Collaborations with The Community Library Project ~ Devika and Shahid

July, 2018 marked the beginning of yet another engagement with The Community Library Project, Panchsheel Vihar. Mihir and Shahid took ownership of this project consisting of 15 adolescents and pre-adolescents. Sundays became theatre days at the library, and the children got acquainted with the format of TUNE IN, REFLECTION and ENGAGEMENT.

A long time was spent on preparing the actors’ bodies and helping them develop the skills for effective voice projection and dialogue delivery. In addition to that, multiple experiments were conducted to build on improvisation skills and the utilization of space and time in performance.

After establishing familiarity, the children and the facilitators started engaging with their notions of safe and unsafe spaces. The sessions grappled with difficult questions that gave rise to many stories, anecdotes and grievances. The children shared their experiences of harassment, bullying, being overpowered by authority figures and not finding places to play in.

Our struggle with absenteeism and behavioral management continued, but we have managed to come up with some beautiful pieces and can’t wait for them to be performed this February.

Aagaaz’s Team Grows ~ Sanyukta

Aagaaz was imagined as a space for its members to grow as professional theatre practitioners. We took a big leap towards both these goals in August 2018. Our core group members will be joining us every year now, as drama-based facilitators.

Saddam, Nagina, Muzammil, Ismail, and Shahid are the first of the lot. Each of them have been co-leading Ajab Gajab projects with Sakhi and Devika. While Ismail and Muzammil led the project with the Heritage School  in Vasant Kunj; Saddam, Nagina, and Shahid co-led the project in Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti. Shahid has also been working with children at The Community Library Project along with Mihir.

The group of five have also taken on a larger chunk of production related work with our two plays— Raavan Aaya and Bhagi Hui Ladkiyan. All of them are also equipping themselves with skills such as working with lights, handling sound equipment, learning to use emails, and documenting. We are excited with the possibilities of the team developing and working with many other children led by our core group members. Our goal is for them to begin leading independent projects by August this year.

Meanwhile, we wait for Nahid, Zainab and Jasmine to join the gang.

Korika: The Wishing Kite ~Jasmine Sachdev

Khirkee is a vibrant community bustling with energy and people from various backgrounds living together, making art together and making purported  ‘ends’ meet together. The diversity helps one experience a manifold of images, scents, sensations and interactions all at once and more- this is what makes this community special. We, at Aagaaz, worked with the children from the community using drama through the story of Korika: The Wishing Kite. The book, A Kite Called Korika by Sharada Kolluru formed the basis of our work. The story of Yelliah and her family exposed the children to various aspects of a new yet familiar environment in someone else’s life, and they started on the journey to understand it and learn from it by making it their own. Over the last 6 months, the work with the children was focused on building listening, consistency, working with other bodies in space and eventually grounding their voice, body within a makeshift narrative.

In our efforts to work with other bodies in space, we worked through our norms on consent, listening, being consciously aware of the objects, sensations and people around us. We started requesting the kids to ask us before they extended any touch, and did the same for them. Through the last 6 months, the awareness and practice around asking the other person for permission before establishing physical connections has increased and now the children correct the facilitators if they touch them without asking them. To make sure that everyone learns in the space and one person’s energy doesn’t distract the rest, we worked with stillness and silence, and doing exercises like eyeballing and Columbian hypnosis. We made the activities a part of our rituals, and it helped us build focus and awareness of our cacophonic surroundings. The children are now able to stay on task and focus, even while working in a space like the JamunWala Park which being a public space contained a lot of exciting stimulus but also distractions.

To work on our listening, we used call and responses, which made the children stop and move with the facilitator amidst the maze of activities and tasks given to them. The reflection circle at the end of every session helped us build on the skills of observing and listening to those around you. Working on oneself, as well as a sense of listening to and supporting the other came through this conclusionary exercise. A sense of collective ownership was built where we all, facilitators included, gathered that to make anything work and take any objective to task, we all need to work together; as if this belonged to all of us collectively, in equal parts and one person or just ‘I’ doing it well won’t ever be enough.

We struggled with working on consistency till the end of the program, however, we improved on it immensely over the course of 6 months. Our rituals that made our space, practicing and building on the same things in each session, saying true to our word, and having sessions consistently with children despite our problems with the space; even with the children having to work at home to support their parents, changing timings to make sure we meet, helped us build on this value over time.

