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Street children make the theatre stage come alive

Sep 09, 2012

Zulfiqar Khan makes the dreams of children on the street come true in a unique way, by making their lives better and respectable through the magical world of theatre. The 'Theatre Group' helps these children in the city of Chandigarh have an education and spread the word on social issues all around.

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Like any other young man of his age, Zulfiqar Khan had big dreams. As a gold medallist from the Department of Indian Theatre, Panjab University, Chandigarh, he even toyed with the idea of shifting base to Mumbai to try his luck in the Hindi film industry. But one day, in 1992, as the young man was cycling to his rented room, he came across a group of urchins looking for scraps in a large garbage bin. Khan observed the frantic way in which these youngsters were trying to lay their hands on whatever they felt would fetch them some money.  
Recalls Khan, "That day was the turning point for me. I was already holding theatre workshops at an elite school in the city. Since theatre has tremendous potential to instill self-confidence, I asked myself if I could do something with these children. I knew that if these youngsters were not guided properly at this stage, they would end up as vagabonds or even worse," he explains.

Khan, now in his forties, decided to start off by roping in children from Labour Colony on the outskirts of Chandigarh. This is home to boot polishers, sweepers and rag pickers, who live in pitiable conditions in makeshift shanties. Convincing their parents proved an uphill task since they had no concept of theatre or how it could be beneficial.

It took the theatre artiste and his friend several days of continuous engagement with the community to persuade them. Reminiscences Khan, who hails from a poor family in Shahabad, Hardoi district, Uttar Pradesh, "In the beginning, the children were irregular and I had to motivate them constantly. Eventually, they also started bringing along their friends."

As the numbers grew, Khan zeroed in on a vacant plot near the local crematorium to hold practice sessions. Since it was extremely filthy, the entire group got together to clean up the area. However, the very next day they were disheartened to find it dirty once again. "We finally moved to a site in front of the Department of Indian Theatre at the Panjab University," says Khan, who used his monthly stipend of Rs 1,800, given by University Grants Commission, to fund the group.

Initially, since most of the established plays were too remote for the children to comprehend, the talented teacher decided to write fresh scripts. Within a few months, the group, under the banner of Theatre Age, staged its first street play, 'Raja Aur Kisaan' ('The King and the Farmer'), incorporating elements of folklore, folk songs, folk dances and aerobics into it. "Since most of the youngsters were illiterate, they found it difficult to comprehend and memorise dialogues. This, in turn, hampered their performance. So I also started encouraging them to study and helped them enroll in government schools," adds Khan.

"We also generate money from selling 'raddi' (scrap paper). The idea came from some of our kids who were rag pickers earlier. The rickshaw is used for collecting old newspapers and discarded material from homes, which is then sold to raise money. Every month, we are able to generate about Rs 40,000 like this, which is about half our expenses," says Khan.

It's been nearly two decade since Theatre Age came together and the group has staged many plays in Chandigarh and other cities. While a majority have been written, directed and produced by Khan, there are others – those that highlight issues like female foeticide, drug de-addiction and prevention of AIDS – which have been supported by various organisations.

Over the years, enacting scripts on gender equality, health and hygiene and education has also helped the young actors understand these concepts better. "Through theatre, I have consciously tried to inculcate the idea of good health and cleanliness among these young actors," says Khan. When they had first started attending the workshops most of them had no idea of personal hygiene – they had never brushed their teeth and preferred to wear filthy clothes since they felt the dirtier they looked, the easier it would be for them to find menial jobs. There is a noticeable change in their appearance today, as most now turn up for rehearsals looking neat and tidy.

Theatre Age, a registered non-profit society, operates from the campus of the Government High School in Sector 24 A. It has two state-of-the-art classrooms, a kitchen and a toilet. Sixty-two children are part of the group, which takes care of their education, books, and uniforms besides providing them with two meals every day. The entire set up is managed by the youngsters themselves who even make the props for their plays, and design costumes from old donated clothes. Most children have joined Theatre Age through word-of-mouth, and new ones are readily welcomed into the fold.

As Khan's resources are meagre, friends and volunteers chip in to fund the activities. "We never ask for money. Instead, people take care of our needs. For instance, someone can help us by depositing school fees or buying uniforms," informs Khan. Incidentally, Amway Opportunity Foundation is paying the fees of 20 children while the State Bank of India has donated 10 bicycles. A group of volunteers has even contributed a three-wheeler rickshaw.

"We also generate money from selling 'raddi' (scrap paper). The idea came from some of our kids who were rag pickers earlier. The rickshaw is used for collecting old newspapers and discarded material from homes, which is then sold to raise money. Every month, we are able to generate about Rs 40,000 like this, which is about half our expenses," says Khan.

Though staging plays remains their core activity - it has an impressive 1,500 performances to its credit – the slum children are now being taught additional skills like using computers, dancing, painting and tennis. Moreover, volunteers, who include some well-to-do professionals as well as college students, hold extra classes in English, Sciences and Maths to strengthen their performance in school.

"Fifteen of our children are enrolled in the non-medical stream in high school," says Khan proudly. He adds, "Since it is difficult for them to study in their dimly-lit homes, we are now looking for a place where the senior students can stay and study late into the night."

It was Theatre Age that gave Geeta, 32, a new lease of life. She had joined the group as a young girl, and today this confident woman has not only given numerous street performances, she has even acted in a film to promote Adult Literacy that features several Bollywood stars. Sahil, 18, too, is going to school because he is part of Khan's theatre group. This former rag picker is a Class 11 student at Government Secondary School at Dhanas and he has high hopes for his future.

Though staging plays remains their core activity - it has an impressive 1,500 performances to its credit – the slum children are now being taught additional skills like using computers, dancing, painting and tennis. Moreover, volunteers, who include some well-to-do professionals as well as college students, hold extra classes in English, Sciences and Maths to strengthen their performance in school.

Meanwhile, Raman Kumar, 22, a resident of Dadoo Majra, is an inspiration for the entire group. A final year student of Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) at Punjab University, he secured the ninth position in the All India entrance examination held for BFA and is now pursuing the much sought after Applied Arts course. Although his father works as a sweeper with the Health Department, Kumar wants to do Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) from the Sir J.J. School of Arts, Mumbai.

Every day, after college he comes down to Theatre Age to help train youngsters in computers, painting and drawing. Kumar, who looks after the maintenance of the computers donated to Theatre Age by Infosys, says he has taught the Corel computer design programme to several children. "Just like Zulfiqar sir helped me, I would like to continue being associated with Theatre Age so that I can help other underprivileged youngsters," he says.

His words not only reflect the purpose of Theatre Age but also find an echo in its anthem, composed by Bollywood lyricist Ajay Jhingran: 'Aao kasam ye khaen, insaniyat nibhayen. Joh chirag bhuj rahen hai, woh chirag fir jalayen." Translated it goes something like this, “Come, Let us take a vow to uphold human values/ Let us light once again the extinguished lamp.”

Lighting young lives is indeed the promise that Theatre Age holds out.

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