A Ride through ‘Goshtarang’

Issue No: 122 A little hamlet called Sonale in Palghar District. Wada, the Taluka place is quite close. It is bigger with a population of around a lac people. All around are countless villages, hamlets, wells, ponds, streams, rivers, farms, hills, forests, trees, birds, plots of land, a few schools for children, brand new colleges, a sprinkling of dispensaries, asphalted roads constructed in recent years,  jeeps, private cars, passenger services running between larger  towns, mobile phones, network towers standing tall, television sets, dish antenna, dirt, dung, earthen plaster and cement, bricks and concrete, money, hard to kill habits, new occupations, framed flexes, political hullabaloo, plastic litter and other such clutter. It is like any other rural scenario. Education does have a place here. Books, art, etc do exist but as a formality, coloured in political hues.

This is the context in which the organization called ‘Quest’ works. Its people pour their heart and soul into primary education. It is their purpose to relentlessly work at raising the bar of local education. A job that is enervating but essential.  The group ‘Friends of the Young’ from this organisation, work with singular zeal to make education all-encompassing and conceptual. With this aim, they tutor students from Zilla Parishad schools and Ashramshalas (residential schools for tribal children). It  is a lonely path on which they trudge with patience and perseverance. But the laboratory hosts among the very few researches trying to make education focus more on knowledge and making it likeable to rural children. I deliberately call it a laboratory because the organisation does not run a single school. Quest aims at improving the intellectual and the psychological capacities of the students in existing schools. These friends of the young use communications experts to work with the students. They make use of games, songs ,stories to teach subjects like mathematics and languages; so that the process of teaching – and of course that of learning – does not seem burdensome and because they firmly believe that holistic enrichment in life is not possible without Art.  One of the more significant ways in which they go about this is with several innovative theatre techniques. These are  imparted to them through regular workshops and it was one such workshop that brought me in contact with the organisation some three or  four years ago. At the time,  all I had in mind was to introduce them to better ways of articulating, of expressing their feelings and using language in its various forms. This is what Nilesh Nimkar, the Director and the guide of the organisation, a serious researcher in the field of education; had in mind. I tried to help as much as I could. Initially it was difficult for me to digest the fact that I, who, as a student, was so indifferent to my own education,  am offering to help teachers at this stage of my life. There was an innate resistance in my mind and as I overcame the resistance, I also came to realise the reasons for my own earlier indifference. I have been hobnobbing in the entertainment and performing arts industries for a few years and I tried to share with my young friends here whatever that I had imbibed there. As I became more and more exposed to the dire state of education in the tribal region and the indifference of the authorities; the students and I became closer.

Even though facilities and resources are easily available to us in the metros, the state of my own schooling was quite pitiful. I felt audacious attempting to impart wisdom to these people through the tinted glasses of my urban assumptions, my urban sensibilities and a metro lifestyle? One common cause of my despair was a belief that what I was teaching them, getting them to practice, was depriving them of the very essence of their life and their world. But gradually, I made an attempt to observe and understand the specificities of their life.  I realised that my apprehensions were misplaced. Their circumstances and the rapidity with which they were changing, their aspirations, their ideas of moving with the times, of modernity, all seemed dominated  by the magnet of the urban lifestyle.

Geetanjali Kulkarni did a great deal to fuel my enthusiasm. In fact, the program was her idea. Her initiative and tireless work motivated me to persevere. During the course of this work, I met some enthusiastic young people from Wada. Apart from the work that was expected of us by Quest, we organized an additional workshop to explore the level of interest the young people there had theatre. It elicited a tremendous response and lead to the Tarpa movement. We organised various theatre workshops with the boys from Wada. After a year or so, we tried presenting short stories as plays with the participation of the young friends from Quest and these new theatre enthusiasts. After rehearsing for fifteen days, a theatrical presentation, of eight to ten really short stories emerged. And we successfully performed shows in the nearby villages. It was the first time that the boys faced such a large audience and they felt inspired and charged. Till this point, I saw them anxious young people eager to perform to impress. But after these shows, I felt that they were finally ready. The shows brought them closer to the people. People would ask them questions, invite them over for dinner. I could gradually see a new identity emerge inside each of these boys. They seemed invigorated by the magic of theatre.