We worked on all the above values and sensibilities through what is core to the team and the work, i.e. drama. Warm up exercises and songs building on our voice and body, working with the changing quality of one’s vocal energy. Children realised the varied ways they could use their voice to express themselves or a character’s emotions, and working on the body helped them see the different ways their legs and arms could move to depict something. While working on the ‘narrative’, the children co-created the scenes, building their own dialogues with improvised actions which revealed interconnections throughout the story, learning how to tie various fragmented scenes to create one single, unified piece. Amongst all of this, glimpses of connections bridging the gap between the self and the other, between them and those around them, between what they held to be true and what was being discovered as ‘new’, could be found.

Why Rituals? ~ Jasmine Sachdev

Since the last 6 months, thrice a week, on cool mornings or hot sunny afternoons, a bunch of kids at the Jamunwala Park stand in a circle, look into each other’s’ eyes, and walk and exchange places, or sit in a circle and catch an imaginary fish. These are just two of our rituals that we follow in each of our sessions with children at Khirkee as we make our first play together.

Rituals are characteristic to a space. A ritual holds and binds the space and makes the space what it is. Rituals are also at the heart of practice as theatre practitioners – it is consistent and central to the work we do with our children.

The Opening Ritual

Chhota Chuha

The opening circle includes revision of our norms through a song. The tiny rat (chotta chooha) comes in to remind us of the actions that will make the space, a safe and a happy space for everyone. We created the song to fit our purpose and are sharing it here with you. Feel free to pick up elements, change things around, and build it into your work with any chhota chuhas you might know.

chhota chooha chhota chooha
touch karne se pehle poochta hai
chhota chooha chhota chooha
Sabki baat sunta hai
chhota chooha chhota chooha
Aas paas ki cheezon ka dhyan rakhta hai
chhota chooha chhota chooha
Poore session ke liye rukta hai

Eyeballing

We all stand in a circle in neutral position, one person walks towards another person, looking into their eyes and takes their place while the other person does the same with the third person in the group and so on. This helps us to centre our energy and focus.

This is followed by other drama activities related to the objective of the session for that day.

The Closing Ritual

Once we are done with all the activities for the day, it is time for our closing circle.

We sit in a circle, breathing in and out (smell the roses and blow off the candle), calming ourselves down after all the energy and action and drama the session had.  

We reflect and share with the group a thing we did well and one thing we did not do well and will do better next time.

The session ends with playing Machli, where one person creates an imaginary machli with their hands and everyone has to catch it together when it jumps by clapping at the centre – it centres the group’s energies in the moment, bring the session to a complete circle.

Our journey with the rituals in this space has been an interesting one. There was a time last year when we had to call the children so many times to get to a point where we all are standing in the circle in a neutral position. Today, the children don’t need Devika or me or anyone else to do eyeballing. They lead it. A few sessions back, both Devika and I had to be out of the session in the beginning due to some other distractions around, the children did eyeballing by themselves and then we continued doing the rest of the activities with them. Earlier we were struggling with reflections as most would repeat just the sequence of the events that happened, however now the reflections are getting deeper and the kids have started identifying behavioural actions they do well and want to improve. They are taking turns in making imaginary machlis and successfully catching them together.

We(the children and the facilitators) are still learning and progressing and growing. At times, we still laugh or don’t listen attentively to others during their sharings and at times break into a small dance step at the end of our turn in eyeballing, but we get back to neutral again, try to listen again and hold the space for us and each other again.

Ajab Gajab Diaries ~ Jasmine Sachdev

As a part of my internship with Aagaaz’s program Ajab Gajab, I have been working with children at Khirkee to create an ensemble piece based on Tulika publication’s A Kite Called Korika. An everyday session includes following our opening and closing rituals along with scene creation, dialogue development, working with silence and stillness, our own and other bodies in space, movement, listening and lots of games. A part of our practice is to understand from the people we work with, what they feel about the sessions and how it helps them be. The following are experiences of two of the people we work with – one directly and the other incidentally.

The first is the Consistent Cat. She is an  11 year old girl who hasn’t missed a single session. On the days she was sick she chose to sit at a side and observe. On asking her what she has learnt from the sessions, she said that all the rules that she follows in the session she tried to follow them outside it.

