They say when you live, you live like you belong! Ladakh and its ‘Ladakhiness’ makes you want to live by this rule. I had heard about the beauty of Ladakh and had been lured to join various trips that my friends and family have made to it. My idea of a holiday, however, this year was rather different. I wanted, just like anyone would, to live in the mountains and learn about the land on foot, live with the locals and dream of warm nights as they do; but all this, all by myself. We don’t often find opportunities to travel alone and not return for a long time. This year, I had pledged I would. I wanted to travel alone, live like a local and think beyond ‘sightseeing’ and ‘shopping’! To add to this dreamlike plan, I was also hoping for some constructive engagement with the people there, preferably children. While my family was worried I was being overtly ambitious, I was going through Avalokitsvara’s website, trying to download the Volunteer form. And that’s when my journey began. AT responded positively and I packed up and flew!
The month that I spent in Leh making friends with fellow facilitators, drinking serenity, feeding on shadows that the clouds made on those brown and barren mountains, turning lenses within, speaking only to mean, thinking only to realize, living at Jamyang, teaching a bunch of 36 children, being fed lavishly, having long conversations with the headmaster over tea, writing reflectively as an inevitable ritual of the day, reading for hours (thank god for the long power cuts), looking at myself evolve with each passing day, making plans, celebrating, failing, laughing, feeling one with the mountains and getting used to the sight of white and brown peaks no matter where I looked – this month, which contained so much more too, will never find words enough to speak for itself!
Yet, here’s an attempt to commemorate, if not all, at least some of the time spent at the school (Jamyang), teaching, rather facilitating theatre and everything that comes along with it!
The school was spread over a beautiful campus, with boarding facilities, play courts and classrooms, educating around 300 children, most of whom came from far away villages and conflict prone communities.
Phase 1: Celebrating multiple modes of expression
Participants: 36 Children on grades 6 and 7
Journals, objects and us : Day 1
The first day was designed to warm children up to thinking, talking, making and appreciating. We began with a simple theatre game of introduction which required them to say their names out aloud with a sound preceding it; each sound unique to each of them. This invited a few giggles here and there, and a few shy faces tried to hide behind their partners, but as the game progressed, I saw them beginning to let loose. Their surprise about the liberalism with which I treated them, turned gradually into acceptance and consequent reverence. This being the first warm up of the first day of my session, it lasted a little longer than planned and this was, however, expected. Having introduced them to the overall plan of the programme, we moved to the next activity for the day.
Making connections is a habit of mind one develops, if facilitated thus, in the process of being educated. It is this habit of making connections that underlines the intention of the next activity that day. All I asked children to do was to go out for a walk and carefully choose an object that best described them. I expected a little confusion, a little reluctance, a few dramatic moves and/or a bunch of blank faces. To my surprise, they all came running into the class with an object that they were proud to have collected; an object that described who they are, or may be, a part of who they are. One after the other they showed their objects and mentioned their connections with it. Their eyes were hopeful for appreciation and my face was radiating gallons of it! Each one of them was so insightful and genuine. One that I was bowled over by, came from a grade 6 girl, timid and reticent, hardly noticeable in a large crowd. She sneaked into the class quietly and waited for her turn. My co-facilitator, Namgyal sir’s eyes fell on her and he called her. She came hesitantly and showed a small bunch of iron wires to him and told him why she had chosen that object in their local Ladaki language. He looked at her in awe and after she was done he turned towards me and told me what she said in Hindi. The iron and it’s property of expansion on heating and contraction on cooling, is what she relates herself to. She believes that she too gets excited when given a new task and does it with high spirit. But as time passes and her spirit cools down, she sees signs of lethargy in herself. Such an insight, coming from an 11 year old, baffled me first, but filled me with immense hope, later, in the process of constructive education and reflective thinking. And this was only one of the many brilliant stories I heard that day. Their proud connections were worth a grand display. We concluded our day with writing our connections on colorful pieces of paper, ready to go on the walls next day!
Day 2: Paper and Emotions
That morning I ground paper (soaked in water overnight) and made soft and fine pulp out of it. I took this pulp to the class along with a set of metal sieves and a bunch of cut plastic sheets. Making paper out of pulp fascinated them and they all wanted to try a hand at it. They did. However, this couldn’t have been so simple. To involve an element of thinking and expression in the act of paper-making, I divided them in groups and asked each group to choose an emotion and try to depict that through the paper they make. They first discussed how to do this amongst themselves and later made beautiful pieces of paper, some of which used colors to symbolize its emotion, while the other used mounts of all kinds.
Working with hands, getting messy, making something absolutely out of scratch and exactly in the way they want to – all this filled them with a sense of liberation. To be able to decide what to do, then to discuss and explore possibilities of the same with a group and to finally put your plan to action and see beautiful results in hand are experiences often abandoned in the race for academic success and excellence. Children long for conversations that are beyond what is prescribed to them in books and if facilitated efficiently, their urge to move beyond books can be channelized to more sensitive, aware and productive living, and it would then be considered education in its truest sense.
