“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” – Rosa Parks
Sometimes you meet someone and you know your life is changed for the better just by the fact of knowing that they are in the world. To say that I am inspired by Gitanjali Govindrajan doesn’t nearly do it justice. I am awestruck by what she has managed to achieve in the last ten years, and her unremitting dedication to Inclusion. She is generous, dynamic and authentic to the core.
She has invited us to visit the Snehadhara Foundation's Direct Care Space to play.
‘The Direct Care space of Snehadhara is our realm of caring, advocacy and inclusion practice. Respecting every child’s unique needs, our programmes are carefully designed to enhance their abilities and meet their therapeutic goals. Our aim is to address the social and independent goals of the children to meet their aspirations for life, vocation and livelihood along with nurturing a sense of social inclusion with arts’
Compared to the endless levels of bureaucracy and patriarchy that we have been faced with when talking to hospitals, this is a balm.
We arrive for breakfast with the young people and staff, join them for assembly, and then have half an hour or so to explore the space and get ready. The gentle rustle of palm leaves and the fact that this is all I can hear is so soothing. My mind begins to empty into presence.
The space we are to play in is a circle, with a thigh-high wall around it. Everyone is sitting inside, except for one teenage boy with severe autism who is curled up enjoying the warmth of a sun trap. Occasionally staff encourage him to join but he evades them like a cat.
We march around the circle's perimeter with a joyful harmonica, giving time for everyone to see us from a distance and for us to feel their response. When the time comes to enter, we are stuck. The wall is too high. Impossible task. Straight away, a boy, age 14 or so takes Igor’s hand and pulls him over the threshold, a huge smile bursting across his face. For a brief moment, I am on the outside, looking in, and I see this boy and Igor looking into one another’s eyes. I realise I have never seen Igor’s face look so open, so simple, so sweetly radiant as in this moment. A totally reciprocal exchange. No giver, no receiver. Pure, joyful connection.
I yelp ‘HELP!’ And grab the limelight.
Our play oscillates between finding individual connections with staff and young people and creating games or music that hold the whole space together. One girl giggles gleefully when Igor mimes going down in a lift. A boy is fascinated and giggles at his squeaking hand. The staff are delighted by Igor's ridiculous game of hide and seek. Our original saviour takes on his role with gusto, coming to our rescue over and over again with humour, grace and playfulness.
On our way out of the circle, we pause in the sun spot where the boy is rhythmically shifting from his heels to his toes in a squat position. Side by side, we begin to mirror these rhythmic movements. With each rock to and fro it is as if we gently drift into his universe and the voices and laughter around us slip away. A few moments later, our arrival is greeted with a glimpse of a smile. Permission to stay. Now he takes a tiny pebble between his fingers. Igor finds another pebble and passes it to me. I take it and swap it for the tiny one and the pebbles begin to weave silent complicity and connection between the three of us. I feel the thrilled, as if I've discovered a secret code.
Later, once we had changed and were eating our lunch at the table, this boy, who until our sun trap moment had avoided us all morning, came and sat with us. And there we were, eating parathas, three friends together.
In the car on the way back into the city I chatted with Gintajli about our visit, reflecting on the space she has created, on inclusion in general. I was saying how much fun we had with this boy who had saved our skin so many times and she told me how he had come to be at the centre. He comes from a socio-economically deprived family who couldn’t cope with his size and his autism, so they tied him to the window frame by his wrist.
Then she told me that a couple of months ago she had taken a group from the centre to a local train station for a field trip and officials and staff had refused them access.
‘What do you mean, refused entry? It’s a public space!’ I blurt
‘They said it would ruin the sanctity of the space' she replied calmly, 'I made a big noise about it - a video that went viral. You know, in our last space, in the city, local people would throw stones through our windows, so we moved here, to the outskirts where we have space and peace’
I look out of the car window and my heart and mind do what is becoming a familiar wrestle. My supervisor said it would be this way, ‘you are going to love it. And you are going to hate it’. My mind is furious and despairing at the ignorance and injustice and fear that drives humans to act in such abjectly cruel ways. My heart: Bursting with gratitude for Gitanjali and her vision and tenacity. I look over and see her quiet radiance and feel at its core a boundless love - radical, powerful and unstoppable.
I love co-facilitating workshops with Igor. The process of planning and delivering and debriefing these sessions together has been so enriching. As always, I suppose it comes down to cost that this isn’t more common but I love it as a participant too - having more than one perspective offers more keys to more doors to the myriad of possibilities of what clowning can offer.
