial Hospital.
Bourret and Tisser with Madhusudan and Anita’s seven-year-old son. (Hemant Mishra / Mint)
Docteur Clowns have visited the hospital for more than six months and Dr Maiya reckons that humour therapy has helped in hastening the recovery process particularly for children who have undergone surgery.
Dr Maiya says that therapeutic clowning is beneficial in even cases of nutritional disorders. There is a visible improvement in appetite and the duration of stay in the hospital is considerably reduced, he adds.
He cites the example of 10-year-old Jayant, who suffered brain damage due to a drug overdose when he was just three. In hospital for long-term corrective treatment, the usually comatose boy perks up every Friday morning, sitting up in bed and crying out for attention from the prancing clowns as they stop by to play some tunes on their flute and blow little bubbles in the air. “To see the doctors dancing with these clowns makes the children feel less scared,” says his mother Jamuna.
“Clowning is a stress-buster not only for the children who are being treated, but also for the parents, doctors and nurses. They make everybody smile and that is a good feeling,” says Dr Maiya.
Adds Bourret: “For the therapeutic clowning movement to spread across India, we need to have more clowns of Indian origin.”
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