Bring the children to the playhouse

A baby dinosaur, a lonely boy and a trio of Mexican clowns who fix a lighthouse—at a theatre festival this coming week


A scene from Cie La Boîte à sel’s ‘Play’
A scene from Cie La Boîte à sel’s ‘Play’

An international network that has been slowly making its presence felt in India over the past decade is the ASSITEJ (Association Internationale du Théâtre de l’Enfance et la Jeunesse). It is a collective which links thousands of theatres, organizations and individuals through national centres in 84 countries. Founded globally in 1965, it has been operational in India since 2004. In 2014, the first Tifli International Festival of Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) was held in Delhi under the aegis of the India chapter. In its third edition this year, the festival expands to three cities: New Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad (which hosted a satellite event last year as well). In Mumbai, the festival will showcase six plays over three days, at venues in Prabhadevi and Matunga. The events come packaged with short interactive sessions. There are also ancillary events like workshops for children, teachers and TYA practitioners.

The festival director this year is Shaili Sathyu, who is part of ASSITEJ India’s executive committee and since 2010 has been running the Gillo Repertory Theatre, a prolific group specializing in TYA. Other organizations have now come under the ASSITEJ fold this year in Mumbai. “We were having teething problems in Mumbai. But this year we took the plunge and got five teams on board,” says Sathyu. These include theatre professionals, who have been running theatre education programmes in schools for years; Choiti Ghosh’s Tram Arts Trust, a forerunner in the field of object theatre; Kalsootri, the puppetry and children’s theatre wing of Sahitya Kala Mandal; and Swangvale, whose artistic director, Dhanendra Kawade, has been creating works for children fairly regularly.

“We have managed to create a spirit of collaboration, and each group is handling their own verticals, so internally, we are working well. The challenge now is filling up seats,” says Sathyu. Over the past two editions, theatre groups have had mixed experiences at Tifli when it came to logistics like accommodation and production support. One thing to remember here is that ASSITEJ India is not a cultural institution, but a networked body in which creative people pool together their resources to make endeavours such as Tifli possible. “It shouldn’t be held to the same standards as regular theatre festivals that are usually flush with funds,” says Sathyu, who has travelled with her troupe to several so-called children’s theatre festivals that work under even more constraints.

Children’s theatre itself is a fairly nascent form. Of course, the summertime itineraries at Prithvi Theatre, the National Centre for the Performing Arts, or elsewhere, are usually choc-a-block with events, so there is certainly an ecosystem where various sensibilities are jostling for space. Sathyu herself is very clear about her objectives as a practitioner, “We are not here to be glorified baby-sitters.”

At its best, TYA instils a sense of empathy in children through live performance and live interaction, where the real world (as opposed to the virtual world of cinema and gadgets) is given a chance to be absorbed and experienced. It can expose children to patterns of human behaviour and bring about a change in outlook that could be life-altering. More groups could perhaps reach in within themselves to participate in the wonderfully rewarding, if creatively arduous, process of creating quality theatre for children.

Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust‘s ‘Dinosaur’.
Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust‘s ‘Dinosaur’.

Keeping these possibilities in mind, Tifli has programmed an interesting bouquet of performances. From Mexico, a troupe of dancing clowns, the Triciclo Rojo, will present Vagabundo, a non-verbal piece which has toured Mexico, Turkey and India this year. Three vagabonds embark on a journey for happiness. A dandelion steers them on as they fix an old lighthouse, and learn many values along the way. The French troupe, Cie La Boîte à sel, presents another non-verbal piece, simply titled Play. This particular play is only meant for children aged 3-5, an advisory the organizers intend to enforce with some firmness. Age-appropriate certifications are taken particularly seriously as TYA practitioners do not consider the young demographic they cater to as a monolithic one. From Kolkata, for instance, Jhalapala’s Shadow is preoccupied with darker themes—loneliness and childhood delusion—that may not be appropriate for children under the age of 10. The Marathi play, Ekda Kay Zale, and Manoj Shah’s Mohan’s Masala, in Hindi, are the only plays in a specific language. Completing the line-up is Dinosaur from the Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust, a delightful evocation of prehistoric times starring a baby dinosaur.

This year, out of 6,000 odd seats, more than 2,500 have been blocked for NGOs who work with children. The groups will only need to pay a nominal registration fee. Ticket prices have been kept optimally low, so that the festival remains accessible to all sections, and allows children to experience live theatre in an atmosphere that is as inclusive as possible. In addition, following the model set by the Bengaluru cultural venue, Ranga Shankara, there will be shows exclusively for schools during the day. The advertised public shows are, of course, open to all.

The Tifli International Festival will be held in Mumbai from 7-9 December. Tickets, priced at Rs200 per show, can be booked on Bookmyshow.com. For more details, visit Assitejindia.org.

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