Gusâ€™s Journal from his Second Trip to Tamil Nadu, India
Matthew Joseph Gusul, aka Gus, is a theatre artist and development worker who currently lives in Victoria, BC, Canada. Gus is a 30 year old Canadian man who is a married, experienced traveller and intercultural worker. This journal is presented as his inner thoughts and experiences while travelling to India to set up an intergenerational theatre company in rural Tamil Nadu.
Saturday, July 13, 2013 We are here and wow, does it feel great. Liz and I arrived about an hour ago at 7 AM after a twenty-nine hour journey. Our flights went from Victoria to Seattle, and then Seattle to Dubai, and Dubai to Chennai. Ramalingam’s employee Gnana met us at the airport and now we are here in the village. Honestly, it feels like I never left. We were greeted by a handful of the seniors upon our arrival, exchanged pleasantries, and then were showed to our room which we call home for the next couple of weeks. Liz will be staying here until Thursday, July 25 and then I will leave the following Thursday, August 1. Since I was last here the pond has bloomed many lotus ponds or as they are called in Tamil Tamaraikulam – the village’s name. The village is as beautiful as ever and I am surprised to find the weather to be a bit more temperate than I was prepared. When Liz and I were looking online before our arrival here the day time highs were 36-40 Celsius which is accurate but there are many clouds in the sky during this time of year. This means there is limited direct sunlight and there is a gentle breeze that helps keep the village comfortable. My goals for this visit are fairly simple. Firstly, I want to learn from the community how to create theatre and as a large subsection of this goal, how to play and be playful. I will work with both the Isha School children and the TEV elders to achieve this goal. This desire of mine comes from a combination of a conversation I had with Juliana Saxton, and from my defense of my Candidacy exam. When Juliana and I chatted about my last trip, she shared with me the work of Peter Brooks when he toured Western Africa. He and his company of actors went from village to village learning from Africans how theatre should function from their perspective. I read about this work and am inspired by how this company allowed the audience to shape the theatre Peter Brooks’ company was creating. I want to allow the two Indian communities the opportunity to dictate how the theatre in this project will be created. During my defense my committee pushed me to reflect on whether playfulness is universal to all cultures. At the time I was unsure how to answer and I told them one of the purposes of this trip was to allow Indians to teach me how they play. To G&F and other intergenerational 2|Page
projects I have worked on, play and playfulness have always been central and I expect this in India as well. Another objective of this trip is to have another meeting with Pondicherry University’s Dr. Gunasekaran. I need help from him to get ethics approval at UVic. A part of UVic’s ethics application dictates that I need approval from a university in the country where the research is taking place. I also want to see if he and I can find common ground for the intergenerational theatre project here with TEV and Isha. I would love if we could use graduates from his program to be the future directors of this company. I also believe I have good news for him. He was hoping that UVic students could come here to study. After spreading the word around to a few undergrads in the UVic Theatre department they seemed keen to explore that opportunity. UVic student’s interest maybe a great excuse for us to rehash the conversation about connecting PU and UVic or even heading towards signing a MOU. I want to include a word about having Liz here with me on this trip. Last time I came I missed her a lot, and besides that, I was the only Canadian here. Already I have really enjoyed having someone to share all the strangeness I am encountering. This will be great. I am already very comfortable with her here, knitting as I am writing this entry. She has also said she would be interested in helping with the theatre work. This will be a great trip.
Sunday, July 14, 2013 I met with Ramalingam briefly yesterday. It was great to see him again. My guess is that he has not gotten a haircut since I have last seen him. His hair looks great. I told him this and he laughed at me. He and I arranged that we would have a meeting on Monday morning at 10301100 AM to plan the itinerary for my time here. He told that it would be easy to arrange a meeting with Dr. Gunasekaran and that I could work with TEV elders every evening with Babu as a translator. Babu lives at the village during the week from Monday morning until Friday evening and then spends weekends with his family. It would be difficult to spend so much time away from your family. Ramalingam and I will meet with Isha’s director sometime next week to
plan when I will be able to work their students. Now I will work on planning a draft schedule so we have a document to work from for this meeting. I have been reflecting about my goals for this trip. Specifically, the desires to have the Indian community teach me how to play and how to create theatre. In theory, this idea is great but I am having a difficult time figuring out exactly how this will work when I enter an initial meeting with either community. Should I walk into the group and say, “Ok guys, teach me theatre? Oh, and by the way teach me to play as well.” This seems odd to me. The belief of the theoreticians that started the explicit use of playfulness in theatre was that play could be used to solve any problem. I remember my professor in undergrad, who studied directly under Spolin telling us students, “Viola believed that the politicians would be better to use children’s games to solve world issues than the bickering they engage in now.” What I am trying to get at is that I believe there needs to be a problem for us to solve as a group if I am to learn anything about theatre or playfulness from these groups. The problems that Spolin used in her work were theatrical. How we will stage this moment or this scene? How can we teach actors to work with each other? It will benefit me if I develop some sort of an obstacle for each group to overcome. My guess is that the most natural would be a performance. The best challenge would be either that each group does a performance for their own community or a performance for the other community. I think I may put this option forward to the groups. I will get to meet with the seniors probably either tomorrow or the next day and I will see what they think. I will also need to pay attention to what is feasible for TEV and Isha. Maybe the students will have difficulty with transportation. I really am not sure. But I know I will want to provide each group with the challenge or problem of having to finish a performance and this will be the way in which I will learn how they perceive of theatre and playfulness. I have really enjoyed seeing the animals that live in TEV. There are so many cows and I had to go check them all out. There is one calf that must only be a few months old that looks like a cow you would imagine in an old nursery rhyme or fairy tale. It is a very beautiful animal. Liz and I went and petted him but when we tried to return back on the trail another cow had gotten in the way to block our path. I grew up around cows all the time on the farm but it has been years since I have been around them on a regular basis. Plus, I have no idea what Indian cows are like. I have heard that they are treated like sacred gods so I did not want to offend anyone by chasing their cow. Liz and I stood and contemplated our next move. In our hesitation one of the workers saw two stupid North Americans standing there staring at a cow. She came to save us. She pushed the cow until it moved and then told us (or at least I am guessing she said 4|Page
