Mumbai: Gillo on the Go is bringing theaters to schools in villages and small towns
Inspired by the touring theatre groups of Maharashtra and Karnataka, a Mumbai-based repertory is reimagining the tradition for children, taking its plays to schools in villages and small towns in the two states
It only takes a train journey of a little over two hours from Dadar to enter a world vastly different from Mumbai. A world, which, on an early October morning, has a real nip in the air, where chikoo groves, paddy fields and creeks cover the landscape as far as the eye can see, where patchy mobile network doesn't bother, and where theatre for children is as unheard-of as a rooster's call in a Mumbai condominium.
That, however, is set to change for a few schools in and around Dahanu on the day we arrive in the town in Palghar district. We are here to join the team of Gillo on the Go, a touring children's theatre project by Mumbai-based Gillo Theatre Repertory, in the last leg of its two-week journey across parts of Maharashtra, including Wada and Kamshet. The goal is to take theatre to those who may not be able to experience it on their own.
The Gillo on the Go team in Dahanu
"We are inspired by the rich touring theatre tradition in Maharashtra and Karnataka," says Shaili Sathyu, the repertory's artistic director. "But, children tend to not be counted among the audience." Sathyu founded Gillo with Abir Patwardhan, Tanya Mahajan and Yashoda Joshi in 2009. The project began on a smaller scale in Karnataka in 2017, and Maharashtra has been included this year. We learn more about the joy and challenges of being on the move in a minibus with 10 artistes, costumes, props and a sound system through the course of the day, which begins early, at Tamarind Tree school in Sogwe village.
As kids from the pre-primary section wait outside a classroom, the team transforms the space within minutes. Black curtains blank out the distraction of furniture, and lights add to the ambience. With minimal props - the biggest being a nest-like structure - Barkha Fatnani and Dhanesh Gopalakrishnan begin a non-verbal play called Chidiya Udd. There is pin-drop silence as kids watch the actors depict the friendship between a bird and a child through mild, playful movements. In the end, the duo invites the children to play with grains and feathers, and it's safe to say that what they have witnessed will not be hastily forgotten, even in the evanescent world of a toddler.
"It's easy to make children laugh; to make them sit and watch something patiently is the challenge," says Sathyu. "Loudness is all around us, in sound, colour or movement, but looking at the world gently is not something we are training children to do." As the team packs up to head to the next school, Gopalakrishnan tells us, "Children make the best audience. If they don't like what they see, they'll simply turn around and do their own thing."
Further away from Dahanu, the students of Zila Panchayat Shala in the tribal hamlet of Abhram welcome the team with freshly plucked hibiscuses. They gather under a banyan tree to listen to Nishna Mehta, Janit Temkar and Ghanshyam Tiwari narrate dramatised stories in Marathi and Hindi, while Atul Somkuwar and Ritul Singh play the guitar and bongo. "These are kids who have barely stepped out of this village," says Rajesh Bablikar, a teacher at the school. "We once took them to a cinema hall. They looked at the screen and exclaimed, 'Such a big TV!' So, theatre coming to our doorstep is beyond imagination."
The last stop of the day is Vasgaon, where the team chooses an open space to present Catch That Crocodile! based on Anushka Ravishankar's story. Soon, the entire village gathers around the students to watch the play, which receives a huge applause.
The exhausted Gillo team calls it a day, and it's time to catch the train back to Dadar to switch our worlds once again. When we ask the founders what keeps them going, given that such initiatives often battle insufficient funds, Sathyu says, "One performance cannot change a child's worldview, but it could provide a stimulus that opens their mind a little more." Patwardhan agrees, "This is an audience you would love to perform for more than a person in Bombay, who goes to theatre anyway. None of these kids may become theatrepersons. But, an experience with art goes a long way, and that's where its strength lies."
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