Nehal Hardik Thakkar
Research Scholar, K.E.T’s V.G.Vaze College
In India, a lot of pressure is imposed on children for performing better than others in the examination. For many, the parents decide which career they should opt as they are considered incapable ofmaking decisions for themselves. Children are given no individual space and their issues remain socially invisible. Does literature give space and visibility to these invisible issues? Does it empower the ones who contest for their individual space in society? Does theatre act as heterotopia? Are Indian homes and educational spaces panoptic? Does GRIPS theatre give space and visibility to children’s concerns? This paper seeks to answer these questions with reference to the play The Boy Who Stopped Smiling by Ramu Ramanathan, which deals with issues faced by students in India. This paper aims to analyse this play from the point of view of spatial theory and invisibility studies. Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, his discussion on panopticonand Francoise Král’s social invisibility theoryare applied to the play in order to achieve the objective of the paper.
Keywords : GRIPS Theatre, Heterotopia,Panoptic Space, Social Invisibility, Spatial Theory.
In India, children are considered incapable of taking decisions for themselves. There is always an authority above them which monitors their behaviour. The education system and parents arethe decision makers for them. Childrenare rendered invisible beings with no space of their own. In the 21st century, this section of society has begun to contest for its own individual space. RamuRamanathan, a contemporary Indian English playwright, is known for his political plays that deal with issues of contemporary Indians. His play The Boy Who Stopped Smiling belongs to the GRIPS theatre category and deals with issues faced by students in contemporary India. The paper seeks to analyse this play with the help of Michel Foucault’s spatial conceptsand Francoise Král’sinvisibility theory.It aims to find out whether GRIPS theatre offers space and visibility to the issues of children.
GRIPS theatre originated in Germany and was founded by Volker Ludwig. Gradually, it spread to other countries, including India.“Almost 30 years ago, Mohan Agashe was responsible for introducing GRIPS theatre in India” (Kapoor). ShrirangGodbole along with Mohan Aghase started the GRIPS movement in Pune city and had also held a workshop to celebrate completion of 25 years of GRIPS theatre in the year 2011. Some GRIPS theatre plays which were screened during the workshop include “ChaanChoteWaitta Mothe, Nakore Baba, Amhi Gharache Raje, PahilePaan, Pan Amhala Khelaychey, Hashh Hushh !Thaal Thushh” (Express News Service). About the history of GRIPS in India, ShrutiNambiar writes, “The legendary Berlin-based children and youth theatre,whose name in German dialect means ‘brainy’ or ‘common sense’,landed on the Indian shores in 1986. Due to the active support of Maharashtra Cultural Centre,Theatre Academy,Max Mueller Bhavan and actor,Dr Mohan Agashe,GRIPS has happily chugged across 12 plays and close to 3,000 productions in its 25-year-long journey in India” (Nambiar). She further remarks that “Chaan Chote Vaitt Mothe is the first play that GRIPS had showcased in 1986”. Today actor Vibhavari Deshpande is “one of the younger flag-bearers of GRIPS” (Nambiar). Lakshmi Chandra notes “the GRIPS originated in Germany and is an offshoot of the Youth Movement, which swept the world in the seventies” (xiv). She further elaborates that GRIPS is based on “the ideology of opposition and the importance of questioning grown-ups, elders and the status quo”(xiv). According to her, GRIPS plays were not ‘traditional’ children’s plays with fairy tales and dream-world” (xiv).
An article on IHS Blog remarks that Ramunathan’s play The Boy Who Stopped Smiling belongs to the category of GRIPS theatre. In it, adult actors play children’s roles. It is a contemporary realistic theatre which deals with real-life issues faced by children and adolescents. This theatre brings out problems faced by children and youngsters and thus provides “a platform to open dialogue that could lead to emancipation of youth and sociocultural evolvement and enlightenment” (“Night of Theatre”). The play “tackles a theme all too familiar to students – an insensitive society and pressurising parents who fail to understand the psyche and pulse of the younger generation”.In the play, “Ramu stresses on the importance of asking the question ‘Why?’” (Chandra xiv). The play’s characterMallikakeeps questioning why things are the way they are and she does this “with great elan”. The paper aims to discuss Ramanathan’s play which belongs to the GRIPStheatre category and analyses it through the lens of spatial and invisibility theories.
