When the upside-down world entered drama class
In May 2021 with the second wave of the pandemic in India at its peak, we (Mudita, Kanishk, Swapnika and I) looked at each other’s faces on Zoom. We had taught online drama classes before but what did it mean for each of us to teach drama right now? Are drama games what children need this summer? Isn’t there enough drama happening in the world around us? What about the grief, loss and care that we are all juggling in our bodies right now? What did it mean for us to then dramatize these bodies with 5–7 year olds across a screen?
We were spiraling in each other’s comfort, confusions, and creativity when Kanishk recalled Safdar’s Hashmi’s poem for children:
यह कैसा है घोटाला
कि चाबी मे है ताला
कमरे के अंदर घर है
और गाय में है गोशाला।
“I have a tune for that!” Mudita squealed and then proceeded to sing the poem as a song. Our first brainstorming session for Aagaaz’s online summer drama workshops started with us questioning our intent and ended with us googling the lyrics of this poem and bobbing our heads to Mudita’s tune on Zoom. Though Hashmi wrote this song for children in the mid-1980s, his nonsense verses made sense of our nonsense times. The rhyme about a lock in a key and a house inside a room embodied the absurdity of what we were attempting to do as drama facilitators right now — playing in a pandemic, connecting while being physically disconnected. Maybe this absurdity also provided us with some safety, humor, distance, and even acceptance of the pandemic. With the lyrics as our stimuli we slowly built a Gadbad Ghotala world where everything was topsy-turvy and within that lay possibility, imagination, play and even a glimmer of hope.
Over 4 weekends, 8 classes and 2 parallel batches, 19 pre-primary children across metropolitan cities logged on to enter this world with us. Each Saturday one of us would dress in-role as Gudgud Gunnu, the storyteller from Gadbad Ghotala land, who would come singing to class on their digital boat. Gunnu wore a necklace with a spoon around their neck and a bowl on their head. They co-created poems with the children (inspired by Hashmi’s lyrics) and rowed them into Gadbad Ghotala land to a recognizable rhythm. Once in the land we would peer close into our cameras and find a story about an object that had transformational powers including Neelu’s Big Box by Nandini Nayar (Tulika Books), Granny’s Sari by Asha Nehemiah (CBT Publication) and Imogene’s Antlers by David Small (Knopf, Borzoi Books).
After reading each story the children would then build a box of their own. This box contained objects like dupattas, papers, stones, hats etc. that could transform in different ways to traverse the obstacles of the Gadbad Ghotala land. In classic process-drama style, Gudgud Gunnu sent the children Whatsapp audio notes and funky visuals (see below) of the objects they had to bring the following week for their adventures.
In the last week Gudgud Gunnu and the children built their own story about all the creatures and objects they had witnessed in Gadbad Ghotala land (see below).
Our workshop design was intentionally scaffolded with drama-based learning pedagogies including teacher-in-role and object theatre to build an elaborate process drama online and offline. In this blog post Mudita, Kanishk and I are going to reflect on elements of the dramatic play that helped us feel most connected to ourselves, to each other and to the children at a time when much around us was spiraling.
All names of the children have been changed to protect their identity.
The Session that Ran Itself
“Pleaseeee can we go to Gadbad Ghotala land!!” Arya whined as soon as I started the warm-up game.
“Yes pleasee will Gunnu be there?” Tarun chimed in.
This was only week 2. The children had only met Gudgud Gunnu twice before this to enter Gadbad Ghotala land. Yet it was very clear that a familiar entrance and guide had been ritualized.
With their growing impatience, Swapnika and I realized that the warm-ups must be hurried. Swapnika dressed as Gudgud Gunnu then put her video off and slowly began to hum the recognizable tune “Kaisa yeh jhaala, ki chaabi mei taala…”
“It’s Gunnu!” Arya shrieked, taking out her box of objects as if preparing for some kind of attack.
Tara meanwhile, took out the dupatta from her box and climbed onto it. “Today I will fly to Gadbad Ghotala land with Gunnu on my magical carpet. Look, my carpet is moving!”
“Yes! I am flying too.” said Arhan as he stood up, his long legs magnified on Zoom for everyone to see.
Island? Black and gold ocean? What was going on? Swapnika put her video on and we looked at each other across our screens. This wasn’t part of our ‘plan’. Gudgud Gunnu usually has them climb onto a boat and then rhythmically rows them into the land. However today the children were already well on their way with tools, vehicles and obstacles that surpassed even our own imagination.
It was then that we knew that we had to step back. The children were building a story on their own and we were just mere players in their fantasy. Infact, when we shared this incident with Mudita and Kanishk from the other batch they reported that some of their children had even invented their own Gadbad Ghotala language which they would use to communicate with each other!