She now asks people most of the times before holding their hand and hugging them and does not cling to them without their permission. The rule that we should take care of our surroundings helped her realise how the peepul tree near her house wasn’t being taken care of. So now she waters it everyday and doesn’t let anyone pluck the leaves. From the rule of listening to everybody and staying for the entire session, she explains, how in her school everyone used to never listen to the teacher and just run ahead but she tries to listen to her teacher and not bunk classes. She stays in the class for the entire duration.

She gleefully expressed how the games played during the session have helped her during playtime at home. Now all her siblings at home get in a big circle and breathe in and out and practice eyeballing. She says everyone in her home makes a lot of noise but in that moment everything is happy and quiet. She also told how she learnt to work with other children and she teaches them the dance and drama exercises that she learns in the circle which she absolutely loves. Learning how to join words to make stories and expressing them through dance and drama and telling her family members all that she has learnt makes her feel proud.

The second experience is that of Mr. Magic Eyes. He is one of the Guards of Jamunwala Park, the space we work out of. He has been observing us work with children using drama. He expressed he is learning that children don’t necessarily learn through things told to them. He marveled at how children are learning through play. He realized how always telling kids to do or not do certain things in the park made them rebellious, and thus he started using what they learnt in the circle to address the difficulties he faced with them.

The children are often labelled as violent and rude. He shared the perception until he began to notice that a lot of people in the park spoke to the kids rudely and didn’t respect them and thus the children would not talk back with respect either. He said that he saw a different dimension of the children while they are in sessions with us. He realized that if he treated them with respect, they might also reciprocate and perhaps start listening to what he says. He started doing just that and proudly tells us that he has a better relationship with the children today. He felt if similarly the entire society treats each other with love and respect and works together, the world will be a better place.

I am not sure if the world will become a better place, however, these are small wins for us at Aagaaz. Things that make us jump with joy, bring tears to our eyes, and make us believe in the work we do every day.

In which Ajab Gajab bachchas take to the stage ~ Priiya Prethora

It’s difficult to feel the impact of performance till we perform, till we feel the stage is a space we step on to, claim as ours and be watched while we express what it is that we feel. This feeling is an amalgamation of what we have learned before, what being on stage at that particular time does to us and what it’s going to feel like once the performance is over.

Early on in January we decided to put together a short performance with the Ajab gajab gang  of Jamun Wala Park. We chose to work with the opening song of our play Duniya Sabki – Kahab Toh Lag Jaaye Dhak Se, because of the group’s enthusiasm about it following the shows during the Khirki Festival. They already knew the lyrics to the song, although in a sequence that their own imagination created, often strung together on the basis of the closest rhyming word in the previous line. There we were, humming and buzzing our way to the sopranos and falsettos, dance movements of our own making. Much like their cartwheels, they would suddenly flip the flow of the workshops with wide eyed, disbelieving questions – “are we actually going to be on a stage?”, “Will there be a real audience?”,  “Will we dance?”

Sweccha bestowed upon us a colourful room with a giant mirror that is the fourth wall, which became our rehearsing space for this performance. The mirror in the room was our constant audience and we were inseparable, like spirits who have found the long lost bodies which they once inhabited in the living world. We watched ourselves watching ourselves, keeping a check on how we looked while we sang, danced or did nothing but just kissed our reflections, sometimes for more than three minutes. The things did turn around when we designated the space where the audience will be, which was on the opposite side of the mirror. The song has a casual rhythm like that of bullock cart riding on a mud road with drop and lifts caused by puddles so we started manoeuvring our bodies for the lyrics to become thoughts in actions.

The number of children kept varying, especially when we would rehearse in the park, some of them were shy of being watched while rehearsing. The dance choreography consisted of stunts and flips by some of the children and the usual spur of the moment additions by almost everybody. The entire piece took about eight/nine sessions to be completely choreographed.

This particular group of children, with their exuberant energies, often struggled to engage with each other without violence. They also embraced the single narrative that the world around ascribed onto them – they steal, nothing will come off working with them, they are abusive and violent, wild, dirty. This workshop created a tiny crack in the ways in which they see themselves – of the other stories that they can possible be. For children who were written of as uncaring and what not, each one of them had scrubbed themselves clean and worn their best clothes for the show without any instructions from us – they had dressed for a special day. With the workshop’s focus on silence and stillness and the first show that had an audience of 30 strangers – the children discovered the thrill of working together to create an experience. Their post show joy was very tangible palpable in the room after the show.