Co-facilitating helps keep up momentum, means that we can offer differing skill sets, and demonstrates that there is no one right way to do something. Participants can experience different delivery styles and energies, and hear an additional perspective. And of course we are learning from one another all the time as teachers. My facilitation is better for being in the space with Igor while he teaches.
It is also grounding to have someone to talk to after each session, to check that we are noticing the same things, to remind one another of little breakthroughs we have seen in the group. It creates a natural mechanism for supervision and emotional safety - in the same way as when we work in hospital, this partnership means that we can see both the participants and ourselves more clearly and compassionately.
Planning this training feels like mountain climbing, in the best possible sense. At the beginning of the walk everything seems possible - why not climb two summits today? Before lunch?! As we climb further, the enormity and complexity of the task reveals itself, each step revealing both how far we have come and how far we still have to go. The summit (clowning in hospital) keeps slipping further and further away, entangled in a cloud of bureaucracy. We know it is there, we know reaching it is possible, but we have to be patient, flexible and responsive. Summit fever is a trap and will lead to exhaustion, burn-out, and is unsafe, so on the way we have clear pit stops to aim for, principles that can be explored and embodied and practised, and this is what we focus on. We go one step at a time.
And time is against us, of course, as in any mountaineering expedition. We cannot possibly share everything we want to in the time we have available, and expect anyone to be able to usefully understand, process and integrate it. Our challenge for this training is to distil healthcare clowning down into what is essential. We need to empty our backpacks and travel light.
Igor led the first three days before I arrived so by the time I got here, the group were already at basecamp, inspired, acclimatised and ready to go with a solid grounding in clown language. Now, after our next three days with the group and more time for acclimatisation, we are planning our 5 day residency. This will take us to the proverbial Hilary Step…and conditions allowing our first sessions in hospital.
One week here and I feel like the vibrant chaos of this city has started to infiltrate my mind. I’ve been trying to formulate thoughts for a blog for days, but everything is coming out in a jumble of colliding thoughts. Nothing fully formed, nothing quite articulate, but so much I feel I want to share.
This weekend Igor and I delivered training to what will hopefully form a new community of healthcare clowns here in Bangalore. Community feels like the right word, and already after this weekend, it feels tangible.
The Sunday afternoon after our session seemed to reverberate with the themes of our teaching. Our focus had been the game, improvisation and the comic body, and at every turn it seemed we were offered up the chance to notice these things in daily life. The importance of committing to the game, regardless of your aptitude to do it well. Noticing when the game is over and letting it go. Knowing my interest, pleasure, joy in something is what makes that thing interesting for someone else. Celebrating our own uniqueness and difference.
We were invited to a cultural event organised by the Namak Art Experience and arrived at the venue an hour early. We saw that there was a Bachata dance class - wonderful! We took off our sandals and joined in at the back with gusto. Not even 2 steps in, somebody came to let us know the class was full. We promptly put our sandals back on and left.
Next idea! Let’s go to this nearby park and relax under a tree! Google maps showed a huge area of green trees just a five minute walk away. We found a gate and entered a tiny walled garden. Not like a The Secret Garden, but a triangle of dusty plants, a rickety path, broken benches, dry, brown leaves and a huge wall topped with rusting barbed wire. I looked at the park sign and saw it was called ‘Colony Park’. Hmmm.
On the way back we spotted a goat tied to a post. She had the most disproportionately long ears imaginable. They almost reached her knees, and gave her a forlorn look. Her eyes, alien-like and positioned on the side of her head, gave her an added air of confusion. There she was just irresistibly being herself. Igor gently strokes her shoulder. She leans in.
When we arrive at the venue it is all hands on deck to help out with food. We insert ourselves into a chain of activity, putting different items on plates, handing out the food. I love this feeling of synergy, of being a part of a team, the way a game can turn something stressful into play and fun. The satisfaction when things run smoothly, the humour when they don’t. Within a few minutes I feel that I am friends with the rest of the team. We are laughing and being silly, and I am unselfconsciously being myself.
Today we went for tea with a writer, theatre maker, and director who gave his perspective on India. Spiritual and religious beliefs being harnessed by politicians to fuel division and hate in order to garner power and support. People being killed for as little as passing through the land of a higher caste member, women beaten for wearing the ‘wrong’ clothes, writers murdered for criticising the government.
As he was talking I understood this new clown community in a more urgent way. Beyond what clowning can do in healthcare settings, I wonder if clowning here can offer a unique space that transcends these divisions, differences and hate?
As bel hooks says;
“Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity. Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, revelling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.” Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, 2003
I dearly hope that this is what we are creating here, with this group.
