(Written by Indu Bhagat)
Three clowns, clad in striped attire and red noses, may be somewhat difficult to imagine as Shakuntala, Dushyant, and Rishi Kanva until you watch Shakuntalam — Agar Pura Kar Paye To. The play, directed by Rupesh Tillu, an interpretation of the classic tale of the fourth-century narrative of poet Kalidasa’s play, Abhijnanasakuntalam, was staged in Pune recently. The three characters face extraordinary challenges in a forest, and later in a royal court. Each clown redefines the character in their own way. The experimental piece of theatre not only innovates with the form but also locates Shakuntalam in current times. Tillu has always believed that clowning and theatre are powerful tools to change society and break the stereotypes. “A clown’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. It’s not to solve problems, but to show society their problems. Their job is not to make people laugh, but to take them to an emotional, heightened state, where laughter is a sort of catharsis,” says Tillu, who is based in Mumbai. Excerpts from an interview:
What is the difference between clowns in circus and theatre?
Theatre clowning is lot more based on language and performed inside the theatre. Circus clowning is mostly number based, so they use normal dialects. It is more plastic and the skills are hackneyed. If circus clowns know that thousands of people are watching them, their make-up becomes very loud, they paint a very big mouth and pop a big nose. There is a lot of paint. Theatre clowning is subtle as they don’t need such make-up.
How did you come to be involved in clown theatre?
I lived in Sweden for 10 years and had my first encounter with clowning, courtesy one of my German teachers. I learned physical comedy from the National School of Dramatic Arts (Sweden), and clowning was my major subject. I was trained in clowning and decided to take this further and started working with Clowns Without Borders in Sweden, touring various countries, and learning more about the subject.
What lead you to work on Shakuntala?
When I lived abroad, I did many plays but here in India I started with Shakuntala. It is a first-of-a-kind with a pure clown. I am looking forward to bringing Indian classics in the form of clown theatre. I thought our stories are equally fascinating and wanted to tell an Indian story and point out the shortcomings of our society through them.
The reason I choose Shakuntala is that many people think her character is weak in Kalidasa’s original classic. But, I wanted Shakuntala to be strong, and being a clown in my play she gets that power. She dictates the terms, makes decisions and takes the play forward.
Tell us about your initiative Laughter Per Kilometre?
For me, clowning is a way to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. In our country, people need to laugh. Laughter Per Kilometre aims to make people laugh because laughter eases tension. And when tension is eased, people can think and dream, and when they dream, they see hope in life and then they can come out of any situation they are in.
How does Laughter Per Kilometre work?
We have chosen artistes from Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai. We got them together and trained them with five directors and they returned to their cities and performed. We thus reached out to 60,000 children. We organised India’s first clown fest in Mumbai and there too, a lot of children came. This December, we are doing the second edition of the clown festival where the goal is to have it free for children so even if you don’t have the money you should be able to come, see and laugh.