Ranga Shankara's AHA! festival: Bridging the cultural gap for Indian children

This week, Ranga Shankara’s annual theatre festival is bringing seven plays from across the globe, each designed to help young audiences make sense of the world.
Still from the play A Hat Seller’s Tale (Sri Lanka)
Still from the play A Hat Seller’s Tale (Sri Lanka)File Photo

BENGALURU: Children possess boundless curiosity about the world. During those precious formative years, life is a canvas of wonder and amazement, where every experience is absorbed like a sponge, shaping their future interests and outlook.

Research suggests a correlation between early exposure to fine arts and culture and the remarkable success of actors in Hollywood. In India, however, there is a lack of cultural education and activities for children. For the past decade and a half, Ranga Shankara has been working to bridge this gap with its annual AHA! International Theatre for Children Festival.

“We have such a huge population, but there’s very little being made for children. We often create one-size-fits-all content and call it children’s films or plays, but they don’t truly address issues that help children understand life, shape their personalities, or deal with truth and untruth.

I got to see such plays when I was young, and when I went to Germany, I saw festivals dedicated to children and realised that India was woefully lacking in this area. If we invest in children today, we will have cultured adults tomorrow,” notes actor-thespian and co-founder of Ranga Shankara, Arundhati Nag. “We were convinced that we needed to create plays with content that children can understand. It is theatre for children, not by children.”

Still from the play Petitpas and Me (Switzerland)
Still from the play Petitpas and Me (Switzerland)File Photo

The festival’s curated list of plays this year promises to be as thought-provoking as ever. “The Korean productions are interesting because they come with traditional imagery and great technical finesse. Then we have the German play Spiel Im Spiel, directed by Jaren Oran, that explores the concept of play – when it begins, when it changes, and how children transition from one game to another,” Nag shares. Another play addresses gender issues. “Are we doing the right thing by colour-coding and thinking pink for girls and blue for boys? These concepts should be introduced early, not just when they reach their teens,” Nag emphasises.

The festival started with themes addressing issues faced by children from different economic strata, such as dealing with violence at home or parents telling lies. Since then, the festival has evolved significantly over the years. “Children love anything because they are such an open audience. It has been a learning curve educating parents because they never experienced something like this when they were children. Even the parents take home a message about their child’s capacity to understand life,” shares Nag.

The veteran actor says that it isn’t easy to do theatre dedicated to children and requires a deep understanding of the needs of young audiences. “It demands an understanding of child psychology, pedagogy, and dramaturgy. It’s important for schools to create opportunities for children to participate in theatre, but productions based on fairy tales can’t be the only experience we provide. We also need to address reality. Art is the distilled essence of any civilisation, and we must provide it to our youth if we want a civilised world. If children are not taught to respect art, we are failing them,” adds Nag.

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