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.

Exploring boundaries in lands far away ~ Ismail Shaikh

मुझे जब पता चला के मैं New Mexico जा रहा हूँ, मुझे बहुत अच्छा लगा क्योंकि मुझे नई जगा जाना बहुत पसंद है। नए-नए cultures, नए लोग, वहाँ के खाने पीने के तरीके- मैं सब बारे में सीखना चाहता था।

हम New Mexico में Chaco Canyon, Santa Fe और Taos गए थे। Chaco Canyon वहाँ की सबसे पुरानी सभ्यता है। उसको देखकर मुझे हड़प्पा सभ्यता की याद आई, जिसके बारे में हमने school में पढ़ा था। उसके अलावा हमने Pablo House नाम के ऐतिहासिक घर देखे, जो ज़मीन के अंदर बने हुए हैं। मुझे Santa Fe भी बहुत पसंद आया। वह भी एक historical site है जहाँ लोगों ने कहीं सारी jewelery की दुकानें खोली हुई हैं।

एक चीज़ जो मुझे interesting लगी थी, वो थी वहाँ के लोगों की rules follow करने की आदत। वहाँ के लोग बहुत आराम से गाड़ी चलते हैं और मोड़ पर हमेशा slow हो जाते हैं। वे हमेशा left और right देखते हुए आगे बड्ते हैं और road cross करते हुए लोगों की सहायता करते हैं। यह careful तरीके से जीने वाली बात मैं अपने theatre skills के द्वारा आगे लेकर जाना चाहता हूँ। मुझे लगता है के हम सबको इससे कुछ सीखने का मौका मिल सकता है और शायद लोगों की सोच में बदलाव भी आ सकता है।

मुझे एक दिन याद है, जब हम सब गाड़ी से कहीं जा रहे थे। अचानक से हमने आसमान में एक खूबसूरत rainbow देखा। ताज्जुब की बात तो ये है के उसके दो minute बाद एक और rainbow भी आ गया। आसमान 2 rainbows के साथ बहुत beautiful लग रहा था और मुझे अच्छा लगा के उसे देखने का मौका मिला।

America जाने से पहले मैंने expect किया था की वहाँ ज़्यादातर बड़ी बड़ी buildings होगी और एक अलग सा वातावरण होगा जो मुझे बहुत खास लगेगा।  मैंने सोचा था के वहाँ का खाना तो बहुत ही अच्छा होगा। लेकिन America के जिस हिस्से में हम थे, वहाँ ना तो बड़ी buildings थीं और खाना तो मुझे बिलकुल पसंद नयी आया। असलियत जानने पर मेरा भी नज़रिया बदल गया।

English Learning at Aagaaz ~ Shailaja

When approached by Devika to help the Aagaaz group hone their skills of speaking English, my reaction was more of the joy in getting to interact with the group than the ‘how’ of the requirement. It is only when I started giving deeper thought to it that I realised that getting to know them was the important component in embarking further on this path.


So we started by meeting every Sunday for an hour or so, initially just being together, me trying to reduce my ‘Devika ki mummy’ tag and they were probably just getting comfortable around me. Simple vocabulary exercises, rhymes and games were introduced and I was able to gather data on where they were and how we could go ahead. What was enjoyable was their lack of inhibition with me and willingness to try it all.


Some were comfortable with speaking but seeking flow, vocabulary and pronunciation, others were hesitant to speak but willing to learn. As the weeks passed, a rhythm evolved. We started with simple word games and moved to sentence level exercises. Role playing was an important part of the sessions. It gave context as well as comfort to a group that is already immersed in theatre and its processes. In fact, sometimes the challenge was to have more speech and less drama.


Recounting stories, converting Hindi song lyrics into English, stories to scripts and then enacting them, directed conversations as in interviews and reporting were some of the activities that enabled the group to practise their speech as well as use diverse vocabulary. Vocabulary based word games were an integral part of each session even if a very mundane task of selecting words out of a theme and creating sentences using those.


For the initial sessions focus was not placed upon correcting them at all, the aim was for the group to be at ease with speaking and to acquire a certain flow. There has been a challenge in the varying abilities but the activities allowed flexibility within that for most cases. Reading was avoided for a long time due to this. Off late we have upped the ante and simple scripts have been introduced for chain reading, together or in small groups. Here a little intervention for pronunciation is being included. Recently they have embarked upon creating their own script and the idea is to keep increasing the complexity of that self-furnished text.