From this session onwards, the children began moving towards facilitating themselves through the Gadbad Ghotala land very quickly. The first two sessions had familiarised them with the main rule of the land: “no object or character is what it appears to be.” This rule was enough for them to collectively evoke and sometimes even hurriedly desire an entrance into this imagined space. They knew that in Gadbad Ghotala land they would be asked to locate objects that could help them navigate conflicts; however the chosen stories and our roles as facilitators were mere guideposts in these navigations. This ‘rush’ to enter the land, create their own language, conflicts and solutions made me question — where is this heightened desire for the make-believe world at such an elaborate scale coming from? What is our role then as participants in their fantasy?
Historian and independent scholar Michele Root-Bernstein defines ‘worldplay’ as the repeated evocation by children of an imagined place (often, but not always) inhabited by imagined people or beings. Overtime, worldplay evolves into a large-scale make-believe reality characterized by imagined systems within some imaginary culture (Berstein, 2009).
What was happening in our sessions felt like the beginning phases of worldplay where children were animating the objects around them and assigning them personalities. According to Bernstein, during these early phases children draw inspiration from places that do not exist — far off islands or alien countries, including creating documents and languages for this pretend world. In The House of Make-Believe, one of the most thorough attempts to study children’s imaginations, the authors write that this attempt at worldplay empowers children with alternatives to social interaction and distraction from boring routines and daily stressors. Worldplay then “serves effective purposes by generating a sense of joy, personal control, and power.”(Singer & Singer, 2009)
Was the childrens’ rush for escape and overt expression of autonomy in Gadbad Ghotala land, their response to the lack of control they sensed in their present lockdown environment?
Interestingly enough, Bernstein’s work also traces the quantitative connections between childhood play and creative immersion of arts and science (Berstein, 2009). According to her study, when children are exposed to novels or video games that build upon fictions or scientific experiments that posit alternate realities, their creative capital and expression of worldplay increases. This made me reflect on the social and structural make-up of our Zoom classroom. Do the childrens’ access to internet and toys propel them to imagine Gadbad Ghotala at the scale and speed at which they can? What are then the limitations of excessive creative materials on a child’s imagination? How can we as facilitators then intentionally work on slowing this process down? And what about children who do not get access to these resources? How does the speed and nature of their alternate realities and creative inspirations differ?
I am now wondering what kind of creative investments Swapnika’s, Mudita’s, Kanishk’s my parents did when we were children that allowed us to even frame the Gadbad Ghotala land as adults today?
The Socioemotional Perspective
The space of a theatre workshop is a reflective space. It provides opportunities for enhancing one’s self-awareness. Irrespective of which side of the screen you engage from, whether as a participant or as a facilitator, the process leaves you enlightened.
Each session of the recently concluded Gadbad Ghotala workshop, meant to be a theatre experience for 5–7 year olds, left me, its co-facilitator, in a euphoric and reflective state of mind.
One of the areas on which I delved in some depth was the socio-emotional takeback for each one of us from the online space of the workshop.
When 2 facilitators and 8 children logged into a Zoom call for the first session, they were strangers to each other. They were visibly tentative in their interactions. Their participation indicated a willingness to give of themselves to each experience, and yet they very easily slipped into their own personal spaces of reticence and disengagement. Slowly but surely, a journey through 8 sessions (that did not total to more than 7 hours in all), saw them traverse the distance between an individual participant to being part of a group. By the concluding session, they had developed close bonds and were eager to take one another on imagined rides on their flying carpets, helicopters etc.
What is it in the facilitation process that helps young children transition from being spectators to invested participants of a workshop?
A closer scrutiny of the process had me introspect on the nature of ‘holding space’ by the facilitators.
For one, a ‘listening space’ was created at the very outset. By setting rituals for speaking and listening and seeing them being honoured by the facilitators too, the children had developed the first level of comfort with the space. Being able to express themselves and feeling acknowledged, helped them open up and participate with abandon.
The next important aspect is the ‘complete acceptance’ shown to each individual. Wherever a participant is, is fine. Each child is encouraged to participate at his/her pace, in a language of choice, using their faculties of expression, imagination and creativity to create magic in the workshop space. A welcoming and accepting space soon transforms itself into an interactive, lively and collaborative space.
“Almost every child has an imagination, an instinct for words, a dramatic faculty, a wealth of idea and fancy……Every child is a lover of interesting narrative…Every child has the gift of imitation and a touch of imaginative power. Use it to give him the groundwork of the faculty of the artist”(Gitanjalee & Sirswal, 2011).
These words by Sri Aurobindo guided us while planning for our workshops with young ones at Aagaaz. By providing interesting literature or a relatable capsule from their lives or stories with real life problems as material to engage with theatrically, the children dig into the depths of their faculties. They get emotionally attached to the characters of the drama and display compassion towards them. When their imaginative and creative powers are called upon in this way, their engagement very easily shifts to top gear and they look forward to each session. So much so that by the last and final session, they are in charge and decide its course, more or less. The facilitators have been relegated to the role of being participants!