In Spatiality theory, space and place are two different concepts with different meanings. While place is tangible, space is abstract. Place is the real space, whereas space as a concept is perceived or conquering space. The paper analyses both place and space depicted in the Ramanathan’splay, however, the focus is more on space. A play depicts real space on an imaginary platform. Thus, theatrical space can be called thirdspace, which falls between the real space and imagined space. Two terms,heterotopia and panoptic space, are employed in the paper thereby analysing whether theatre space can make invisible issues visible. Michel Foucault, one of the initiators of the literary spatial turn of the 20th century, in his bookDiscipline and Punish:The Birth of the Prison,suggested that the panopticon“is polyvalent in its applications; it serves to reform prisoners, but also to treat patients, to instruct schoolchildren, to confine the insane, to supervise workers, to put beggars and idlers to work” (205). In “Of Other Spaces”, heproposed a new concept, heterotopia, and explained that:
There are also, probably in every culture, every civilization, real places – places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society – which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their own locality in reality.(3)
In his paper, Iwan Sudradjat notes that the heterotopia is etymologically linked to another more familiar term, “Utopia”, which Foucault cites as a theoretical counterpart to the heterotopia (29). Thus, from the definition of heterotopia, theatre can act as heterotopia by giving visibility to those contesting for their space. The paper examines how the play can act as heterotopia and analyses the panoptic spaces in Indian society.
Firstly, to look at the play from geocritical and spatial point of view, it is important to note that like Ramanathan’s other plays, this play is also set in contemporary Mumbai. Though Mumbaicity is not physically depicted on stage, it is discussed and described by the characters in their dialogues. In Act 1 Scene 2, the protagonist, Malhar, mentions names of real places in Mumbai city like Sewri, Churchgate, Mazgaon. He also describes the history of the city. The play however doesn’t stop at discussingphysicalaspects of the city. Its main motive is to look at the panoptic spaces in Indian society and the visibility given to children’s concerns. The play, as a thirdspace, depicts the attitude of people residing in the city. It gives a psychological framework of parents in the city and its educational system. It shows how Indian homes and the education system become panoptic spaces while the theatre functions as heterotopia. The paper focuses on the different spaces than on place in the play.
While Indian homes and educational spaces represent panoptic spaces trying to control the behaviour of children, there also exists heterotopias like theatre, especially GRIPStheatre and different institutions like art schools which promote individuality in children. These heterotopias are places which support children’s contest for individual space. The controlling behaviour of Malhar’s parents in the play represent panoptic Indian homes and the play allowing children to express their point of view about this environment shows how theatre can act as a heterotopia, a counter site.The play makes children’s concerns visible through the story of a young boy, Malhar, who is considered different from other children.His dream is perceived as unrealistic by others. Though he is good at mathematics, his real joy lies in playing chess. In fact, heenvisions to defeat VishwanathanAnand, the Indian chesschampion. However, his parents have different plans for him. They want him to forget this unrealistic dream and to focus only on his studies so that he can have a secured career in future. They want to bind him to the chains of education and conform to societal norms for children. They fail to understand his passion for chess. Malhar being a rebel cannot tolerate this suppression and reaches a stage where he stops smiling. Due to constant nagging by his parents, Malharbehaves weirdly and has not smiled since the past six months.He has stopped eating and speaks illogically. No one understands what he is talking, not even his parents. The only thing he likes is playing chess. He is so much obsessed with the game that he puts the chess board in the fridge.His parents want him to behave like otherchildren and study encyclopaedias and mathematics. Thus, the play is a fictional representation of the reality that exists in contemporary India. Many children like Malhar who have a liking for an uncommon activity are considered as abnormal or foolish. Parents measure the success of their child only through report cards. However, the actual progress lies in development of the unique skill and talent that each child possesses. The play opens doors for a new thought that motivates parents to encourage their children’s unique talents. Itaims to change themind set of parents, schools and the ministry that sets the syllabus of education. The stage itself, where the play is enacted, serves as a thirdspace to children’s issues and as a heterotopia it depicts contesting children who want to free themselves from the panoptic environment of homes and schools.The playwright has aptly used stage space to highlight the need to give space to children. “The stage space is defined into four zones: indoor, outdoor, family space and Malhar’s space” (Ramanathan 61). Thus, the play is an attempt to give space to children like Malharand make their issues visible. Malhar represents all the children in India who are pressurised by their parents and the educational system to choose a career like doctor, MBA or engineering. His not smiling is a representation of anger of today’s generation for being suppressed. The play gives voice to these suppressed voices. Malhar runs away from home without telling anyone and goes to participate in a game ofchess against VishwanathanAnand, the chess Grandmaster in India. Like Malhar, even his sister Mallika feels that elders are complex. They call their parents as Enemy Camp. They dislike their parents as they are very strict and impose lot of restrictions. They find Ashwini’smother better as she “goes to work and never troubles her”(Ramanathan114).“Ashwini can watch TV. Eat chocolates. Play video games. Do anything at home, all the time” (114).Mallika says that “Papa and Momma are Big Bullies” (114).She dislikes it when she is asked by her mother to recitea poem in front of Dr.Bhuskute and that her mother wants her to become a doctor. Though a child, she makes an important comment that parents also can go wrong. “They must also be doing some gadbad at work. Not doing their homework, properly” (115). The play puts forth a question to the audience whether the adults scold themselves when they go wrong? If not, then should they punish their own children when they make mistakes? Following the principles of GRIPS theatre, the play depicts exchange of roles of the characters. In the middle part of the play, parents are made to act like children and children act like elders. This is to make the parents in the audience realise how they mistreat their children even for the smallest of mistakes.Thus, the play depicts how Malhar contests for his individual space and how theatre functions as heterotopia.