It’s a wonderful group with lively participants, the  sessions are largely joyful and friendly, the varying dynamics between the young adults lending to the relationship with and within the session in interesting ways. The endeavour is also to let them learn within the space of being themselves and not turn ‘English’ into a larger than life institutional requirement. There is tremendous (un)learning for me as I gather my intuitions and dispositions to be challenged, negotiated and ‘played’ with every Sunday at Aagaaz.

Samvidhan Live Culminates~ Sanyukta

Commutiny the Youth Collective’s project Samvidhan Live interested us from the word go. It was developed while Nishant and I were still Changelooms fellows in October 2016  when our mentor Kanika Sinha, was knee-deep into developing a board game that facilitated young people’s experiential engagement with the Constitution. We were interested from the word go.

However, of the many organisations participating in the game, we were only able to join in earlier this year and completed the exercise week before last with an end of the project reflection. Eight of our core group members participated  as four pairs. Here are some of their ruminations from their journey.

 

  • Jasmine and Saddam

They visited three heritage sites to complete one of their tasks. Safdarjung’s Tomb, Lodhi Garden and Humayun’s Tomb made their list.

Their primary struggle was overcoming their resistance to history related research. Since their experiences with subject had not been great, they had to push themselves to ask people for information.

They were fascinated by the comfortable presence of people from the transgender community, at the Safdarjung Tomb. This helped them think about the inclusive/ exclusive nature of public spaces in Delhi.

They also visited a religious centre for education to compare its practices to those they have seen in schools.


The Jagriks decided to go to a Madrasa- School of Islamic Studies. They discovered that these centres were relatively much more well kept and clean than any school premises they had seen.

After speaking to someone who worked at the Madrasa, they came to know that violence was quite prevalent there. They also felt uneasy about the lack of freedom given to the students in the space.

 

  • Shahid and Nagina

There was a week when they found a particularly difficult task to grapple with. They had to pledge for organ donation.

The Jagriks realised that their families would not give them the permission to make an independent choice about such matters. In addition to that, their religion and culture also didn’t encourage organ donation.

However, this didn’t stop them from looking at this as an opportunity for learning. They discovered that the procedure for donation is far from simple and generally takes a long time. They also came to know that sometimes organs are removed prematurely, which can lead to major problems.

With another task they had to explore their relationship with the environment. What are the sustainable practices in their everyday lives?

Their primary struggle was asking people to consider switching to more environmentally friendly options. In addition to that, they decided to feed their neighbourhood animals, and came to terms with the care and attention it required.

Their major takeaways were the changes they decided to make in their own lives. It was an opportunity for them to acknowledge the areas in which their contributions can make a difference.

 

  • Muzammil and Zainab

They got a chance to think about their duties. They created some adolescent friendly amendments and closely analysed their loyalty towards the constitution.

They struggled to find information about their constitutional duties, especially when they didn’t have instant access to the internet.

Their major takeaway from the task was understanding the procedure around reporting, women’s harassment complaints.

They also had to speak to a child labourer, in order to complete their task.

Their primary struggle was convincing a young child to talk to them about his/her situation. They confronted a few individuals who showed no inclination to entertain their questions.

The Jagriks expressed that they did get a glimpse of the oppression, without actually having one-to-one conversations. According to them, the responsibility on the children itself was reflective of their burden.

 

  • Ismail and Nagma

With one of their tasks they  explored the validity of the law that marks poverty lines are below  Rs32.

They spent a whole day trying to survive within that measly sum.

They realized that the amount would get exhausted within the first few hours of their day. Ismail spent his money on petrol, while Nagma paid her mother their daily rent, and finished her cash at the washroom.

The Jagriks expressed that the law they experienced was extremely unfair and needed immediate attention.

Like Saddam and Jasmine, they too spent a day visiting heritage sites. Humayun’s Tomb, Lodhi Garden and Matka Shah’s Peer made the list.

Their primary struggle was asking people about these places and their history. The whole process of inquiry was harder than they had imagined.

Their major takeaway from the task was understanding how the origin of these various heritage sites is relevant to their existence today. They also got an opportunity to observe the distinct ways in which people interact within these public spaces.

With a simple board game, the Jagriks (that’s what the participants were called), would explore two tasks each week – one to be completed individually, and another with their partner. The tasks were based on the rights and duties that create the backbone of our Constitution. It is a powerful set of words, and I am tempted to say ‘especially now’. Through this game we discovered that it’s not just a set of words, but a living, breathing, dynamic text. We, who live in the world of theatre, where we know that the meaning of the written word lies in its performance, found the Constitution close to our worlds.