this – she was speaking in Tamil) “Just push the cow – it won’t hurt you”. When we got back closer to the buildings she told the other workers about the cow and us which was met with laughter. Also, while we were resting yesterday our relaxation was interrupted by the sounds of a herd of goats being walked through the rice fields. It was an awesome sight for both Liz and I. When she and I get more settled we really want to raise animals. Goats are really high on my list of animals I want to raise. I enjoy their company plus goat milk and cheeses are wonderful food. One of the young goats was really noisy. It was uncomfortable walking in the water and was screaming while jumping through the water. It was a funny sight. Tuesday, July 16, 2013 I had my meeting with Ramalingam yesterday. It went very well. I had prepared a draft of my schedule for him and we spent time modifying it. Today we will have three meetings during the day and then in the evening I will have a first rehearsal with the TEV elders and Babu. First Ramalingam and I will meet with Dr. Gunasekeran. Ramalingam thought that the Dean will be happy that UVic is still very interested in forming a relationship with PU and that UVic students are interested in potentially attending a Masters or PhD program here in Pondicherry. Next, we will meet with the Puduvai radio station to gauge their interest in this project. This meeting was scheduled to happen on my last visit but it never happen because we were too crunched for time. I have two thoughts about how to proceed with the radio station. If they would be open to the idea, on my next visit, I would love to develop radio plays/stories for the seniors and young people to tell on air. I have heard many of these on CBC, CFUV (UVic), and CKUA (Alberta’s Public Broadcaster). We will see if they have interest in that. If not, I believe they will be very keen to advertise the performances. Finally, we will meet with Isha’s director to plan how I will spend my time with the Isha children this visit. I hope to have six meetings with the children and then we will have a small performance. My initial idea with the performances on this trip was that I would allow the groups the choice of who to perform their play for. Ramalingam encouraged me to already have made this decision for the groups. He and I chatted about this for a while and I agreed with him. My reason for wanting to give the option to the groups was to allow them to take the leadership and to minimize any risk that would be taken by performing for an audience. Ramalingam thought either community would be very comfortable performing for the other and that any risk would be very minimal. He told me that recently the seniors had a fashion show where the seniors dressed up in different costumes and presented the show to the community here at TEV. The seniors loved performing and will enjoy the chance to perform for young people. When we meet with Isha’s director today I want to revisit this conversation to double check that the students will 5|Page
comfortable with performing for the elders. I have to trust the leaders of both Isha and TEV to assess the potential risks in performing. After Ramalingam and I finalized the draft schedule we chatted about other matters of importance. We took a moment to consider some of the future challenges for this project. The coming time when we have ten (or more) UVic students staying here at TEV, the upcoming need to hire directors for the intergenerational company, and the potential for this project to influence other programming throughout HelpAge India’s work in India. These will be ongoing conversations but I am really keen to work further with HelpAge India to include arts-based programming wherever possible. Ramalingam shared with me a power point presentation he developed that shares statistics and other data about HelpAge India’s work and about the state of senior’s welfare in India. I am going to spend some time leafing through the presentation to see any natural fits for future projects. Liz and I had an interesting sight yesterday. We were witness to a calf being born. While we were eating breakfast yesterday a number of the elders and workers were crowding around a cow outside of the dining hall. We then heard a loud “Mooooo!” from the cow. We went outside and there it was – a brand new baby calf. One of the workers helped the calf stand and find it mother’s udder for its first drink of milk. It was a beautiful sight. Wednesday, July 17, 2013 Yesterday was a very effective and productive day. Not everything happened which we had planned but I am very happy with what was accomplished. At noon, Liz and I got a ride to Ramalingam’s office at the HelpAge office in Puducherry. From there we went to the University for our two meeting there. We first went to Dr. Gunasekaran’s office and he was stuck in a meeting. We decided that we should go for lunch and then come back. Going for lunch was really nice. We went on the campus at PU and the atmosphere was 6|Page