The children have safely transitioned into ‘holding space’ that is respectful towards all and inclusive of different thoughts and ideas.
The ultimate takeback for the 10 individuals who met over 8 sessions, not totalling to more than 7 hours!
Reading in between the lines: Reimagining | Re-designing | Recreating
In the corridors, under the table.
Inside this drawer, behind that box.
And so in every corner, hid stories and narratives, echoing across the house and beyond. The only wait was to reach and race to the weekend very quickly, to be able to meet Gudgud Gunnu and voyage like Gulliver into the land of Gadbad Ghotala.
“Is Gudgud Gunnu coming today?”, we all awaited a new story as the week went by, looking forward to the weekend.
This 4 week workshop was a design inspired from the topsy turvey nature of stories and the immense possibilities and scope of play that they give us! The group of 8 students came together under the name of the “Topsy Turvies” group.
A storybook is a crevice to the world of multifaceted narratives and the reader poses their own unique and subjective lens, making the story their very own! The attempt was to magnify the story book, outside the pages of the book to an all surrounding projection, an experiential reading of the book. Thus reading in-between the lines, would become reading, reimagining and envisioning the scope of play around our environment/ room.
The Gadbad Ghotala workshop had rituals and practices that were collectively drawn and were the grounding exercises that the group would commence their day with. We have various types of learners (visual, auditory and kinaesthetic). To journey with all of them and to make the story a holistic experience, our practices and rituals had to utilise one or more than one of our senses. Thus, with sounds that made us groove, to still images that made us into statues we explored, embodied and personified words and sentences collectively and threw light on how Neelu sat on a flat box, how animals ran wild in Granny’s Sari and how Imogene felt stuck her doorway.
Though each of these stories were narrated in English and Hindi, their explorations went beyond the confines of language. Gestures and gibberish became a means of communication. As understood in linguistic theory:
“Pragmatics of language is the study of how language functions in society and how the context surrounding its use dramatically affects its form and the way it is interpreted. ………Pragmatics is an attempt to find and to explain the rules governing the appropriateness of language in various contexts and the changes language takes to accomplish different goals.“ (Morgan, Argiro L, 1989)
The text and images of the story became alive as we embodied them. We surfed the waves of these stories, colouring it with our own language, gestures and expressions, with the attempt to make a book a best friend and the text our own strength. What is said to be “reading in-between the lines”, i.e, to find meanings that are intended but that are not directly expressed in something said or written, became our arena of play, joyful sharing and a world of possibilities.
Our goal was to explore and acknowledge the magic of reimagining and recreating stories around our own isolated environment within our homes as we witnessed the time of isolation during the spread of Covid. Using minimal objects from within our homes, re-defining them through function, shapes, sizes and colour; the group was able to exit their homes and journey to this land that was so personal and curated by their own imagination. The voice of the reader/ participant was the language with which we approached the book. The course of the narrative changed as ideas and thoughts were exchanged amongst each other and a new wave would roar for a journey that the “Topsy Turvey” Group were ready to sail. The book was thus personified by our in-role Gudgud Gunnu. With 8 participants, 2 facilitators and 1 book, we became a team of 11 sharing ideas, re-inventing themes and soaking in our journeys at the end of the week by reading stories, playing games, creating our own language and our own Gadbad objects. Working collectively with each other and hand in hand (even though virtually), the Topsy Turvies as a group, peeked from the crevice and watched themselves create a magical story and a magical land of their own!
As I end my reflections, the words of Aksha ring in my ear,
“Gaangi Gaangi, Gooo Goooo Gaangi, Gilli Gilli, Gaa”
And that has all meaning, all of memory from this workshop and all of language hidden behind it!
Root-Bernstein, Michele. “Imaginary worldplay as an indicator of creative giftedness.” International handbook on giftedness. Springer, Dordrecht, 2009. 599–616.
Singer, Dorothy G., and Jerome L. Singer. The house of make-believe: Children’s play and the developing imagination. Harvard University Press, 2009.
Bora, Gitanjalee, and Desh Raj Sirswal. “Understanding Indian-Value System through Sri Aurobindo‟ s Education System.” The Philosophist 9.18 (2011).
Morgan, Argiro L. Reading Between the Lines of Dialogue in Children’s Books: Using the Pragmatics of Language. Children’s Literature in Education 1989 / 12 Vol. 20; Iss. 4
Akhila is an applied theatre practitioner from Delhi, designing and facilitating theatre-based interventions for corporates, government bodies, non-profits, schools and universities in India and the U.S.
Mudita is a pre-primary teacher with a passion for story narration, currently exploring how to help children expand their capacities in expressing/speaking with their bodies.
Kanishk is an applied arts practitioner, facilitator, and educator who integrates social, emotional, and political fragments through his practice, as he works towards building emancipatory spaces of exploration and learning.
Swapnika is a facilitator and educator, with a special interest in integral education which lays its foundation in experiential learning.