Towards a Theatre of Possibility~ Sakhi Upadhyaya

When Sanyukta and I walked into a “capacity-building” workshop organised by Junoon Theatre in Mumbai, I did not know what to expect. It was my first “professional engagement” as a member of Aagaaz. I was jittery, nervous even. What capacities were we attempting to build? What actually awaited us was two days of deliberation, not so much as building but breaking apart what we understood ‘theatre’ to be. “Theatre for children” to be more specific: What did the assembling of these words in this specific order entail?

Theatre, drawing from my interpretation of the haphazard combination of flowcharts and notes from those two days, could be anything one wanted it to be. Especially so with children, toddlers and young adults. A language, a space, an exploration, an activity. Theatre was social, it was political. It was relational, contextual. It was imagination and assertion. However, for me, theatre was always ‘in the making’. It was powerful, but a power that was malleable and subject to destruction or creation as one saw fit. What I mean is that in my limited experience of being a theatre practitioner in Delhi, the edifice of what we called ‘theatre’ was always being broken down and built back up; not by self-professed practitioners like me, but by its encounters with the public at large. Who best to tear something apart and build it back up, refashion it and give it new life, than children?

Theatre was, and in my experience with Aagaaz, has never been a “struggle” to perfect that performance, or to become an expert in this form. The Junoon workshop was an appropriate beginning, of thinking about the possibilities enclosed within what parades as ‘theatre’ and myself. “So let us proceed.” I thought to myself, “Let me allow things in my narrow worldview to fall apart and fall back together.” And that is exactly what I know August will bring, as my journey with Aagaaz “formally” begins. The possibility of many stories, many failures and many creations. Before we left for Mumbai, Sanyukta and I were talking over the phone. “You know, I’m not jittery in the ‘scared’ way, just jittery in the excited, there-are-so-many-things-to-do-and-discover kind of way. Get what I mean?” I told her. And I could hear her subtle acknowledgement in the giddy laughter she replied with.

Aagaaz, No longer a Toddler!- Devika

Children in their years of early development, slowly start to understand concepts. They develop a sense of self and discover time which eventually leads to the acknowledgement of something as simple as age. Aagaaz has had a very similar journey. Dates and starting points were very irrelevant to us when we were smaller and younger. Now, our work and our community has grown and we are beginning to grapple with our identity in the larger ecosystem and ways to stay connected – to our growing world and also our roots. We decided to create a birthday ritual for ourselves – drama games and a show and all our friends.

June was an amazing month for many reasons. One of them was lack of time, which made the process of planning and preparation rigorous and exciting. A special version of Duniya Sabki was the most important element of the day. The core group put their hearts into it and they did everything required to ensure that the play was made, that too beautifully. They practiced at night, negotiated with their families and pushed their bodies without complaining about fatigue. The grown up Aagaaz, was reflected in their actions and decisions.

Muzammil, the director of the play shared that this became a process of mapping Aagaaz’s journey. On an occasion like this, he wanted to present something meaningful and relevant to the group.Despite all the challenges they encountered, he received a lot of support from the rest of the actors. He was impressed by their commitment, especially since they all agreed to practice during late hours. There was a lot of hard work involved and inputs from Sanyukta and others only came in one night prior to the performance.

Saddam, from the core group found the preparation rather challenging at first. He expressed that a lot of the actors didn’t show up initially and punctuality was an issue. He was also constantly concerned about Muzammil, Ismail and Nagina’s energy, which varied depending on the intensity of their work at KHOJ Studios. He was glad to see a gradual shift in the attitudes. Saddam pegs the success of the performance, on the seriousness that emerged during the last few days of rehearsal.

The day itself was like an exercise in ensemble work. We co-created the space for our guests. Cleaning up the space, bringing food, cleaning, labelling and greeting people- all of it happened without much effort. The larger community also blended in with ease. Something about the whole experience was magical. ‘Bhelpuri Khalo’ and ‘Roohafsa lelo’ became the code words for ice-breaking and conversations happened with old friends and new.

We were lucky that some of out near and dear ones, took out time on a busy weekday. The added their own zeal to the space. Like every other birthday, we couldn’t have survived without a small dose of rituals. Mridula from Theatre Professionals and Dhruv, who mentors Aslam – one of our core group members, fulfilled this need by bringing two wonderful cakes. This helped us embrace the cliches we love, and allowed us to consume them in grand proportions.