just like any college I have been on in the world. There is interesting universal energy on university campuses. I always find it amusing that no matter what campus I go to I always seem to see someone wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. After Lunch we went to see if Dr. Gunasekaran was available. He was still in his meeting, so we decided to go to Puduvai radio station. It ended up being a very good meeting. They are the local college radio station with a range of about 20-30 km. They have won awards for past projects they have done with HelpAge India and they have worked regularly with theatre companies. Each performance that happens at PU is recorded to be played over the air. The station manager Saleema Rabiyath asked many questions about our project and was very interested in recording our play when it is finished. This may be a very good opportunity for the intergenerational company once it is up and running. I enjoyed this meeting and can see potential for a relationship here. After we returned to Dr. Gunasekaranâ€™s office to find he was still in the meeting, but his secretary told us he should only be another few minutes. This time we decided to wait. A few minutes turned into two hours. It was very tense waiting in hall outside his office. There were many students gathered and various professors coming in and out of the office. Just as Ramalingam and I were about to schedule a meeting for another day the meeting finally ended. Dr. Gunasekaran invited us into his office and fetched tea for us. He looked very exhausted and told us that the meeting went long because it was a selection committee for incoming PhD students. I am guessing that some of the anxious people in the hall were awaiting this decision. Once we started our meeting went very smoothly. He was happy that there was interest from UVic students and administration in PU. He described a number of options for students from Canada to study in Puducherry. To me, the one that was most appealing was that students could come from Canada to take a semester-long â€œStudy Indiaâ€? course. This would give the students a home faculty, like theatre, and then they would take electives from other faculties on campus. I know many students who have taken semester long exchanges like this and really benefited from them. Then we mentioned our desire to hire graduates from his program to be the eventual directors of the intergenerational company here at TEV and he was happy about this opportunity. Next year, when it comes time to hire these positions, he will provide us with a list of suitable candidates. He was interested to know how the contract would look. I think we will set it as an eight month contract in which the director/s will start in September 2014 and end in April 2015. I will have to figure out exactly how much money will be needed to pay this person but Ramalingam and I will cross this bridge later. The 7|Page
last order of business for this meeting was the matter of my ethics proposal to UVic. Dr. Gunasekaran was very easy to deal with in this regard. He wants me to fill out the form and then sometime next week he and I will go over it and he will give me approval. Ethics approvals are much easier to obtain in India. I asked him if there was a large committee or anything and it turns out that department chairs have the final word over ethics approvals in PU. The meeting finally ended at about 6 PM. This meant that we were unable to visit Isha and that the first rehearsal with the TEV elders will have to wait. I am excited to both visit Isha and get the theatre started here in the village. Thursday, July 18, 2013 Yesterday was a day of great learning. While it was happening I felt like I had failed or that I had made a mistake but in reality it is a matter of simple intercultural exchange and confusion. I was expecting to go to Isha with Ramalingam yesterday but it did not happen because he was too busy. He had a number of meetings and was tied up. This resulted in me having a day in which nothing was accomplished. Ramalingam thought that Babu and I would have meetings and be ready to start working with the elders so it would be OK that we missed the meeting with Isha. The problem was, he and I had different impressions about what was going on with Babu and his understanding of the intergenerational theatre project as a whole. Ramalingam asked me the other day to have a meeting with Babu to tell him what was happening while I am here over the next few weeks. When he said this to me he said tell Babu everything. By everything I thought he meant everything about what I needed from him as a translator with the elders but what Ramalingam meant was to brief him about the entire project because Babu has never been told exactly what my role is here at TEV. All this confusion resulted in the three of us having an argument about what exactly was going on and why I was here doing no work. For me, being patient while working in intercultural situations is the norm. If I have a day where nothing happens I am patient and wait until my opportunity comes. Ramalingamâ€™s concern, and rightly so, was that resources are being wasted if I am here and not working with the elders/students. Now, we are all on the same page and everything is functioning smoothly. I assured Ramalingam that I was not upset and that I have learned that I am not a pushy personality type (something I rightly or wrongly attribute to being Canadian) and I will wait until my time arrives. Plus, I did not just sit around my room. Liz and I spent time with the elders and in the village getting to know the place and the people on a more personal level. I think I can take away from this that when I am here in India I really need to push to take my space. Ramalingam and Babu both are very busy people and for me to be able to get the intergenerational theatre company up on its feet
I need to assert my role here and the importance of this project whether I am Canadian or introverted or whatever. Ramalingam, Liz, and I are going to Isha to see if they still want to be involved in the project. There is some concern here because we have called the phone number we have for the director Savithri and she is not answering. This either means she no longer works for Isha (which would make our work with them difficult, because she is our contact there) or she has changed cell phone providers. I hope it is the latter because the optics and spirit of combining Isha and TEV are wonderful. If it falls through, I am assured by Ramalingam and Babu that is will be very easy to recruit another school to come on board. They have contacts at a number of schools and in reality it will be easier in some ways because Isha is 35 KM away from the village whereas the other schools are within a short car ride or a long walking distance. As I said, yesterday was not a complete waste. In spending our time here Liz and I have really enjoyed ourselves and have grown close with a few of the elders despite the language barrier. One elder has really taken a shine to us and he always is concerned for our comfort. Liz and I regularly walk around the village to see all the different animals and to see what is going on. From this activity he has learned the word “walking”. The first couple of times we ran into him while we were walking he tried to communicate something to us that we did not understand so we would put our hand in the air to symbolize going around the village and say “walking”. The next time he saw us he looked at us and proudly proclaimed “walking” while spinning his hand in the air. It was great. Also, the cook has really been kind to us. He makes sure that we are well fed at every meal and if we are late for a meal he comes and finds us. It is a nice gesture on his part. Liz’s knitting has also been of interest to number of the women. While she sits in the village somewhere knitting they walk up to her and touch her knitting and say “super”.