The next year, we decided to push ourselves a little further, go deeper. We performed Vyankatesh Madgulkar’s short piece, ‘Binbiyanche jhad’ (A Seedless Tree). It was time for finer work. The actors had to now attempt to hone their voice, their body and all their sensory perceptions to perfection. They began to understand that in order to convert experience into dramatic experience, one has to be a keen observer and has to make rigorous notes of one’s observations. One has to assimilate analytically. What they lacked was discipline but then I myself am not such a great disciplinarian. It disturbed Geetanjali because she knew that no movement or initiative is sustained merely on will, hope or sentiment. ‘Tarpa’ and those who drove Tarpa needed discipline. Meanwhile two of our young actors developed a longing to go to Mumbai and learn theatre in a formal theatre training institute.  Their desire seemed deep and genuine. Soon the two were selected by The Drama School, Mumbai and they left.

This felt like a major milestone for Tarpa and their seriousness led us to take the initiative more seriously. All of us, working at Tarpa as well as Quest realized that the group that was forming was no longer simply a bunch of enthusiasts. Theatre was becoming an integral part of their lives. We could feel a stronger desire building. To do something concrete, something directed towards a specific end. It seemed clear that this would have to be a performance of a play. But this time, it would be different in nature. The students would have to be involved both in the choice of the play as well as its process, more organically. It had to give them a sense of purpose, enough to make their yearning for a city life, a little more bearable. It would have to be enjoyable and entertaining but at the same time it would have to ignite a passion in them, to know more, to assimilate what they learned. The play would have to open up their understanding of space and time and provide them a new, stronger way of looking at themselves and their relationship with their world. Geetanjali Kulkarni and Neelesh Nimkar got thinking.

Our years here, had revealed the fact that the children in this region do not read. There were many contributing factors – a basic lack of books and indifference to good teaching – to name a few. On the one hand, there also seemed a lack of interest in learning anything new, which had led to lethargy.  There were aspirations to reap the benefits of the technological and economic boom they thought the urban world was experiencing, but no idea of what it meant. The stark contrast within which they exist, makes the life of most of these people somewhat eccentric but also unchanging and purposeless.

A lack of reading makes the students unimaginative and apathetic. (Not that the situation is very different in cities!) When schools focus on simply memorizing syllabi for performing well in exams, they fail to imbue in their students a culture of reading. The students develop an aversion to literature, to the written word. Our challenge was to fuel their hunger for new stories thus fuelling their hunger for new experiences. Thus, as an offshoot of Quest’s “Pustak Gadi” (Book Cart) project, arose the idea of “Goshtarang” (Bringing stories alive).

Quest has a stock of short and engaging stories written especially for small children, most of which are translated from other Indian languages. We started reading all of them. I thought it peculiar that there is not enough material for young children in otherwise well-endowed Marathi literature. While there is an abundance of tales being told by grandparents and of strange and unusual mythological tales,  to moralistic stories in text books to umpteen short stories and novels for adults, it is surprising that there is so little for the consumption of the young reader. The other problem is that of circulation. Books don’t reach those parts of the state where there is most need for them. My curiosity aroused, I voraciously read the translated stories. We needed to find nine stories which would not prove too difficult to the students to dramatize as part of ‘Goshtarang’. We had decided to have three stories each for children from the 1st and 2nd standard, for those in 3rd and 4th standard and for the children in 5th to 7th standard.  They had to have drama, interesting characters, provocative incidents, a rich and effective use of language,  exciting narratives and a sense of frolic.

Goshrang has three phases. For the first phase we selected three stories each for the three groups as above and started working on them. The three stories were “Don Kutryanchi Gosht” (A story of two dogs), “Itku Pitku on the radio” and “Ka Ka Kumari”. These were the stories staged in the first phase.

The three stories belong to different genres. Having made the selection, I read and reread them a number of times. Tossed them around in my mind. Initially, all I had in my mind was to adapt them to the stage and the theatrewalla in me kept pursuing their dramatic content and its form.

