Because Some Children do not Laugh Anymore
travel across the world to make the children laugh.
Over a decade of its existence, performers of Clowns
sans Frontières (CSF) has “shared millions of
laughter" with the children of as many as 16 countries.
Last week a group of performers of CSF came to Bangladesh
and staged over 15 shows mainly for children who are
deprived of their childhood by sheer poverty and social
stigma. Star Weekend Magazine finds out how these performers
use the language of laughter as a respite for children
in a world full of war and hunger.
idea of organising performances for children across
the world first came to the Spanish "clown"
Tortell Poltrona's mind. The plan was to organise various
performances benefiting children who are victims of
war, social exclusion and poverty.
Poltrona discussed it with his French
clown friend Antonin Maurel. A joint Franco-Spanish
expedition-- with Poltrona's Payasos sin Fronteras and
Maurel's troops-- in the refugee camps of war ravaged
Croatia was held in December 1993. And about a month
after that, in January 1994, Clowns sans Frontières
was formed in Paris.
time a short-lived company of 6 to 12 artists is formed
with acrobats, trapeze artists, jugglers, comedians,
clowns, magicians, puppeteers and musicians. The artists
leave their stages for two or three weeks to perform
voluntarily in forgotten places, where there is no cultural
sans Frontières' only full-time member is its
administrator-coordinator Rima Abdul-Malak. Before joining
the Clowns in 2001, Rima used to work with the Culture
and Free-thought Organisation, a Palestinian NGO, in
Gaza. But it was not her experience in the Palestinian
refugee camps that influenced her most to join the CSF.
"I was brought up in Lebanon as a child. All through
my childhood I saw the civil war…Friends, brothers,
neighbours killing each other. We had no recreation,
no amusement; we had only a television, and the power
used to fluctuate," she says.
become adults so fast, so quickly when they live in
a country caught in the grip of war, poverty and famine.
They had to deal with things like the adults,"
she continues. It was only when 11-year-old Rima came
to France that she realised what had been missing from
her childhood. "The cinema…the theatre…I thought
all children should have it, all over the world,"
Though, CSF's work is solely meant for
children, Rima believes adults can also be benefited
from their work. "It is important for adults to
become children again. We need to be children again;
children do not wage wars. Laughter, fear, wow, amazement--
I didn't know these emotions when I was in Lebanon,"
Joe de Paul has a different story to narrate. Joe has
joined the group only this year; he believes while helping
the children develop their imagination, the artists,
in return, learn a lot from the children. "It gives
you a chance to think about your social responsibilities,"
he says. "It is very important for an artist to
know the world around him, and the duties and responsibilities
that it demands from a performer," the 35-year-old
For the children at the Correction Centre
in Tongi, March 6 is the day they will not forget for
the rest of their lives. A general strike had been called
that day by the main opposition; and the Clowns left
their hotel for the Centre to stage a show even before
dawn. When they reached the "jail", guards,
according to Rima, told the clowns that most of the
children were rowdy and violent.
after the Clowns started their performance it was a
different story altogether. "Instead, we discovered
them to be friendly; in fact they were eager to play
with us. I found a bond of trust among themselves, and
there was a newly developed trust between us and them,"
Rima says. "Laughter and fun cannot change the
society, but it helps in opening up the mental space,"
day, CSF organised a workshop later in the evening at
the Correction Centre. "We taught them how to do
acrobatics, how to juggle and so on," Joe says.
As soon as the workshop began the clowns saw a new face
of the children. "They don't know even how to write
their names; they don't even get the least bit of attention
from the society that they live in. But all of a sudden
a group of clowns have come to entertain them,"
Rima says, "After living lives of social pariahs
for years, they suddenly realised that they have some
reasons to live for. That the prison is not the end
Shabuj (not his real name), an inmate at the Correction
Centre, too, agrees with Rima. "I didn't know that
so much fun ever existed in life," he says. "For
the first time in my life, I felt as if I had been given
the option to rediscover myself," he continues.
The show and the workshop, Shabuj thinks, have given
him the resolve to fight back.
"Another child told me after the
show, 'It (the show) made me feel I have to fight back,
I have to be strong. I will fight life to the fullest
after I finish my term here'," Rima says. "It
didn't change his life, he will be in prison for a while,"
she continues, " but we have certainly changed
their way of seeing life."
while preparing for the show in Paris, the clowns were
anxious, and at times sceptical, about the tour's success.
"Before coming to Bangladesh, while planning for
the shows, we used to ask ourselves whether the children
here would understand our performance or not,"
Joe says; moreover, most of the clowns do not even speak
English, let alone Bangla. But, Joe believes the language
of art and the power of laughter go beyond the boundaries
of word and culture.
run its activities, Clowns sans Frontières primarily
relies on individual donations. The group also stages
shows and sells T-shirts to raise money. A CD titled
En piste, with a song specially composed by French singer
M, is in the market now. In December last year the Clowns
published a book (Clowns sans Frontières, j'ai
10 ans) for the benefit of the association. Besides,
as a French NGO, the organisation also gets financial
aid from the Ministry of Culture, French Association
for Artistic Action and the Ministry of Youth and Sports.
sans Frontières' performances are, in fact, absurd
in nature. Interestingly children and adults suffering
traumatic experiences can relate CSF's absurdity to
their own lives. The power of laughter-- laid beneath
absurdity-- in most of the cases, show the exploited
how to fight life to the fullest. From the slum dwellers
of Guatemala to the street-children of Dhaka, the Clowns
through their antics have been able to generate a thirst
for life. The uniqueness of Clowns sans Frontières
is its universal appeal. "We bring hope and joy
to the downtrodden. These are intangible things, you
won't be able to quantify our activities," Rima
says with a smile.