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A children’s theatre festival like no other

Chintan Girish Modi | Updated on March 06, 2020 Published on March 06, 2020

Small wonder: A scene from She No Princess, He No Hero, by French playwright Magali Mougel; the play was staged at the SAPP Children’s Theatre Festival in Mumbai   -  IMAGE COURTESY: OMKAR BHATKAR

The SAPP Children’s Theatre Festival 2020 in Mumbai sought to draw in the young — and the old

You don’t expect to see feminist slogans at a children’s theatre festival. But the poster of She No Princess, He No Hero — a play written by French playwright Magali Mougel — welcomes you in with thoughts on gender and patriarchy.

The poster quotes Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be, rather than recognize who we are”. Feminist Gloria Steinem is recalled as well: “A gender-equal society would be one where the word gender does not exist; where everyone can be themselves”. And there is a quote, unsourced: “My favourite season is the fall of the patriarchy”.

But then this was a festival with a difference. It sought to raise issues that children’s plays seldom look at.

The SAPP Children’s Theatre Festival 2020, held in Mumbai from February 23 to March 1, offered six plays — in Hindi, Marathi and English — and three workshops. The festival was organised by the St Andrew’s Centre for Philosophy & Performing Arts (SAPP), a performance venue and learning centre in the city, and the Andrean Network of Dynamic and Inspired Educators, a network of educators.

“Initially, the aim was to put up a children’s literature festival but then I realised, while bringing people together, that it could be a theatre festival that focuses on books. That is how I was able to bring diverse theatre groups and artistes in Mumbai, who have adapted, borrowed from or sought inspiration from books,” says festival director Omkar Bhatkar.

Bhatkar directed the opening play — Mougel’s work translated into English, and staged by Mumbai-based Metamorphosis Theatre Inc. The plot was built around two main characters who struggled to keep up with societal demands to fit into gender roles that they did not identify with. With adult actors, it showed how boys were bullied when they expressed their feelings, while girls faced opposition when they asserted themselves.

“I tried to pick up plays that are meaningful, and contain something that the audience could take home to ponder upon,” says Bhatkar.

Another favourite was Binya Ki Chhatri, adapted from Ruskin Bond’s novel The Blue Umbrella. Director Geetanjali Kaul, founder of Mumbai-based Secret Passages, an organisationthat offers storytelling courses, directs plays, and conducts corporate workshops, explored the umbrella as an inanimate character with human-like attributes. “I am a strong believer in building communities through storytelling,” Kaul says.

Chinmay Kelkar, who directed the play Goshtarang — an ensemble of stories in Marathi — for the festival, believes that children’s literature is not only for the young.

“It has much to offer adults by making them reflect on how they underestimate the creativity, insight and intelligence of children,” he stresses. “Apart from the dramatic potential of the text, and the sensory experiences it will leave the audience with, I also keep in mind the length, structure and complexity of the story as well as the vocabulary. This ensures that the performance is age-appropriate,” he adds.

The play Captain Coconut and the Case of the Missing Bananas, steered by Shaili Sathyu, artistic director of Gillo Repertory Theatre (Mumbai), was based on Anushka Ravishankar’s 2015 book of the same name. While firmly embedded in the detective genre, it explored the much-dreaded subject of mathematics in a light-hearted manner.

Sathyu also facilitated a workshop for parents to help them plan an arts calendar for their children. “Very few parents make informed choices when it comes to arts experiences for their children. They are in a race to give everything to their children. I feel this makes children arts consumers, instead of focusing on the experience and the process.”

At the workshop, she drew parents into a theatre exercise that helped them recall their own childhood cultural experiences. Some of the activities involved playing antakshari with friends when there was a power cut, or listening to stories from grandparents. The participants recalled creating handmade decorations for festivals, making paper boats and floating them in puddles during the monsoon, building sand castles on the beach, designing clothes for dolls, and mimicking dance steps from Bollywood films.

Sathyu also introduced to the participants the Charter of Children’s Rights to Art and Culture, inspired by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and urged parents to think about the connection between arts and cultural identity. She stressed that as schools were becoming more homogeneous in their socio-economic composition, the mother tongue was being devalued in favour of English, and people were losing touch with the local in their aspiration to be global.

The workshops were also held at SAPP. One was on storytelling, based on the book I Need To Pee and conducted by the author Neha Singh, and another on paper theatre (a form of miniature theatre that goes back to 19th-century Europe) by Frédéric Simon.

This was the first year of the festival, which the organisers hope will become an annual event. The English plays were ticketed, while the Hindi and Marathi ones were open to all.

Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer, educator and researcher

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Published on March 06, 2020
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