Meanwhile our theatre friends were eager. Geetanjali had made a perfect timetable. Physical exercises in the morning, then voice culture exercises and then the practice sessions.

In the beginning we read.  We also tried some composition exercises. I was also playing around with some images in my mind. Once the actors appear on stage in flesh and blood, once their bodies start moving and making meaningful communication, once I heard them speak, I was certain that the images in my mind too would spring to life.

The first story was going to be performed before 1st and 2nd standard children. I thought of what a child goes through when they first open a book, turns a page and goes from one page to the next.  They take in the image, some of what they read and they move on. There is no hurry to understand it all but there is engagement, a curious and excited lingering.  I wanted them to have a similar experience through the play.

For “Don Kutryanchi Gosht” , we started with trying to be dogs. Observing how they walk, how they turn, how they look, when and how they wag their tail, how they use their tongue. We tried it all out. We tried to embody the difference between a pet dog and a stray dog,  a pampered dog or an ignored dog. We constantly observed dogs. We investigated how dogs’ sound differed according to not just their bodies but also to their circumstances. Through this, we found the dogs in our story. The way the characters are created by Deepak Praharaj and Arya Praharaj through pictures and very few words; made dramatization easy. As we systematically sharpened all other aspects of the story, a ten-minute presentation gradually took shape.

We were always aware of the fact that our audience was all students.  It was foremost in our minds while arriving at the choice as well as treatment of the storytelling. We would start with a small introduction giving them an idea of what was to come. Even for this, we made use of some games, enactment and little songs.  We teased them with a glimpse of the main characters of the story and just as their curiosity was aroused, we would begin the performance. By this time, they would already be under teh spell of ‘Goshtarang’.

“Itku Pitku on All India Radio” is a boisterous story of a thrilling mission two young mice go on. Because of how eventful and action based the story was, I couldn’t get the image of a fast paced comic strip out of my head as I worked on that performance. This time, the mice were not played the way the dogs were. The mice here, stood upright. But we worked on their gait, their sense of alertness, their timidity and tried to capture the spirit of the mouse. This time, we pushed the choice of the nature of acting. We went for an expressionistic approach. Everything was heightened. The actors found it extremely challenging to not only sustain the manner we had chosen but also to maintain the energy of the performance. We also played with the form. We used stick puppets with masks to represent the characters other than the mice in the story. The two boys playing the mice just used the sticks to hold them in front of their faces and played the characters themselves. This rapid movement between different characters as well as this form was very new and exciting to them. This story also jumps time and space quite differently from anything we had worked on before. To be honest, the actors did struggle with the urban language of the play. But they surely made Itku Pitku their own. The young audience at the ‘Ashramshala’ (Ashram school) was thrilled. After the performance, a whole lot of them wanted to try playing the different characters with the sticks and the masks, themselves. They have a special plac e in their hearts for Itku and Pitku.

Initially, we had chosen to perform ‘”Neena and the Cat” as the third story. But we saw that the actors were not as fond of it as the earlier two. They felt that the work they would have to do on it was repetitive and similar to things they have already tried with the first two performances. They now wanted to be challenged differently. They had by now developed an opinion about what they wanted to do. We decided that they had to feel connected to and excited by whatever they were working on. We decided that their decision would be final. We looked some more and finally found Mahashweta Devi’s simple and striking story,  “Ka Ka Kumari”. It is straightforward but one that takes a stand; is socially relevant, but not preachy. Initially, I was intimidated by the fact that it was written by Mahashwetadevi  and I wondered if I would be able to do justice to the story and its import. At the same I did not want the performance choices we had made regarding the two earlier pieces to affect how we approached this one. It is the story of a ten year old tribal girl, Moina, who asks, “Why?” a lot. Through the girl, Mahashwetadevi questions our social order, the caste system.  Gorwn ups often get irritated when children pester them with questions. Sometimes, because it’s a bother. At other times, because they are uncomfortable questions.  I wanted to use the story to provoke our students to never give up on questions. But this time, I was struggled somewhat to arrive at a form. We tried a whole number of approaches but weren’t happy with what we found.