The paper also seeks to analyse the play through the lens of another theory named the invisibility studies, which has gained prominence in the mid-20thcentury. In her book Social Invisibility and Diasporas in Anglophone Literature and Culture: The Fractal Gaze, Francoise Král hasexplained that social invisibility is the “lack of visibility of given marginal social groups” (1). Dr.Nilakshi Roy in her paper, “Seeing is Not Believing: Social Invisibility in Salaam Bombay”, discusses on how the film depicts invisibilsation of children and their labour in the city of Mumbai. Invisibility theory can also be applied to children’s concerns like parental pressure, unnecessary competition, lack of individual space and no freedom to decide for themselves. These issues have remained socially invisible.The play looks at invisible issues of Indian education system and its impact on children. English language was introduced to Indian education curriculum during colonisation, and the Utilitarian concept of rote learning was highlighted as the best method. This impacted the education system in the country negatively, resulting in a focus on memory-based learning which has its own perils. Instead of encouraging students togain knowledge, it only misleads young minds towardsunnecessary competition. Parents expect their children to score better than others. This subjects children to undue pressure and takes away any possible space to express their own creativity and latent talent. “With all its insistence of rote learning our educational system misses out on this essential ingredient of childhood, of learning more about the world around us” (Chandra xiv).Competition in education is another invisible issue that the play deals with. In the play under discussion, Father comments that “In these days of competition, one has to prepare for everything. Poems and all”(Ramanathan101). Parents expect their children to excel in studies and to recite poems and show others how clever they are. Such kind of pressure has, in the long run, led to many suicidal cases in reality. Malhar finds the controlling behaviour of his parents suffocating. He runs away from home to participate in a game of chess with VishwanathanAnand. The play warns parents of consequences of over-pressuring children. Thus, the play makes invisible issues of children visible.
The play gives voice to the silenced issues of children. It is sarcastic about the behaviour of adults, however, one character in the play, which is the character of Dr.Bhuskute, becomes the voice of the playwright who wants parents to understand children’s psychology. Dr.Bhuskute asks Malhar’s parents to understand that “every child is special” and to not “compare one with the other” (Ramanathan105). His suggestions to Malhar’s parents are actually an important messageto the audience. He says that “Parenting is the most difficult job on earth. Almost everybody does it. But nobody knows how it is to be done” (105). He not only supports Malhar for his liking for chess, but also informs themabout the draw between Malharand Vishwanathan Anand. He tells them that Malhar“has done you proud” (124). Hemakes them realise their mistakes and explains them the true reason behind Malhar’snot smiling. He narrates to them how Malhar smiled afterVishwanathanAnand spoke to Malhar at length for 10 minutes. Malhar was seen as anabnormal child by everyone, including his parents. Only Dr.Bhuskute saw the genius lying in him and even convinced Malhar’s parents about it. In the end of the play, he makes an important point that “The parents obviously love their children” but by pressuring children they can make “mistakes that cannot be rectified” (128). The play puts forth an important message for all the parents that “The parents will have to find the right balance in bringing up their children, properly” (128).
From the above analysis and discussion, one can conclude that GRIPS theatre plays like Boy Who Stopped Smiling function as a heterotopiaand becomea Third Space for children’s invisible issues.Through the story of Malhar, it puts light on the need for a change in the panoptic nature of Indian parenting and the educational system.
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