The day ended with a row of freshly made paper, which looked happy, sad, scared, angry and surprised, drying peacefully under the tables of the grade 7 class room. We left the room excited for the next morning, when we would get to see our papers dry and ready to use!
Memories and movement: Day 3
By the third day children had begun to confide in the process I was taking them through and I could see their eagerness to know what they were going to do next. They accepted every challenge I threw at them with grace and participated with high spirits.
At the end of day 2, I had asked children to bring one special object with them the next day; something that they treasure and that which holds a special place in their lives for various reasons. So day 3 began with a circle time story-telling with a mandala of the objects brought by them, made right in the center. A lot of them spoke about their friends from native villages, a few showed memories of their mothers and siblings, while some had their personal diaries as their invaluable personal spaces that they could never part with. These were windows for me to their lives and I was thankful to them for letting me in. Our relationship grew stronger and we came closer as team.
Show and tell: Day 4
That day, I had asked them to think about two things they would like to change around them; two things that they identified as problems, which they wanted to address. I divided them in four groups and asked each group to depict the problems they wanted to address by enacting them.
Common concerns and identified problems across all four groups were: problem of deforestation, cleanliness on campus, disrespect to elders and cornering of disabled children.
All groups were heavily influenced by the need to “teach the right thing through acting” and hence the first attempt at creating a performance piece by each of the groups was telling, in an annoyingly literal way, that we must protect our environment, keep our surroundings clean, not cut trees, respect our elders and behave well with those who are disabled. When asked if they always threw their waste in a dustbin, some giggled, some looked away, some stared at me with a blank face having realized that their acts were, in fact, of no significance and that they have known, from their teachers and elders, who are supposed to know better than them and are obliged to impart their wisdom to the children in the form of unquestionable facts, that to preserve the environment is the right thing to do. But never have they sat down to have a conversation about why and how what was stated as a fact became a fact, and if there were any other perspective that could also be true. Here, there is no doubt, of course, that one must preserve our environment, but conversations about what environment means to them as individuals and what effect it has on their lives have seldom been made. So, to understand why a woodcutter cuts trees and what a sweeper goes through while picking up trash, is almost out of the picture, or out of “the syllabus” rather! So while children are loaded with information and left to mould it into knowledge, based on their ability or inability to do so, it becomes even more difficult for programs like these and activities like the ones that I’m doing to be comprehensible to the larger mass, especially the ones who have erected the school premise and appointed teachers to teach the children.
The headmaster of this school, however, is receptive to newer ways of knowing and teaching and that helps the process greatly. There is, at least, hope for a stir, a beginning for change, if not a complete transformation, which, of course, would have been unrealistic to expect out of any process that lasts only 15 days and is carried out within a highly structured and traditional mindset.
Image and character: Day 6
It was the second week of our program and now it was time to buckle up and run! We quickly arranged ourselves in one circle and I introduced to them one of the most common image theatre exercises called, ‘complete the image’. One person would volunteer to stand in the center and make an image with his/her body and anyone from the circle would then go in and try to complete the image with an action that complements the one in the center. Once there are two people in the centre, the one who first entered would exit and someone else would come in and change the image to a different one with a different action. It continues like this till the process becomes as quick as one image per two seconds.
This was fun. I saw them laughing, imagining, trying, being alert and taking chances! Many of the girls, who would usually shy away from group activities, especially when it required them to come to the centre, also came in and tried completing images. They may not have been most imaginative about it but to see their instincts feed into their courage for stepping in was delightful.
I knew, then, that their minds were completely active and I wanted to make the most of it. This was the right time for them to break into their acting groups and think about their individual characters for a few minutes before we play The Hot Seat. Each group was given 10 minutes to think about the details of their characters and build a strong understanding of how that character was as a person. It was a little difficult for me to explain this to them initially, but thanks to Namgyal sir, they managed to at least begin thinking laterally about their characters.
The intention behind playing this game was to help build each character in the play and bring to life what is only implied in their behavior in the enactment. One after the other a few characters came and sat on a seat, which was called the Hot Seat. Once they sat on the Seat they were to assume their character fully and answer any question thrown at them being that character. Questions could be as simple as “what did you eat for breakfast this morning” and as probing as “what makes you so angry as a person. Has there been an incident in your life that caused you some disturbance?” The actor has to be imaginative and understand the nature of his character to be able to answer these questions. An angry, disturbed or simply snobbish character can also give answers like “why do you care about what I ate in the morning, leave me alone!”. It is up to the actor to determine what the character is like, how he talks, walks and behaves, what he likes, dislikes and stands for.