Our musician friend Shantanu Herlekar joined us around this time. He is from Belgaum and has taken classical music lessons from Shubha Mudgal. He was going to compose music for all the three stories. In addition to the performances, some of the children were also going to sing some songs. Shantanu became a part of the group before he knew it. The morning voice culture session was given over to music and singing practice. All the actors practised daily with Shantanu for fifteen days. Evenings, he spent by himself engrossed in his musical ruminations. The day would be spent experimenting with various musical instruments, different rhythms, different tunes. The atmosphere was transformed and Shantanu’s love for music permeated everything. The hard work had the actors exhausted in fifteen days. They were also frustrated by the glitches in the “Ka Ka Kumari” process.  So, I declared a holiday.

I had decided to rest that day. I too was drained from all the pep talks I had given so far as well as  the struggle to figure out the third performance. I spent most of the day reading but “Ka Ka Kumari” would keep rearing its head in my mind. In the evening, I went for a long walk and all of a sudden two lines from Chandrakant Kale’s ‘Shevantiche Ban’ (Thicket Of Chrysanthemum) echoed in my mind. “Bhali bhali ga Parvati , prashnanna uttar deshi” (Bless you Parvati, you answer all the questions).  You go out in search of something, look high and low, then despair and give up and just as you set out on a leisurely walk, there it is, right in front of you! I turned back, came home and pulled my note book and the pen out. I could hear “Ka Ka Kumari”, the whole text but like it was being recited. A rough draft of “Ka Ka Kumari” appeared before me in its reincarnated form. I just had to put it on paper. I do not believe in miracles; I do not think that anything ever happens all of a sudden, without reason, like a blessing. So, even though what was happening to me seemed quite out of this world, I could sense that it was born of the atmosphere Shantanu had created. It was the the collective influence of the musically charged environment, the phantom of “Ka Ka Kumari” which had firmly taken roots in the deep recesses of my mind and the hard work put in by my actors, which incidentally, I had given up as wasted till that moment.

In this new form, we used the local Katkari dialect. And the three narrators sang and recited Moina’s story.  The new approach made the story accessible and less heavy-handed.  We could actually deliver the joy of asking questions and the tribal dialect affirmed their bond with their land and the culture. The audience identified with the innocence and spirit of Moina.

Another thing we experimented with was that we seated the audience on all four sides of the performance. I wanted the actors to constantly be connected to everyone. I also wanted the audience to not just be completely immersed in the show but also viscerally experience what the performance was doing to other members of the audience.

I honestly feel that it is difficult to put the experience of “Goshtarang” into words.  The experience of it makes all the difference. Unless one actually visits Sonale, understands the complicated life led by our actors and tries to connect with the environment there, it is incomplete.

I always thought of myself as blunted and rendered apathetic by the business of city life. I wondered how can an outsider like me could go and interfere with an already sensitive and complicated space? But with theatre as my language, I could.

We make it a point to inform the students where the stories are picked from. The books are then handed over to them. It gives us immense pleasure to watch the children eagerly grab the book, hurriedly find in those printed papers the story they just watched, then try the tricks performed by Itku and Pitku, linger near the poster of the play, take the initiative to find out more about the story, the author and other stories he has written. And theatre gives them the voice to express all that they have learned and absorbed. Over time, I have witnessed theatre transform these children into newly alive beings.

It is a delight watching the faces of the students while they watch the Goshtarang performances.  One moment their faces are agape, then astounded, then absorbed and then again eager and it is incredibly gratifying to observe it all. Next, there are two more phases to cover, six more stories to struggle  through.  Overall, we have quite a long way to go. We want to promote the culture of reading, to inspire the students to be more confident and forthcoming with questions. Many a times, it becomes necessary to becomes a child oneself to arrive at the best way of going about things. And what better way to achieve it all than through theatre. It is all so intoxicating.

Chinmay Kelkar is a writer, actor, director, and trainer working in the Marathi theatre. He is an alumnus of Lalit Kala Kendra Pune.

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