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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 146 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

March 19 , 2004

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Because Some Children do not Laugh Anymore


They 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.

The 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.

Each 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 animation.

Clowns 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.

"Children 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," Rima says.

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," Rima says.

Clown 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 clown continues.

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.

But 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," she affirms.

That 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 of everything.”

Eleven-year-old 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."

Interestingly, 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.

To 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.

Clowns 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.


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