There were also a couple of new additions to the village community that gave Liz and I much joy. Liz and I own two cats and trust me, we miss them. Here at the village two kittens that Babu found abandoned at the side of road were adopted. They are now a part of the family here. Liz spent some time putting milk on her finger and letting the cats lick it off. Both of the cats look very healthy in the face and ears but one of them has a broken leg that will probably never heal. I hope it survives. I am not sure how they would feed cats here but if the cats with three legs is left to hunt as his main source of food he will have a tough time. The donor from Singapore that was here last time I visited is here again. Howâ€™s that for a coincidence? It is his 72nd Birthday today and because of this he decided to take a vacation here for two days. He brings with him his wife, tonnes of great food, and a performance. Last night a company of dancers set up a huge tent in the open air theatre and performed dance routines from famous movies of the 60s and 70s. The seniors loved it. It was really quite fun to watch. Today will mark the first meeting I will have with the elders to work on theatre. I am excited this will happen. Especially after watching last nightâ€™s performance. One of the guiding lights for my career has been a desire to help communities tell their own stories and to rely less on outside communities to define who they are and how they are to be identified. In Canada, I have always pointed at Hollywood as my antithesis. Here in India, I can see that Bollywood fills that role. As much as I enjoyed seeing the delight in the elders from watching last nightâ€™s performance my desire is for them to get up of their feet and tell their own stories and create entertainment for each other. This is what I have always seen as one of the great powers of theatre and storytelling. I have a fire renewed inside of me. I look forward to working with the elders to unlock the golden stories that this community can produce.
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Friday, July 19, 2013 I wish all of you could have been here with me yesterday. I want to share with you the wonderful first rehearsal I had with the TEV elders. In planning the session, I wanted to cover three major areas and then, if there was time, I wanted to show them a video of GeriActors and Friends’ scene “Am I Invisible” and teach them G&F’s song “We’re Here Because We’re Here”. The three areas I wanted to work through in our session were to allow the elders to sing one of their favourite songs together, then we would join in on playing a common game they used to play when they were children, and finally we would share stories which came to their minds after playing that game. I told this plan to Babu, who was translating for me in this session, and we carried through it not knowing exactly where it would take us. When we started the session the elders decided they wanted to sing Paluum Palum. This was the same song we worked with while I was here on my last visit. We sang through it about five or six times while sitting and then stood up to sing it as if we were performing. After this we asked the elders to tell us a childhood game they all had in common. One of the elders quickly started to pretend to be a train; then all of the other seniors joined in and the formed a train. As this was happening in front of us Babu was taken away for a moment to say goodbye to some visitors who were leaving the village. When left to their devices the seniors made the game more sophisticated by including a tunnel to the train game. Two of the seniors used their bodies to create the tunnel and then the other seniors became the train and started going through the tunnel in a figure eight pattern. It was very fun to watch. After Babu returned the seniors played the game one last time and then we all sat down. At this moment, I asked Babu to ask the seniors about what memories about trains were brought to mind as they were playing the game. Each senior quickly shared their memories. One man spoke about how he loved watching the trees whip by at such a fast pace. Another woman shared a memory about when she used to ride the train with her parents they would buy her sweet buns to eat. There was another story about a woman’s first train ride was when she was married 11 | P a g e
at the age of 15. She and her husband went all the way from Pondicherry to New Delhi, a 3 day train ride. Others told me about how the trains were coal and wood burning and steam from this would run the engine. Soot and embers would fly from the front of the train and land on the skin of the passengers. Another elder told us a story of a pilgrimage he made to one of the temples in the North and another shared a memory about a pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges. The final story was shared by an elder that remembered the different animals she saw while riding the train: tigers, snakes, lions, deer, pigs, peacocks and monkeys. After sharing the memories I was compelled to ask the elders how they saw seniors being treated on the trains now. I asked Babu if he thought this was OK and he thought it should be fine. The mood changed. They all became much less lighthearted in their manner. They told that there used to be more space on the trains. With Indiaâ€™s huge population growth the trains are now packed very tightly. One woman told me that for one train ride she sat in the toilet for the whole ride just so she could have a place to sit. Many of the elders said they were now afraid to take the train out of fear of getting crushed and instead they opted to take the bus. This often means that elders do not have a place to sit and most of the time young people will not give up their seat. One elder told us a story about her walking towards a seat and a young person running to get in the seat before she could. It is also very difficult for the elderly to catch a train. They told me that here the train does not slow down at every stop. This means that passengers have to run to catch the train and this prohibits elderly people from catching the train. There were a couple of nice stories as well. One woman told us that before when she rode the train she would never talk to other people because she would travel with her family but now she travels alone and talks to the new people she meets. She really enjoys talking with and meeting new people. One of the men told us that one time when he was on the train a nice young man gave up his seat so he could sit for a long journey. The seniors agreed that it was more likely for a young person to give up a seat on a long ride but still on short trips the elders found they had to stand. As a follow up question I asked what their dream would be. How best could a train ride be to accommodate elders? They would really like it if people would offer them a seat, talk to them, and treat them with dignity. One of the elders then told us a story that once one of her neighbours helped her go all the way to the train, made sure she got on safely, and that she had a seat. At this time it became tea time and we all took a break to have tea.