The performance spoke for itself as the refrains of Safdar’s lines cushioned Aagaaz’s journey and Ankit from Play for Peace helped us set the tone with energisers that had all of us radiating with joy and sweat on the muggy day. Awkwardness permeated the air when everyone was asked to share their favourite ‘Aagaaz Memory’. The initial discomfort gave way to some thoughtful sharings, funny anecdotes and significant stories. There was laughter, running, dancing, selfies, unexpected conversations, and ideas that emerged out of nowhere. Our initial nervousness around not being able to host people, slowly disappeared. Eventually, an invisible thread connected us all and now we are further tangled up in each others’ stories.

Neuro- Dramatic Play Workshop with Sue Jennings ~Devika

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Aagaaz has embarked on a journey towards nurturing and enhancing the development of its team members. In November, Devika attended a 3 day workshop on Neuro-Dramatic Play and brought back new ideas and plenty of insights. Here is a small reflection, that highlights her detailed observations while interacting with children during this process:

The first of our workshop was a beautiful journey of self-exploration, sensory play, and rhythmic movement. We experimented with themes and ideas and put ourselves in the shoes of the children. It was an experiential session, and it would never have been authentic enough without that element. The real learning, however, started on the second day. Discussing theoretical frameworks about pedagogy or pretend play with adults could never compensate for first-hand experiences with children.

Luckily! This training involved children. I found myself in a group of 4 adults who facilitated for 3 children. Their distinct personalities made the whole process more dynamic. Vaishnavi (6-girl), Shweta (6-girl) and Shalu(8-boy) responded to the same stimulus in very different ways. I spent about 4 hours with these children in the span of two days and managed to observe various skills and patterns in the limited time period.

My first lens for exploration was- ‘Connection with metaphors’. Sue had introduced us to a rain metaphor that was used as a narrative for all our activities. Vaishnavi and Shalu didn’t show much resistance to this idea. Vaishnavi, whose play resembled that of a younger child was more fascinated with sounds, repetition and displaying her capabilities. Shalu, with his hearing and depth perception difficulties, was quite active and enthusiastic about what we brought to the table. Shweta didn’t connect to the metaphor at all and got distracted every few minutes.

Messy Play was another revealing exercise for all of us. It led to joy, energy, imagination and social play for the children and the adults. Vaishnavi was initially quite enthusiastic about the activity. She spent a long time playing with the shaving foam and liked the possibility of connecting with others through the medium. After a while, she got quite flustered and annoyed with the substance on herself, and wanted to clean it off as soon as possible. Shweta also explored the texture of the medium, tried to extend her imagination and wanted more and more for herself. Shalu on the other hand, engaged in individual sensory play, without paying much regard to what others were doing.

I was quite fascinated by the children’s tendency to adapt to the new flock of adults around them. Initially, they all operated with apprehension and curiosity which soon transformed into openness. The first indicator was visible when the children decided to include us in the drawings they were making. All three of them were particularly friendly, yet they showed different characteristics. Shalu was accepting of the facilitators, yet he didn’t seek much attention. On the second day, however, he chose to go and hug one specific older person he felt comfortable with. Shweta liked the attention and holding our hands, yet she managed to separate herself from us when she felt like it. Vaishnavi sought a lot of physical touch and affection, and constantly indulged in hugging and kissing. This led to a lot of questions in my mind about the care at their centre. However, I was aware that I couldn’t jump to any premature conclusions about attachment behavior.

Stories became a good tool to gauge listening skills and memories. Sue had narrated a story on the first day the children arrived, and we asked them to recall details on the second day. My co-facilitators and I had noticed that Shweta was particularly restless and distracted during the storytelling. My assumptions around her lack of attention were challenged, when she managed to recall important details from the story. Shalu was also quite attentive and his body language coincided with that. Vaishnavi, didn’t show signs of having remembered much from the story. She seemed to be struggling with sitting still and paying attention. What I love the most about working with children is that they are unpredictable and more than capable of shattering perceptions.

I was curious about the extent to which children exhibit initiative taking and leadership in group activities. On the first day, I noticed that both Vaishnavi and Shalu enjoyed leading the singing and dancing exercises, while Shweta found the theme difficult to connect to. On the second day her attitude was very different and robust. She seemed way more confident and enjoyed the process of initiating aspects of the work, especially while narrating the story.