For children at this age, with the apparent exposure to free expression, it is challenging to imagine to this extent and speak so confidently about a character that is not them! We are talking, in fact, about children who may not even be able to speak with conviction about or for something that they want, believe in, stand for or wish against. For me to expect these children to own, wear and speak for their characters would have been unreasonable. Hence, I refrained from levying any pressure on them about asking or answering. I rather encouraged them to think beyond what they already knew or had shown about their characters. I encouraged them to name their characters and think about how they walk or if they had a certain way in which they talked.
The 4 pieces of performance that we had got so far were great, but children were not very personally connected to the conflicts that they were addressing. It is imperative that children enact what they have been through personally so that their performances can trigger dialogue and they can involve themselves actively and critically in it. For the same reason, I needed children to open up a little more and share some of their deepest conflicts that have failed to surface in our conversations so far. So, we gave a small piece of paper to all of them and encouraged them to write their heart out and submit the papers to us anonymously. We promised them complete discretion from our side and that gave them more courage to write.
My last question for the day to them, like I always had, was how they felt about that day’s session, and the first and loud response was that they felt great after writing their hearts on the paper. I just stared at them with a big smile, relieved, happy of having reached where I had set out for that day.
Namgyal sir and I decided we would read the notes next morning.
Introduction to Forum: Day 7
After going through all of them, we concluded a few patterns and decided we would address those with the kids that day. Most children had written about the strife of being away from parents and home. Some reflective ones expressed their concern about not being able to vocalize their thoughts, wishes and disagreements and traced some instances of the same from their childhood. Some spoke about their discomfort with the hostel wardens. We knew we couldn’t help greatly with most of these concerns with the little time that we had in hand, but after seeing their faces lit up, having confessed on paper to practically no one and with no fear even of being recognized, we knew they felt, though briefly, liberated. So, a little more build up, discretely of course, on this would be helpful, we were sure.
And it was. When the session began that day, we didn’t mention any of it. We continued playing the Hot Seat and as noticed in the previous session as well, most of them did not feel emotionally connected with their characters in the play. I decided this was the right time to ask them whether or not they really connected with their characters. Fortunately, most characters came from real life instances. Yet, there was a certain amount of dryness or disconnect, if you may, about who they played in their acts. I asked if they would like to enact what they had written in their notes and almost all of them sprang up in joy. I divided them in two groups again and off they went to practice!
The two performance pieces that they came up with were striking and well engineered in terms of acting and the use of space. Their personal connect with who they represented in their acts was evident. Forum theatre, however, requires an act to have an unresolved conflict at the core of it and these pieces did not convey the conflict as clearly, did not have complex characters and did not provide enough space for intervention. They were great for a unidirectional expression, but I found little scope in them of becoming two directional or interactive.
While all this was playing in head, I realized it was time that the team also recognizes what can or cannot make a forum theatre performance and for that they needed to know what Forum theatre was. This is when I gathered them together and introduced to them the concept of Forum theatre, what it entails and how it functions. To check if they had understood, I requested one of two new groups to present their act and the rest of us as a team analyzed whether it contained all the required elements of a forum performance. It was difficult initially for them to understand, and obviously so, but eventually they began to make sense of what was going on.
With a hope that they retain this understanding for the rest of my time with them, we called it a day. It was intense yet a fruitful session and I was looking forward to the next day.
Image and party: Day 8!
That day, I was determined to talk to my children about organizing a theatre party. They had been working really hard and it was time they moved beyond their team. I decided a theatre party, open for all, within the school hours would be a great idea. It would add more excitement to our process as well. But, from the many things that I had already imagined them doing in the party, one thing was yet to be introduced and that became my first activity for that day – sculpting perspectives, models and images.
This activity is simple and involves a lot thinking, making and showing! I invited a few volunteers to become my models and gave each of them a word, written in bold letters on a piece of paper. They placed the paper in front of them, so that it is visible to anyone who passes by, and stood straight, ready to be sculpted. Then, I invited the rest of the class to walk around and sculpt the words written on the papers, using the volunteers as model bodies. The intention for this activity was to bring to children’s notice the multiplicity of perspectives on and about everything. Children realized that how they see a warden may differ from how someone else sees him. This was evident in the number of times a single model was sculpted differently for the same word. It was quite a sight to watch and I was surprised, also, to see how children understood this idea of sculpting and did it so well. Victory!
After this, we sat down to discuss about our Saturday party. We made a list of all the activity corners that we would have and also made teams for each activity. Each team was sent to discuss how they’d conduct its activity and make a list of materials it would require. Everyone looked excited, dedicated a lot of time a energy in discussing their plans and making lists. It was quite fulfilling to watch them take lead.
We were hardly left with any time to practice our performance, after this, but on my agenda for the day I had planned to get the scenes in a sequence and make the performance a whole. In the last few minutes, we managed, at least, to decide the sequence of the scenes and mark the stage, backstage, entries and exits. Not bad for the time!