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After the break we all met in another room where there is a recently installed entertainment system. The donor who is now visiting paid to have a high quality projector and sound system installed in TEV’s multipurpose room. Between me, Babu, and the tech guy we figured out how to play the “Am I Invisible” scene. As we figured this out a much larger crowd gathered to watch the video. In the theatre session we had eight seniors and to watch the video there were about twenty five people including the donor from Singapore. To watch the video I would play about 90 seconds and then pause it so Babu could translate what was happening. Once we finished the video is when something very special happened. I told the elders that the final song on this video was the song I wanted to teach them in English. Then the donor from Singapore started to translate what the words meant and in doing so he started to sing them. Babu took his lead and better developed the song to add actions. The two of them with the help of a number of the elders spontaneously wrote their own Tamil version of “We’re Here Because We’re Here”. They sang it a few times in the multipurpose hall and then I asked Babu if we could take it outside to sing it in the Open Air Theatre. When we went outside many of the other elders and workers gathered to see what all the fuss was about. The crowd amounted to about fifty people. Then the group of actors along with a few of the other elders started singing the new Tamil song. They sang the song over and over for ten minutes. Babu led them, trying to perfect the presentation of the song and the atmosphere was very energetic, fun, playful, and filled with laughter. At one point, one of the elders was laughing so hard she fell over. It was so much fun to watch. I wish all of you could have seen. Liz and I enjoyed ourselves so much. 13 | P a g e
I could not ask for anything more out of a first session with the TEV elders. There is beautiful scene that I could write about their childhood train memories and the reality for the elders who ride the train now. But better yet was the transformation of the elders watching the video of the Canadian seniors singing, taking that song, and spontaneously creating their own Tamil version. There was a community of 50 rural, poverty stricken Indian elders singing a loud chorus proclaiming that they were here and that they were not invisible. It was a great moment of activism and communitas. The entire community came together in this moment. Many of the elders here have spent the better part of their life in low income, low education, and detrimental conditions while being told, either explicitly or implicitly, that they were worthless. Now, in this community they are being given the opportunity to stand up and sing in an act of supreme protest that the rest of the Indian community had better take notice to them and their conditions. Besides this fantastic first session, Ramalingam and I also had a meeting with Isha yesterday. We drove out to their school and had a meeting with one of the administrators. She was new and had not heard about our project yet. She and one of the teachers met with Ramalingam and I and they were both very excited about this opportunity. The problem is neither of them has the authority to approve of programming like this on their own. They need Director Savithri’s approval and she was in Chennai yesterday. She, Ramalingam, and I are going to try and meet today or tomorrow at some point. I believe it should be no problem to gain her approval seeing as she was very excited about the project when I was here in January. The only part that may suffer is the time I will get to spend with the students on this trip. I do believe that the most important part will be getting the young people and the seniors together for a first meeting. It will be fun for the two communities to meet each other. Saturday, July 20, 2013 Yesterday, we had a second rehearsal with the elders. This one was much simpler. I had only two goals going into the rehearsal: first, I wanted to debrief what had happened yesterday to see if the experience was profound for the elders and secondly, I wanted to re-visit the singing of the Tamil “We’re Here”. Babu was not here for the rehearsal so Prepu stood in as translator. With 14 | P a g e
this change the session is very different. Babu is a very energetic personality and he really infuses playfulness into his interactions with the elders. Prepu is more laid back. I believe Prepu’s relaxed style was an advantage for the purposes of yesterday’s session. If Babu was there I know there would have been much energy but since he was not there the main thrust of liveliness had to be provided by the elders. The moment we all sat down the elders started recalling the Tamil “We’re Here”. From this, I could immediately see that momentum from yesterday was still present. I thought it would be a good idea if we could get up on our feet and sing the song a few times. Liz had a much better handle on how to sing the song so I asked her to help the elders. After a few practise runs, they excellently performed the song. It is nearly stage ready. I had Prepu tell the elders that this song could be very important to the company. G&F use their “We’re Here” at every performance and call it “The theme song for seniors everywhere”. Finally, I really wanted to know what the elders thought about the “Am I Invisible” video they watched. One of the ladies has an excellent memory and enthusiastically recalled the entire scene to Liz and me. She specifically focused on how funny Helen is when she grabbed the red shoes. All of the elders agreed that the enjoyed the scene and they liked that they could recognize me in the video. They also recognized the universality of the theme of invisibility for seniors. They said that seniors here in India and specifically in Tamil Nadu struggle with visibility issues. Today, Liz and I were driven out to the Isha School