Lastly, there were a lot of unique patterns that I tried to pay attention to. Vaishnavi, was particularly restless, resisted following instructions after a certain point and went into sudden outbursts of expression- especially anger. Her patience levels were very low and told more than one facilitator that they were making her dirty during messy play. She also wanted a lot of things while doing a craft activity and showed very little inclination to share. Sue had made some very acute observation about how she was involved in games such as ‘peek-a-boo’ which were developmentally inappropriate for her age.

Shweta had a fantastic memory that remained throughout the 4 hours. Her understanding of subtlety was quite impressive. I noticed this in two instances. One of them was the story recall, where she was clearly more confident than the other two. I made simple eye-contact with her when she spoke out of turn, and she always caught it as an indicator to slow down. Her drawing also showed some very interesting details and nuances. She coloured the bird in her drawing, in two different colours to signify that some movement had taken place. She also seemed to enjoy the process of mocking others, especially adults.

Shalu was expressive in his drawings and very calm at the same time. He showed very little resistance to any activities. He wanted to do the work given to him and also liked the process of displaying and showing it off. She showed curiousity and interest in other people’s drawings, and seemed to have very little competitive tendencies.
My favourite moment in the whole workshop was when the children were asked to pull apart their craft work. I could hear my heart breaking, because they had put a lot of effort in creation and ideation. The children, being their wonderful selves were actually quite open to that process. I was awestruck by their responses and felt almost sad they would have to grow up to be adults someday.

Kaath By Sanyukta Saha

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In one of those existential moments earlier this year I was wondering why I took the plunge of birthing Aagaaz. With some pondering I realised that I enjoyed being on stage and the process that precedes it so much, that I decided to create that opportunity for the enthusiastic bunch of bachchas I worked with in Nizamuddin (yes, I am talking about the formidable group that is now known as the Aagaaz’s core group). Until the end of 2014, being on stage as an actor was a big part of life. I would often brag about how theatre was my life’s energy source. However, with a fledgeling of an organization making its own demands, my own practice of theatre took a backseat. With a great sense of purpose, I had decided to make 2017 the year I went back on stage.

Friends know that I keep reiterating that if you say something often enough, it will happen. It’s true. It does. I happened to be a part of four productions this year (one is still a work in progress). While the first was a play with the group I grew up with – pandies’ Theatre’s Ismat’s Love Stories, the second was Third Space collective’s short play – Malang (a piece that’s been memorable and important for a few heart reasons). The other two are pieces for very young audiences. Here, I shall write about only one of them (the other you are most definitely to read about next year in April). Ruchira Das, the Director of Calcutta’s Think Arts, a company that creates and curates arts and literary experiences for the young, reached out. Helios Theater, Hamm, a company revered for its plays for toddlers, had given one of their shows – Woodbeat to Think Arts. Ruchira wanted to know if I would be interested in performing the piece. Of course I agreed with a lot of excitement – after all I had made a pact with myself to do theatre this year.

A couple of days spent in Hamm was enough to realise that working in this production was going to be a huge learning experience. Woodbeat is an exploration of wood in its various forms with elements of puppet theatre. Other than a cursory participation in a week long workshop with Anurupa Roy years ago, I had never attempted puppetry. Brought up in Delhi, with a very conventional schooling, I had also never held an axe, let alone using one to sever blocks of wood. As the dates for working on the piece drew closer, one of my most reccurrent nightmares was losing a few fingers during a show, in front of an audience, mostly comprising of toddlers. The nightmares only went up in frequency and sub-genres once I started working with Michael and Marko on the creating the piece. While the experience watching the duo perform in Bombay and then Calcutta was fantastic, it only led to more and more doubts about whether I could actually pull of the performance. At Aagaaz we believe that arts create powerful learning experiences – for children as well as adults, and, what I never for a  moment doubted was how much I was going to learn about working with toddlers through the creation of the play.

As the show premiered in The New Town  School in Calcutta, I realised how fantastic the journey with Kaath (that’s what the name of the Indian version of the show) was going to be. The audience was full of 5 year olds and they were all engaged in each and every moment of the play. Perhaps one of the most powerful moments of performing the first run of shows was in Nizamuddin. We performed at the MCD Primary School in the basti for children from aanganwadis, nursery class, and grade 1. I was performing in the very space that saw the beginning of my journey with Aagaaz more than 8 years ago. After the show, the teachers walked up to me in awe, “these children were not screaming and running. They were sitting quietly and watching performance. That’s never happened. We didn’t have to ask them to be quiet even once.” With all my fingers intact, I smiled.

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