My cold and the dry air have conspired against my vocal chords and this morning I woke up with no voice. Workshops start tomorrow, so I have to really concentrate on not saying a word today in the hopes that I will recover by then. Igor is deaf in one ear from his cold, so we are going to make the perfect pair!
Today we clowned in the street. Specifically in one of the economically deprived neighbourhoods in Bangalore near our apartment. The idea is that clowning in these urban areas will form part of the Bangalore team’s activities, as well as clowning in hospitals.
We changed in the apartment and had our photos taken with our hosts, then walked down the main street, past a holy cow, to the entrance of the neighbourhood. We warmed up gently (it was already blisteringly hot) and crossed the threshold…by climbing over a metre high bank of dry mud.
Yesterday we had done a recce, to see how big the area was. As we walked down the path in our plain clothes, understandably people looked at us blankly as we passed by. Someone gave us directions as if we were lost. I somehow felt like a giant; clumsy and out of place.
Today as we entered the neighbourhood, I felt light and spritely and curious. It took us some minutes to find the rhythm of how we were going to inhabit this space. I’ll admit to feeling self-conscious about being filmed (Sriharsha is documenting our sessions to help with communicating about the project), about being in this new costume and not having a voice to play with. A couple of times our sense of where the game was diverged and we lost one another, but the beauty of this work is that if we allow ourselves to take each moment at a time, these small failures can stay in their place, and we can move on from them, and find something new.
All we needed was just a few metres of travelling time together to find a rhythm, for me to shift my attention to receiving everything around me, rather than focussing on myself, and take a breath. Then things clicked into place. With this complicity, we could more easily find connections with the people around us - a game of call and response that hadn’t landed a few minutes ago turned into a full crowd of families joining in once we were in our groove.
Our session ended with a long goodbye. We waved as we walked backwards down the street, reaching our arms around the corner, waving out from behind concrete structures and trees. A small group of children followed at a distance, waving back, all of us knowing we can’t stay but wanting to stretch out this moment for as long as possible. We crossed the mud bank threshold and took a breath, hugged, and looked back to see the group gathered together at the end of the street waiting for another wave. And so this waving goodbye took us all the way back up the main road, Igor using his red coat as if we were on a huge ship leaving the shore. With every metre further away we took, the group moved closer. When they reached the mud bank, the distance between us gradually began to grow - they had reached the edge of their world. The waving continued and the connection between us remained, as if we were joined by an invisible thread, soft and strong like silk. The connection transcended this physical bank of mud that only we were allowed to cross and somehow I can still feel its echo in my heart.
I have brought a new costume here with me (created in Glasgow while I was waiting for my marmalade to reach boiling point), and it got me thinking a little about character.
I seem to be in Bangalore. In India. I am here…yesterday I was in Glasgow wearing thermals and 2 coats, and today I am here, in Bangalore, wearing shorts and drinking a mango lassi, the sounds of the city permeating the apartment walls - car horns, someone in another apartment taking a shower, dishes clanking, someone speaking loudly on the phone, children playing in the distance.
I am continually amazed at where Clowning has taken me in my life and the people it has brought me to. Many times I have invited myself to these places, driven by a desire to explore the things that unite humanity, that transcend culture and politics as well as a sense that clowning is always an incredibly fun shortcut to experiencing those things. Frankly, if I am going to travel anywhere in the world, I would rather do it as a clown. Without my clown lens, I can become bogged down in expectations about how I should be, what I should see, often overwhelmed by the options. I sometimes feel uselessly guilty, or embarrassed by my ignorance. Being able to inhabit a clownish presence allows me to accept all of this about myself, and then leave it behind. I feel more free to be myself, more open to knowing that I will likely say or do something stupid, trusting that these mistakes can be an opportunity to create humour and intimacy if we frame it that way, less concerned with knowing or doing or seeing, and more content just being in a place in all its richness and all its differences and sameness.
I am staying with Igor Narovski and his friends. Their parents live next door and bring us all of our meals; home cooked idli, Paddu, dhal, rice, chutney, chapatis. When you are offered another chapati and say yes, you are given 3 and they are so delicious it is impossible not to finish every bite. We go for chai in the afternoons, watch the sleepy street dogs resting in the shade. Just looking at them brings me peace amongst the rickshaws, motorbikes and cars in constant noise and motion. They are the silence that helps you to hear the music.
After a few days of acclimatisation and workshop planning, tomorrow we will go clowning in the streets of Bangalore.
I am a therapeutic clown and performer. Writing here is part of my wider practice and maybe some of my thoughts will trigger some thoughts of your own and I hope that helps.