to finalize all the details with them for this project moving forward. This was one of the easiest negotiating meetings I have ever had in my career. They were very happy to have an opportunity for their students. I laid out all the details for them about the project how it will occur during this visit, what will happen a year from now when I return to help TEV hire the directing team, and when the project is actually running SeptMarch 2014/15. They were very excited about this opportunity. Their only disappointment was with the number of students that will be involved. Since there are only eight elders I told them that we should have about the same number of students. They left the room for a while and then came back and told Liz and me to come outside. When we did all nine of the students were waiting there to meet us. I spoke with them for a few minutes about the project and learned all of their names and introduced myself. It was a very impressive meeting. I have spoken English with a few hundred native Indians now and the students’ English was the best I have encountered yet. The students were all aged 13-15 and looked to be ready to start acting. We took a photo together and parted ways. After this, the principal and I worked the exact times I would work with the children. The first meeting is Monday morning at 9 AM. This will be great. I have ninety 15 | P a g e
minutes with them on five different occasions over the next two weeks and one final meeting where the students will meet the elders. For this final meeting the elders will travel to the Isha School and I am hoping will teach their newly written song for the whole school. After this, I am hoping to get a recording of the whole school singing the song for all of Canada to hear. I am very excited that everything is falling into place and also very thankful that this meeting with Isha was as easy as it was. Tomorrow Liz and I are going to be tourists. This will be my first opportunity to sightsee in this area. We are going to go see Chidahambaram Temple, the Pichavaram Forest, we will spend some time in the Pondicherry French district to buy some gifts for our family and finally we will watch the sunset on the Pondicherry beach - A full day of sightseeing. Sunday, July 21, 2013 That was a long day of being a tourist. We started at 8 AM and just got into our room here at 7:30 PM. We learned a lot about this region and I am very thankful I embraced being a tourist, if even only for a day. I will be brief and spare a lot of the details. Chidahamabram Temple was our first stop. It was one of the most Othering experiences I have ever had. Liz and I had no idea what was going on but then a devotee who spoke English gave us a nice guided tour. Then, we saw the Pichavaram Forest which is an amazing ecological sight - A forest that is embedded in the ocean with over 4000 canals. Then we visited the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. He was a religious leader that lived 1872-1950. I bought a few of his books including his analysis of Shakespeare, short stories 16 | P a g e
and plays he wrote, and a book on Indian nationalism. Then it was lunch time (Palak Paneer – Liz’s favourite) and on to the beach where I collected many shells. Next, we did a very quick tour of the Pondicherry museum followed by an even quicker tour of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus where we met a nun from the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master who sold and blessed for us a rosary and a bumper sticker (in Tamil that says “The Devil will not be in this house”) that will be a gift for Liz’s Grandma. Finally, we had a short stroll through the town square/Pondi Park and we finished with supper where we had Palak Paneer again (turns out it is my favourite too). It is time to rest and prepare to work with the Isha children tomorrow at 9 AM. Tuesday, July 23, 2013 Yesterday was the first day I worked with the Isha students. It was a wonderful experience that I am excited to repeat. First, the moment Liz and I arrived at the school, we were greeted by the director Pushpa and she took us to the back side of the school to their large sandy school yard. The school was having their morning assembly. Every day the entire school assembles in the yard into evenly spaced rows. They sing the national anthem, say the school creed, there are morning announcements from the principal, and one child each day comes in front of the 500 others to say a short speech about him/herself. This last part is of particular importance. It helps the child develop confidence and public speaking abilities. Also, as a part of this day’s assembly, the principal introduced Liz and I to the school. She had me make a quick introduction to the project. After I finished speaking the kids gave Liz and I a welcome that nearly brought tears to my eyes. The applauded as a normal group of 500 would but then started clapping in unison. It was beautiful. The nine kids, Liz, and I were stationed in a classroom on the second floor of the school. It is a great room and all of the children were excited to be there but also very shy. I can see two obstacles that will need to be broken for these children. First, they are very well behaved and attuned to proper classroom etiquette. This is not a conducive atmosphere for a drama classroom. I compare classroom atmosphere of good acting training closer to a party or another place where fun and playfulness rule out over good behaviour and etiquette. That being said, I appreciate the seriousness and respect they are offering me. There is no need to win them over because they are already attentive and receptive. The second challenge is the gender split. Boys sit next to boys and girls next to girls. This is true in junior high schools in Canada as well but it is very extreme here in India. I will have to check about this with the teachers and Ramalingam for cultural appropriateness. I do not want to push the kids in ways that will be culturally inappropriate.
