Chennai’s very own Patch Adams-es use make-believe and magic tricks to help in the healing of sick children at The Government Hospital for Children
The atmosphere in a placid hospital ward, housing sick children and anxious parents, betrayed the restlessness of its inhabitants longing to leave. The quintessential smell of disinfectant was punctuated with the occasional cries of distressed children. Five-year-old Sarika, who had been in the hospital for four days due to fever and fits, did not know when she would be allowed to leave. Her mother, Malini, sat next to her, worry wrinkling her forehead. Parents who shared the same plight, huddled together and lamented to one another. “People with really small children need some encouragement to keep their spirits up,” sighed Malini.
Suddenly Sarika turned around. A cacophonous crowd, sporting bulbous red noses, wizard cloaks paired with summer hats, and pink stethoscopes made of plastic, had caught her attention. A bright burst of colour and energy, they made the entire ward take notice of their antics. They pushed and pulled each other, performed magic acts, and cackled with such infectious energy that it rustled up the room, and got everyone in it giggling too.
“Sometimes, the gags are so ridiculous that getting people to participate itself requires them to loosen up. Kids love it when you trip, fall and ram into things,” grinned Krishnakumar Balasubramanian (KK), creative director, The Little Theatre.
Welcome to The Little Theatre’s hospital clowning program at the Government Hospital for Children in Egmore, Chennai. A three-year-old bi-weekly volunteer outreach initiative, the program was born out of a 12-day Medical Clown Course helmed by Hilary Chaplin, a master trainer from New York in April 2015. “When Hilary taught us clowning, it was a westernised approach. In the last couple of years, we have found that Indians are able to relate to it better when we tone things down, in terms of costume and make up, because clowning is not inherent to our culture. This is also why we haven’t explored it as a means of healing,” explained KK.
“If the children are experiencing some pain, we use magic tricks to help them believe that they have the power to help themselves heal and feel better,” said Vikas Rao, a choreographer and clown.
Egypt Dinesh, a theatre artiste who has been part of this program since its inception, explained that sometimes, kids are unwilling to engage with them. “We play with the parents in that case, and ease the child into interacting with us,” said Dinesh.
The purpose of clowning, in its essence, is to make sick kids believe that there is magic in their laughter, and the laughter of their loved ones, which will help them heal. “In hospitals, children are constantly told they are unwell. Every game that we play – using storytelling, slapstick, improvisation, magic tricks, make believe and mime – is weaved around giving a sense of physical and psychological control back to the kids. We interact with a kid only after he says the ‘magic words’ to allow us into his personal space – it all reinforces the idea that the child has the power to control what happens to him and around him,” explained KK.
In a 1998 publication, Dr Patch Adams, an American physician and the architect of hospital clowning, wrote, “Even in the sophisticated hospitals of this nation (America), patients suffer from afflictions that cannot be relieved by technology or pharmacology. For those patients, compassion and creativity in any form should be called into play.” Patch Adams, who was introduced in pop culture when Robin Williams essayed his life in the 1998 eponymous comedy-drama film, started being a hospital clown in the 1970s. Since then, hospital clowns and clown doctors have mushroomed across the world to look after the psycho-social needs of hospitalised children, and sometimes, adults.
“Hospital clowning is for doctors, nurses and parents as well. Parents are tense because of anxiety about their child’s health and financial consequences of the same. When you are that desperate, and at the brink of your mental sanity, you regress to a childlike state of helplessness. What we do is bring hope,” said KK.
But, it is not always easy to penetrate the anxiety, distress and sorrow that prevails in a children’s hospital ward. One woman, who sat mournfully next to an ailing child, only managed a half-hearted smile at the clowns, even as her eyes brimmed with tears. “I want to laugh. But what to do? I’m just too sad,” she offered by way of explanation.
Before entering a ward, the clowns check which side houses children in serious conditions, usually hooked to cardiac monitors, and where the kids are more able to interact and be amused. “There is no concrete evidence about the impact of such activities, but we see that positive energy can go a long way in healing,” said Mohamad Althaf, a post graduate resident at the paediatric hospital, after witnessing the clowning program for the first time. Even as children with oxygen masks sat on their haunches and looked at the clowns with amused interest, he added, “We have kids here with simple fevers to life threatening illnesses. Psychologically, when a child is surrounded by illness, some time where they can have fun and laugh goes a long way in giving them some respite.”
A report pertaining to The Medical Council of India, submitted to the Rajya Sabha in 2016, stated that the doctor-patient ratio in India is 1:1674 as against the WHO (World Health Organisation) norm of 1:1000. “It is not practical to expect an emphasis on humanistic approaches towards patients in a country where there is an influx of sick people everyday. We need no-nonsense doctors to treat the massive crowds, but we also need to look at alternative approaches to healing. Lots of doctors believe that it all starts with the mind – it is just about serotonin and dopamine, and laughter is a great source for that,” said KK.