(The following article has been written with the help of book Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre edited by Ananda Lal)
Children have always been a part of both rural and urban audiences in Indian theatre. They often watch the shows along with their families enjoying every aspect of the production be it sound, sets, costumes acting or the lights. Often times in my own theatrical experiences as a director for and with children I have seen many children coming to both my actors and me requesting me that they would like to be a part of the next production. As theatre truly innovates and allows for total freedom of expression countless children are attracted to this performing genre and will continue to do so in the coming years.
Children’s theatre in India hence has a long history behind it. Traditionally we have seen that many children are a part of many folk theatre forms such as Ramlila and Chhau. Many of the children also belong to traditional performing families or are a part the independent set up and are trained by traditional gurus. Often they spend their teenage years playing female roles. In the Ramlila performances these children are called swarups ( incarnations) and they assume the central roles. During the period of the Ramlila they almost become like the “ live” gods. In some mythological stories such as Prahlada Nataka the children assume the central role. There are mainly two theatrical production that are specifically meant only for children. Both of them are from Manipur and amongst the two the play Gostha Lila or Sansenba originated in the 18 century. It mainly describes Krisna’s experiences as a cowherd and his killing of the demons and includes both fun and games. The second play Gaura Lila is derivative of Sansenba and describes the religious journeys of Lord Chaitanya mahapraphu.
The earliest person to have looked at children’s theatre in an organized manner was Rabindranath Tagore who founded his ashram in Santiniketan. He made theatre as a part of the curriculum in Shantiniketan and personally supervised all rehearsals. He also insisted that all productions are made open to all students as he truly believed that they have immense educational value. He also wrote several scripts for children and the first one was Sharadotsav ( Autumn Festival). He also wrote the play King and the Rebel in 1913 to improve the students fluency in the English language. He also added groups of young people to his serious plays so as to ensure maximum participation of children. He laso encouraged the participation of girls in his plays which gave them adequate scope for showcasing their talents. He argued that theatre should be made into a compulsory subject and said, “ If our schools were run on the right lines, boys and girls would never lose their natural gifts of bodily expression.”
The other pioneers of Children’s theatre include Sankaradas Swamigal who founded the theatrical company Samarasa Sanmarga Sabha in 1910 and the Tattuva Minalochani Vidya Balasabha that taught young boys how to act and also made tours along with them. Many of his productions were by the children. In Karnataka Gubbi Veeranna company started a travelling children’s theatre in 1925 and Karanth conceived of many children’s operas. IN 1926 GR Shirgoppikar assembled the rural Marathi children into the Anand Sangit Mandali.
After Independence the National School of Drama started with a childern’s theatre course in 1958 conducted by UNESCO experts. In Bombay Sudha Karmarkar’s Bal Rangabhumi started staging Marthi plays for young adults. Many Marathi Dramatists like P.L. despande tried their hands at Children’s theatre and Vijay Tendulkar has written six anthologies for young people. In Gujrati Praggi Dossa, Assamese Satya Prasad Barua, Kannada KV Subbanna, Malyalam Sankara Pillai and Hindi Safdar Hasmi are famous children playwrights. Between the years 1969 to 1973 both BV Karanth and Ram Gopal Bajaj taught drama to different schools in New Delhi.
In Marathi, Arvind and Sulabha Despande floated the children’s wing of their group Awiskar and developed an enchanting production Durga Jhali Gauri. Sai Paranjpye wrote several children’s comedies. In the recent years many theatre groups have helped children with special needs such as Barry Johns theatre action group. Barry John was also the first director of National school of Drama’s Theatre in education that applies theatre for educational purposes. Nandikar in Calcutta has developed an ongoing program with slum dwelling children and Zarin Chaudari runs an internationally acclaimed company of speech and hearing impaired youth.
Theatre for children truly gives joy to both the performer and the audiences. It is one form of entertainment that is boundless and grows eternally. Whether one is working with pre-primary, special or underprivileged children the imagination and creative interest that it can capture has no boundaries. Theatre for children thus needs to both sustained and encouraged by all.