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The first activity we engaged in was a brief conversation. I wanted to know what they knew about theatre. When I first asked it took them a while to understand my accent. They thought I said fear. Liz then started writing down on the chalk board key words. First, she wrote theatre and drama. When the kids understood they question they were quick to respond. They thought theatre was similar to movies and they identified that theatre has scripts that are called plays. They knew of some famous Indian plays. They also identified that theatre needs actors. I also pointed out to them that for it to be theatre there cannot be actors alone, to which they responded there needs to an audience. After this discussion I asked if anyone wanted to give a short performance. I opened up the stage to them to see if any of them would take the dive into acting. One of the boys eventually took up my challenge. He pretended to be a frog and hopped across the stage. It was fun and all of us laughed. I waited for a while to see if any of the others would take up the challenge but no one did. I told them this would be a repeated exercise so they would have more chances to take risks. I also told them about the importance of taking risks when they are acting. Next, I did a Viola Spolin style spacewalk activity with them. I had them move around the space anywhere and everywhere. They had a lot of fun with this activity. They quickly had fun moving around pretending to be the tallest person in the world and then the shortest. I then started asking them to freeze into statues. We started just freezing on the spot. Then we froze into the activity they did on the weekend. Here, there statues included playing cricket, watching TV, reading, playing tennis, and doing homework. Next I asked what activity they would do as soon as they got home from school tonight. Here the statues included sleep, read, do homework, help in the housework, and play cricket. The next statue I asked for was their favourite animal. After they froze into position I asked the students to start moving like their animal. There were cats, cheetahs, tigers, and a kangaroo moving around the space. It was fun to watch. I told the group this would be an activity we would repeat and that next time the focus would be to become more like their animal, to focus on the change their body would need to undertake to transform from a human into a kangaroo or into a horse.
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After this I asked that the students would sing a song for me that they all loved to sing. They decided very quickly on a love song in Tamil. They sang it very proudly and beautifully. They then asked that Liz and I would teach a song to them. We decided to teach them â€œWeâ€™re Hereâ€?. They enjoyed singing it as well. I told them this was a very important song for G&F in Canada. Next I played Bombaya with the group. This is a song game where we sing a verse and a chorus while passing balls around. Normally I have one ball for each person but this time we only had one ball. We played the game several times and they told us they really enjoyed singing the song. Next we started playing a game in which we passed an invisible ball around the circle. This game went very well. It was easy for the children to pretend to pass the invisible ball. After this we spent time playing the mirror game. They stood in groups of two facing each other and played mirror. They quickly became quite good at this game. After spending about ten minutes doing this we played it as a performance. Each group went to the front of the class and performed their mirror. After this we sat and had a discussion about everything we had done in this session. I wanted to make sure they were not walking away thinking we had just played games that had no transferable skills to theatre. We spoke about what we learned about the actor-audience relationship in the mirror game and how we as actors can improve what an audience sees. We also spent time talking about the invisible ball and how our belief in the ball made it so the ball really existed. Even when we did not even have the ball in our hands we could watch it be passed from person to person. The space or air transformed into being a ball but, as I instructed them at this point, the space can be anything and that as the classes wore on we would be transforming the space into whatever objects we wanted it to be. Finally, in the discussion I assigned them homework. I told them to bring in a small object that was very important to them so they could tell us how they got it and why it was important. I hope to learn lots about the kids from this activity and I hope we can develop scene work from these objects. I learned a lot from this day. Originally, my goal in this trip was to have a very open plan and in a Peter Brookian way, roll out the carpet. I still want to maintain this theoretical ideology in my practice but I can see that these children need help in gaining the confidence required to act onstage. They need help developing acting techniques. These were ideas that I had when I was here in India last but I had forgotten this while I was in Canada. I still need to maintain a focus on learning from the students what theatre is for them but I also need to help them develop some simple acting ability. I will work with the children again today and hopefully with the seniors again today. Babu should be back in the village so we will get to spend time with the elders working with theatre. I am excited to see what lies ahead. 19 | P a g e
Update: For you gamblers out there who are betting on Liz’s Knitting over/under she has just completed her second project. Time was taken up reading some pulp fiction she brought along but now she is back on track since I told her about the over/under line being set at four. If you bet under do not rest easy. Tuesday, July 23, 2013 Entry #2 Today was another great day in India. This may have been the busiest day so far. We started the day by working with the Isha students and then in the afternoon with the elders. Both sessions were very jam-packed full of learning for me. Ramalingam witnessed both sessions and I look forward to hearing some of his observations. The Isha students were very excited for their second day of training. We started with a Spacewalk where we pretended to be really tall, short, fat, and then skinny. Then, Liz taught them a few simple tongue twisters for them to practise while walking around the room: red leather yellow leather, unique New York, and toy boat. After this we broke into groups of two and told each other stories about something we did yesterday. Then, we found a new partner and told a story about trees and then a story about water. Next, we started their homework assignment. Liz split them into groups of three and I asked them to tell each other about their object. My initial reaction was that they forgot to do the assignment and just brought in whatever they had handy. Students had mostly brought in pens or a watch. They went on and told their stories to each other. After each person had told their story I asked them to choose one to turn into a short scene. I did this because I wanted to gauge where their theatre skills are and what better barometer than diving right in. They took about 8-10 minutes to prepare the scenes and then we had a performance. Each group did their scene and I was very impressed with their work and with the depth of their stories. One of the boys and his group performed the story of how he acquired his watch. Each time his Mom would send him to buy vegetables he would keep the change, until he had saved up 650 rupees. Then he went to the store and bought his new watch. Another boy bought his watch and the necklace he was wearing with his inheritance from Grandfather’s death after suffering from lung cancer. The last performance was of a girl’s birthday party. Her best friend gave her a pen but then her older brother asked how much the pen cost and it was five rupees. He said that five was a very unlucky number and said she could not have the pen. Then she cried and her brother caved to give her the pen. That was five years ago. She had been using that same pen for five years and she was still best friends with the same girl despite the unlucky five. It was easy to see that the children had 20 | P a g e
