The joy of Aagaaz’s Khwab Ghar reaches you right as you walk in through those brown doors in Nizamuddin, swarming around you as you climb up the flight of stairs and find a pile of shoes (ranging from extremely tiny to a men’s size 10) waiting in a heap outside Khwab Ghar. You leave your sneakers and your worries in this heap and enter the corridor, grinning at the glimpses of playful glee (from both children and adults) you spot through the windows and the colourful books covering up every empty wall. Jasmine or Ismail or Subu or Nagina or Aslam or any one of the wonderful team members at Aagaaz hurriedly pass you in the corridor, probably completing one of the many tasks they do at this organization — but not before they flash you the biggest smile and make sure you’re okay. And then, someone else invites you to lunch with the team, and before you know it, you’re sitting on a little mattress in the office and munching on some delicious chole-chaawal while laughing about the latest antics of one of Aagaaz’s kids. It’s been about ten minutes, but it already feels like home.
When planning my summer research project on theatre-in-education in India, I reached out to my high school theatre teacher for recommendations on organizations to visit. First on his list was Aagaaz. He called it “some of the best community theatre work (he) has ever seen”. After having visited Khwab Ghar for a short, but impactful, period, I couldn’t agree more. Aagaaz’s focus on storytelling and community is grounded within the physical space it occupies, both as Khwab Ghar and within the larger context of Nizamuddin. In my interview with him, Ismail shared how kids in the community would see the Aagaaz group rehearsing in a nearby park during Covid, come closer out of curiosity, and eventually end up telling the didis and bhaiyas that they wanted to do theatre too! In my research so far, I had seen children’s theatre organizations have various priorities: some valued level of artistry and production, some valued life or socioemotional skills, and others focused on providing artistic opportunities for children. Aagaaz too has its own set of values that is a part of every organizational decision; however, what sets it apart is its establishment of a reliable physical safe space for the kids it works for. Khwab Ghar is a place where every child can be comfortable — where they are encouraged to run around and read books and express themselves and dream. Aagaaz’s consistent work in Nizamuddin has made the organization a dependable part of the community, especially now that so many of its facilitators are former participants in the program themselves. Sanyukta remarked that the presence of these facilitators exemplifies to both older and younger generations of the community that there isn’t just one way to exist as an adult — and that the cycles of early marriage and violence can be broken. After all, who better to model strong community values than didis and bhaiyas that have grown up in the same context as you?
I was lucky enough to be in Delhi when the Khwab Ghar Festival took place, and I jumped at the opportunity to volunteer. At this point, my research engagement with Aagaaz was over, but I was simply too excited at the chance to hang out with Aagaaz’s fabulous team, and their brilliant kids, just one more time. And I am so glad I did. Spending three hours on a terrace in the Delhi afternoon sun may not initially seem like the most appealing idea; however, I promise you that setting up chairs with Saddam and Sanyukta, sharing a plate of pakodas with Shivaani and Ismail, and taking selfies with Zainab and Nagma are probably some of the best ways to spend a weekend. The warmth, care, and skill of Aagaaz’s team of artist-facilitators was, in my opinion, its crown jewel. That is why the kids keep coming back for more — and visitors like me do too.
Watching Aagaaz’s kids perform songs, mimes, and skits in front of a packed audience of their families, friends of Aagaaz, and theatre professionals — followed by glimpses of Project Rihla by the facilitator team — left me in awe of how much talent, confidence, and joy this community brought to the art of theatre. As the sun set on the Khwab Ghar terrace and the Khwab Ghar festival, I said my goodbyes to Aagaaz, basking in the warmth of all the hugs I received from the team and the kids as I travelled back home.
In one of my observations with the early childhood class at Aagaaz, I had met Ali: a cheerful four-year-old who casually remarked that he would grow up to be “a doctor and a policeman and Thor and Batman.” As I watched him play with the doctor playset in Khwab Ghar and — five minutes later — play the role of a tree in a skit about deforestation, I realized how powerful it is to simply let a child read and think and dream; and, subsequently, provide a space where those dreams are free to live and develop and manifest — -and someday, turn into reality.
Aashna Rai is a theatre artiste, musician, and researcher pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre and Psychology at Northwestern University, Illinois. A graduate of UWC Mahindra College in Pune, India, she is interested in the intersections of arts education and equity, social justice, child development, diversity, and accessibility.
Aashna’s research study, conducted through the Office of Undergraduate Research at Northwestern, examines the ways in which Theatre in Education (TIE) can be incorporated into Indian educational curriculum, along with determining useful strategies and historical barriers to the inclusion of theatre education into daily school classes. Aagaaz’s model was one of the programs examined to learn how to make TIE more viable, accessible, and diverse as an educational endeavour in India.