CHENNAI: The red nose is the smallest mask you can wear, says Tim Webster. He puts on his clown’s nose and switches to a sing-song stage voice, before slipping his glasses on again and speaking about social development. Tim’s pink-streaked beard and large pinnochio pants, and Aimee Ingram’s beaded hair and painted nose, draw the attention of curious school children walking along Pallavaram.
The duo is part of the 20 clowns from countries like Australia, Sweden and USA among others, who are part of the group called ‘Humanitarian Clowns’. They are in India for three weeks to bring smiles to those in palliative care units, orphanages and leprosy homes. “You realised the power of humour when you see kids suffering from cancer, without hair or eyebrows, rolling on the floor and laughing,” says Tim, the founder of the Melbourne-based organisation and a cancer survivor himself.
Tim took up clowning after seeing a magician perform at a children’s hospital. He got in touch with American medical doctor and clown Patch Adams, and thus Humanitarian Clowns was born. The group now has a large member base, most of who juggle between daily jobs and clowning for community development.
“Though it is intimidating in the beginning, as soon as you put on the colourful pants, you feel the happiness,” says Aimee, who was a fire-performer before joining Humanitarian Clowns. “We know that clowning cannot cure cancer, but at least it can ease the pain for a while,” says Tim. He recounts an incident where a nine-year-old boy, who had suffered severe burns, was screaming with pain while the doctor changed his dressing.
“We took out the ukulele and started playing it for the boy. He stopped screaming and started listening. Later, the doctor thanked us for distracting the boy,” he says. Aimee recollects another instance when she walked past a girl on a wheelchair, in her costume at Vellore. “The girl turned and looked at me. And all of a sudden, her parents were jumping with joy. It was the first time the girl had turned her neck in 14 months, and I didn’t even do anything,” she says.
The group has been coming to India for three years now, and has a fairly big volunteer base here, with its headquarters in Vellore. “We now have many female volunteers — one third of the total,” says Aimee.
Social media has helped them in a big way in building their base, says Tim. “One guy in India joined us just to able to put up clown pictures of himself on Facebook,” he says. Networking also made it possible for parents to share pictures of their kids after recovery. “Some of them remember us from the previous years and get excited when they see us at the hospital,” adds Tim.
Like most art clowning needs no language. Though this group is not often recognised as artistes, they move across borders bringing smiles and raising funds along the way.