The theatre bug administered – they are creating their first devised performance for the end of June led by Jasmine Sachdev and Devika Bedi along with our core group members. I cannot wait to see what emerges.

Khirki mein Drama – Theatre and Music at the Khirki Festival ~ Sanyukta

Khirki looked like it was celebrating Diwali or multiple weddings for five days in the month of December. The month of December kept all of us on our toes. The entire studio was abuzz with workshops, exhibitions, food stalls, events – people of varied ethnicities and age groups running up and down the stairs, laughing and talking in the otherwise serene environs of S-17, Khirki. KHOJ International Artist’s Studio on its 20th year of being, celebrated through a festival in collaboration with the local community and artists/arts organisations. Aagaaz led three element that were a part of the celebrations – the Khirki Music Ensemble, two plays based with children from the Community Library Project and 4 Kisse Connections.

The Khirki Music Ensemble came together in August last year – Romeo and Zoom – two young musicians from Congo, Kumud, a prodigious 15 year old with no formal training in music but awe inspiring, her mother Leela who never did realise her dreams of singing publicly, Shahid – one of the core group members of Aagaaz who has been getting trained in vocals from Manzil. This motley crew was led by Baan – our Managing Trustee and the co-founder of Dastaan Live, a pathbreaking music ensemble. They jammed through many a hot and rainy day, with the one common language of music bringing them all together. Re-arranging known songs and mash-ups of a few others – their hour long set list left the audience at the Jamunwala park enthralled.

The audience was a fair sample of the diversity that Khirki epitomises – and for once they were sharing an experience that was beyond the everyday. Through the performance though we battled the energies of the group of children from the tongewalla community that we work with through Ajab Gajab. There efforts to be up on the stage and join the performance were endearing and frightening (for the sake of the musicians and their hardwork) all at the same time. Bigger were the fears about the performances by the children from The Community Library Project scheduled for the next day. Most of our young actors were going to be on stage for the first time – what if they were intimidated by these younger children?

Safdar Hashmi has been an inspiration for us. His works for children used in drama workshops, beautifully allow for conversations with children to open up. The Community Library Project shares our desire to create spaces for children to be curious, think, and ask questions. It is an ideal collaboration. We worked with two groups of children over a period of two months. One of the groups had already created a performance of Duniya Sabki – we did a movement based workshop with them and used Hashmi’s Kitabein as a thread to explore the notion of stories. We explored the stories that they had read and relooked at these narratives from the perspective of a lesser know character, or a changed decision, or a parallel ending. The final show had new versions of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and the age old fabe of the Lazy Caterpiller, while looking at Mahasweta Devi’s Kyun Kyun Ladki in the context of one of the participant’s life. The new group of children dipped into Duniya Sabki and explored prejudice based on the colour of skin and gender discrimination – simply explored from the perspective of the participants. Our core group members were a joy through the process – they have visibly grown in their abilities work with young children using drama.

We approached the the day of the performance with great caution – what with the experience we had during the show by the Khirki Music Ensemble. We spent the morning talking to the Ajab Gajab gang, clearly demarcating stage space, collecting volunteers to guard our young performers. Once the show started, however, we experienced the unexpected. Everyone in the audience, specially the little ones – watched, rapt in awe. They watched as children, only slightly older than them, from their neighbourhood captivated an entire audience – despite all the distractions that performances in public spaces right next to a busy main road and opposite a big mall can bring. After the show, the performers looked ecstatic with a furtive look that I have grown to associate with young people who have suddenly stumbled upon the addiction that theatre can be. The Ajab Gajab gang accosted us and demanded to be put on stage too – and of course we would comply – they have since done two short presentations for their immediate community and are prepping for a bigger show in the end of June. The play will be based on a book by Tulika – A Kite Called Korika. Do read Priiya’s article about the presentations by this group in December and January.

The Kisse Connection sessions during the festival were special – for we experimented with our format. Other than the regular format of exploring personal memories, this time around we also did a session in collaboration with the wonderful Khoj Canteen led by Devika Menon. We explored stories around food and to talk about our experience would need another feature and more space, so do wait for our next issue.

As with most festivals, we worked in a state of intense momentum and breathed a collective sigh of relief as it drew to a conclusion – however, unlike most such times, we didn’t dip into a state of post rigour ennui and instead continued all our engagements with a steady pace and renewed vigour. Watch this space for all that followed and is planned. Much excitement!