Multi-coloured wigs, a round red nose, and colourful ensembles paired with a jubilant smile have for long been associated with clowns at parties and circus acts. So, when you see them prancing in spaces with stark white walls and a pungent smell of disinfectant, you're sure to give them a second glance.
Practising the art of medical clowning, the Clownselors, a Delhi-based non-profit organisation founded by Sheetal Agarwal (35) in 2016, is on their way to heal with laughter. Taking inspiration from the saying 'laughter is the best kind of medicine', this volunteer-based group engages with hospital patients and citizens. They use stories and games to improve the mental and physical well-being of these patients.
Medical clowning is believed to be introduced by American doctor Patch Adams who would put on a red nose while working in hospitals. Adams was of the understanding that humour and laughter creates an atmosphere of trust and love between hospital staff and patients.
This concept of "giving purpose to a smile" resonated with Agarwal. She quit her job as an anthropology professor at Amity University, Noida, to become a full-time 'clownselor' in 2018.
Talking about the benefits of medical clowning, she says, "I could see that it was having a positive impact on both the patients and caregivers. I wanted to take forward this vision of sharing more smiles and make clowning a part of the country’s healthcare set-up."
The Clownselors operate on the idea that hospitals do not need to be a gloomy space. They interact with the patients through a series of acts that include miming, storytelling, magic tricks, and puppetry.
Helping with humour
The organisation, which began its journey at Chacha Nehru Bal Chikitsalaya at Geeta Colony, now spreads their infectious laughter to villages in Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. During the second wave of COVID-19, these medical jesters were also invited by the Meghalaya Government to clown around at COVID wards in Shillong’s North Eastern Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health & Medical Sciences.
"The mental health of hospitalised patients is usually not taken care of. Our primary focus is to cater to the mental well-being of these patients and show how laughing can help in one's healing process. I have seen patients with terminal diseases who have lost all hope. With Clownselors, we just try to bring some positivity into their lives," Agarwal says.
Although not as popular as it is in the West, this innovation is slowly gaining momentum in India.
25-year-old Vijay Sehrawat, a documentary filmmaker from Alipur, North Delhi, who often volunteers with Clownselors, says, "This is a thriving endeavour. It not only helps me connect with myself but also with others in my surroundings."
The Clownselors are, therefore, a unique bunch of people creating social change, one act at a time.