Theatre party: Day 10
My Day began at 7 in the morning, running around to arrange everything that was required for the party. The plan of the party was elaborate and I was trying to check on everything, from food corners to activity corners. The party, essentially, was intended to give a glimpse of what the children had been doing and talking about so far in their theatre sessions with me. I wanted the audience, in a way, to warm up before the children perform in front of them. Along with this, I wanted the children to move from being participants/recipients to leaders of all the activities that they had been doing so far. A collective effort at making a successful party brought them closer as a team, building great trust and respect for each other.
The party was a super success! Children were excited and did exceedingly well. Our prospective audience, who had come in to the party as participants, were bowled over! So much was happening, so much to take part in, so many activities that teased their brains and so much energy and enthusiasm shown by the children; it was a terrific sight to watch. With music playing in one corner and students, at their respective booths, inviting onlookers to participate, it looked like a greatly designed fun fair. Participants were exhilarated, students felt uplifted! Audience at the party, including the headmaster and the principal, were bowled over by the uniqueness of the activities and because they were all participatory by nature, they had a great time! We had overshot our scheduled time yet nobody wanted to leave. Most of my time, I spent in taking pictures, and the for the rest of the time, I was found standing in a corner, looking at my children, smiling!
The first performance: Day 12
This day would best be described in small snippets, so as only to do justice to the pace at which it passed!
* Children looked well prepared, were excited and nervous. They were at the hall in time and waiting for their first audience with optimism.
* Performance was commendable, considering that was the first time they had been on stage.
* Audience expected a usual ‘stage-to-seat’ performance and hence sat there passively, giggling, for negligible reasons, at some not so funny conflicts. Audience was neither motivated not motivating. However, they are not to be blamed. Energy can only be transferred if strategically intended so. It was also our actors’ and jokers’ responsibility.
* Jokers (perhaps the most important part of forum theatre; they are the link between the audience and the actors; they are responsible to keeping the audience alert and active and facilitate interventions; they do not narrate the story but they help the audience to think emotionally and effectively about the conflicts in the story so that they try interventions) were, justifiably, very nervous and could hardly get the audience to intervene.
*Some interventions were callous (an intervention is when someone from the audience volunteers to come on stage, replace one of the characters form the play and tries to change the course of action towards a possible resolution of the conflict)
*Dialogues in the act did not convey the seriousness of the act
I was, nonetheless, extremely proud and happy to see the conviction with which they performed and the confidence and presence of mind they showed when members from the audience came up for interventions. I applauded, appreciated and hugged them all and left them with a big smile and proud eyes after the performance, leaving all the critique for the next day.
The day after the First Performance: Day 13
That day, at 3:30, when our session began, I was ready with a mindful of ideas and a page full of notes. I welcomed my children with a wide smile and began asking them about what they thought had happened at the performance and what they felt about the interventions.
I had noticed that at the time of interventions, their characters became more rigid as apposed to emerging strongly. It was a good time for us to discuss how actors let the complexity of their characters be shown by their impromptu reactions to an intervention. A character, in its entirety, with every little layer that it is built of, cannot be seen in the little time that the actors act for. Impromptu interactions during interventions bring these hidden traits of the character out. It takes time and experience for actors to learn to internalize their characters. I did not expect my children to learn how to do it. It was enough for me that they realized, in the course of our conversation, that their character need more close attention and internalizing.
The other important point that called for a discussion was the overarching theme emerging from all the scenes in the performance. We were all involved in the production of the act, but it was only after the first performance that we realized that we needed to emphasize more, through our dialogues and our behavior in the act, on the theme that ran common across all the scenes. Politics of power and hierarchy formed the spine of our act and this needed to be discussed more amongst us, so as to make our dialogues more effective, genuine.
These conversations helped and the next I saw them perform, along with a completely transformed pair of Jokers, was after an hour’s practice time. They were unbelievably good. Jokers were clear, confident and convincing. Actors were powerful, responsible and genuine. Dialogues were sensitive and sensible. I, the audience, was stunned! In less than 15 days, with the pressure of academics and everything else, a performance of such caliber was absolutely miraculous.
I was not only proud, but also teary eyed because that was the last time I was seeing them perform. It was my last evening at the school and the next day I was moving to AT office for a couple of days before I took off for Ahmedabad.
My relationship with these children, a few glimpses of their lives, their reverence for my presence around them and the memories that we had made together on and beyond stage – I had packed it all to take away, with me, to a far away land, which failed to attract me anymore! What I had left behind was a promise to come again. I had seen my children evolve from being fearful and subdued to being speakers of their own wish, fighters for their own right and actors of a fine kind! I told them I was proud of them and left, convinced that this was not the end; that it could not be. This story has only begun – the story of me and ‘My 36’ at Jamyang!