NSPA Theatre Workshop: What Children teach you about your Adult Self

December 18th, 2015

This Monday, I made my way to yet another NSPA Art Literacy session, being held in a cubbyhole classroom in Dahisar. The NGO we were conducting the session for was ‘Touching Lives’ an organization striving to empower and educate children living in slum areas in Mumbai. Having had attended a couple of Art Literacy sessions before, I was smart enough to ready myself for the burst of commotion and untameable exuberance I knew I would be pummelled with as soon as I entered the classroom.  However, when it comes to children, there’s no such thing as being “well prepared” and ten minutes into the session, I knew I had grossly underestimated the energy threshold of childhood.

(If you’d like to know more about the NGO Touching Lives and the work it does, visit their website: Touching Lives )

The principle reason behind this surge in excitement was the subject being explored in the hour-long session – the Navarasas or the 9 emotions expressed by a performer and experienced by an audience during a theatrical performance. Already fans of exaggerated expression, this session provided the little ones with a golden opportunity to pull all the faces they wanted too; tongue out, big eyes, comical frown, exaggerated scowl, it was like a stopper had been pulled out and expressions were running amuck on faces! The other reason behind the surge in laughter levels was the antics of the person conducting the session – Debanshu Shekhar, a trained NSPA artist gifted with not just tremendous acting skills and the ability to turn into a perfect clown when needed. Put these two talents together and you end up with one riot of an Art Literacy session!


This, is Debanshu Shekhar. And yes, he insists on keeping his glares hung on like that.

The session began with a game that required the children to say ‘laddu’ at every third multiple of the number 3. So, a person should say ‘laddu’ instead of the numbers 9, 18, 27 and so forth. Since the game seemed quite unrelated to theatre, I asked Debanshu for his motive behind opening his session with such a game. He told me it’s to get the children to focus on the present, that by having to mentally calculate numbers and remember when to say the word ‘laddu’ the children are forced to invest all their attention in the game and this causes them to disengage from the other thoughts running through their minds. Given my personal struggles with the subject and the fact that the mere mention of the word ‘maths’ can make the happiest of thoughts evaporate, I thought this was quite a fitting way to get a child’s attention.

After a couple of minutes of playing, much teasing and the usual outbursts of inexplicable giggling, the game came to an end and Debanshu moved on to the next part of the session – introducing the concept of the ‘Navarasas’ to the motley bunch sitting in front of him. He started off with the more familiar ones like happiness, sadness, anger, fear and gradually moved on to the more complex ones like disgust, wonder, compassion, tranquillity, heroism (which he introduced by asking the kids to guess the title of the Salman Khan movie that expresses the emotion – Veer, anyone?) and love (much, much giggling here.) The introduction of each emotion was followed by a convincing enactment of it, performed by Debanshu and imitated by the children. After running through all nine emotions, it was time to move on to the next part of the session – a bit of ‘serious acting.’


Debanshu uses my shawl as a dupatta and quickly transforms into a nagging mother who’s fed up of having to clean up after everyone.



This little boy was a little too inspired by Bollywood cinema.

Serious because no matter the emotion Debanshu enacted, the children had to keep a straight face and respond to anything he said in a calm, composed manner. This seemed to be quite a task for the little ones. As an adult who has probably mastered the art of masking emotions and keeping a straight face, I couldn’t see why this was proving to be so difficult. The first response most children had to anything done was to burst into a fit of giggling. Then there were witty retorts, some brutally honest (one little girl informed Debanshu that she didn’t answer because she couldn’t understand his question and therefore, he should speak properly) some irritated (one boy pointed out that the response he was asked to make was nonsensical as it didn’t fit the situation) and some comical. All in all, most were a far cry away from poker-faced perfection. This went on for about 20 minutes and soon, it was time for the session to come to a close.




As you can see, keeping a straight face is no easy feat for these little ones.

As Debanshu extricated himself from the bunch of doting children, waving his goodbyes and promising to be back soon, I mused over all I had seen. The session proved to be quite insightful for me, teaching me not just about the Navarasas, but also about the openness of childhood, something I felt ages away from. For children, expressiveness comes easily. They’re feelings are plastered on their face, and they feel no shame in letting you know exactly how they feel. As we grow older, and supposedly wiser, we train ourselves to mask. It starts off with feelings, but then, often unknowingly, it moves on to opinions, beliefs and values that matter to us. We try hard to hide our raw, unceremonious selves and the sad fact is that most of us succeed in this endeavour. Years later, fed up with being just ‘one among the crowd,’ we seek to find ourselves, through books, art, meaningful cinema, theatre and we marvel at and are inspired by an artist’s ability to think and express. We still don’t realize that the artist could have been ourselves, if only we hadn’t mastered the art of masking.


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