At the beginning of a new school session in Delhi, theatre actor and director Imran Khan starts receiving phone calls from principals: “When is Tifli being held?” They have to block dates in the calendar. “There will be no Tifli in 2018,” answers Khan.
Since 2014, Tifli, an international theatre festival, has been overrun by thousands of children. Parents and schools in Delhi that wanted to give students a taste of the stage, found a safe bet in the plays staged at Tifli. Last year, productions came from across India as well as Argentina, France, South Korea and the US, and 40 schools, sent busloads of students for shows that began at 9.30 am and continued till the evening.
“In the last two years, we have got little support from the government, more from individuals and international cultural centres. Last year, crowdfunding raised Rs 4-4.5 lakh and our budget was Rs 35 lakh,” says Khan, who started the festival when he became head of Assitej India, a global organisation that promotes theatre for children. A performer who works exclusively with children, Khan says that the motivation for Tifli was to do something for children in India. “At a very young age, children are introduced to phones, tablets and television. Before they start understanding humans, they become best friend with machines,” he adds.
The fourth of five brothers in a family where the father earned very little painting doors and walls, Khan cites himself as an example of the transformative power of theatre. “My khaandan was from music but nobody in my father’s generation played any instrument. My paternal grandfather was a sarangi player for stage performances and used to play with some of the sex workers at GB Road,” says Khan. He discovered theatre at the age of 13 at National Bal Bhavan — on whose vast grounds Tifli is held. It was started by Jawaharlal Nehru, who was inspired by a visit to an organisation in the USSR, where hundreds of children were busy in creative pursuits unaffected by class or socioeconomic divisions. The place attracts several well-known artistes who teach children in an environment of fun and freedom. Khan had gone to learn the violin, with the intention of taking forward the career of his forefathers, but was sucked into theatre.
He played the lead, Lallu, in a nautanki production titled Lallu ki Shaadi, on the issue of dowry. “It was held in a big amphitheatre with a thousand people in the audience. After that, whenever I stepped out, somebody would call out to me as Lallu. Suddenly, I began to feel like a star,” he says. Directed by veteran Ashish Ghosh, Khan went on to play a bit role in TV series, Hip Hip Hurray, in 1994. “In Class XI, I topped the Arts section. I credit that to theatre because the stage teaches you to focus. Whatever it is that you are doing, focus on it,” he says. At Kirori Mal College, it was theatre guru Keval Arora, who instilled in Khan the importance of professionalism.
“For a long time after college, I was working with children and adults. One day, I realised that this is not where my heart is. We need to give children’s theatre a complete focus,” he adds. His latest experiment is aimed at the youngest possible audience —toddlers. The play, My Room, My World has a child playing with objects from her surroundings to create her own space. Yeh Duniya Rangeen, for which Khan has collaborated with La Baracca, a group from Italy, revolves around how two colours can produce a third, very different, hue. “There is magic in theatre,” he says, and adds hopefully, “Tifli will be back in 2019.”