experience presenting scenes before. I asked them and they said it is something they have done in the school before. They were narrating their scenes saying the action before it took place and playing the action in a realistic style. I have worked with many groups and this is a style that I sometimes have to fight to bring out of students. These 13-15 year old Indian youth naturally gravitate to this style. I am very impressed. Ramalingam offered praise to the children. He was very impressed with their English skills and told them so. Then he spoke to them in Tamil for a while. Afterwards he told me that they should push to deepen their stories and perhaps think if there are any morals to their stories. Next, we quickly played a new rendition of Bombaya. We did not have a ball so we slapped hands in an intricate pattern instead of using a ball. Then, we played pass with an invisible ball again. They did very well with this so I decided to progress into a more difficult variation where we played with balls of different sizes and weights. After we used a number of different balls I asked them to try and manipulate the space into various different objects. Each student would play with the space until it became an object, then they would pass it to the next person in the circle and that person would create a new object. They were great at this. There were kittens, flowers, guns, cricket bats, and many other objects being passed around. We then tried another sophisticated version of this where the worked with the space in groups of three. I was unsure how successful they would be but they worked very well with this. They are very quick to let their imagination take them into different places and unfamiliar places. Three people working together on a space object can be challenging for experienced student actors but these children were adept at the game. One groupâ€™s space turned into a grouping of rabbits that they were feeding and were hopping around the room. Another groupâ€™s activity turned into a cricket match. They were very fun to watch. Again, we finished by de-briefing the day. I spoke with them about how useful space objects can be when they are creating scenes. When they did scene work they were still relying on real props. I encouraged them in the future to try and use space objects instead. I also took this opportunity to try and go around the circle and call each of them by name. I am still struggling with the pronunciation of Indian names. The children delighted in my poor Indian accent. We had a lot of fun this day and I learned from them that they are more than ready to take up the challenge of creating scenes with the elders of TEV. In the afternoon Liz and I got the chance to work with the elders. Something interesting happened this time. Our group has grown considerably. Instead of having only eight elders working with us we had more like twenty five. I was very surprised to see this. Babu told me 21 | P a g e
later he thought it was because we were having so much fun that more people want to join in on the fun. He was very happy with one of the men who joined us. He generally does nothing but sit in his room, not even talking with anyone only coming out eat meals. Today he came to join us and he even got up onstage to act and sing. I have photographic proof. Our meeting started at 330 and lasted until 6 PM with a brief break for coffee. First we sang Paluum Palum. This was the best rendition I have heard out of the seniors. Some of our newly recruited males have great voices and really helped balance the sound. After this I asked that the seniors create tableaus that fell under the category of a moment we wish we had photographed. They split into two groups and came up with two photos. I gave them about twenty minutes to rehearse. The twenty minutes turned into closer to one hour but there was no way I would have stopped them. They were laughing and having so much fun. During their rehearsal period Liz and I had to leave the room. The elders paid far too much attention to us and what we thought of their work. When we left they had much better focus. I snuck around the building and watched them through the windows. It became coffee time so we took a quick break and Deva brought us delicious Indian coffee. Then we moved our session to the Open Air Theatre. Each group presented their tableau. One group showed a tableau in which they walked down a trail and came upon a snake. They were creative and used a piece of clothing as a snake. The other group presented a tableau about dropping the water jug by the pond in their village because they were scared by the pond spontaneously bubbling. Both tableaus were well done and the elders had a great time performing them. We finished the session by singing the Tamil version of Weâ€™re Here. I told them that they would need to be very polished with this because they will be teaching to the students at Isha next Wednesday. This helped to motivate them to perform at a much higher quality. After this we ended the session. One lady did not want to end. She stayed on stage and performed for Liz and me for a while. She showed us a game that she used to play when she was a child. It was fun. 22 | P a g e
Tomorrow will be another packed day: Isha in the morning and a program with the elders in the evening. This will be a great way for Liz to spend her last day in India. Another update: the kittens are very healthy now. Both have gained weight from all the attention they are getting from the elders and the one with the broken leg is starting to regain strength in his leg. I am very surprised by this. I think both these kittens lucked out and found a fantastic home. July 25, 2013 Well, today is Liz’s last day here. I wish she was staying the whole time with me but she has to go back for work. The elders gave her a great send off last night. They asked Liz and me to sit on the stage at the Open Air Theatre while they all sat in the audience and Babu translated for us what was being said. The seniors told her how much they would miss her and that they wish she was not going. Then, Liz spoke to them and she cried. When she started to cry all the seniors told her not to cry and some came to the front wiped the tears away from her eyes and then cracked their knuckles against their head. Babu told us this was thought to be a way to stop someone from crying. At this point the elders sang a number of songs for us including Palum Paluum and their version of “We’re Here”. It was a great send off for her. Today a driver will take her and me to the airport where I will say goodbye to her until next week when I return to Canada. Yesterday we also had a session with the Isha students. We formed this session quite similar to the others. We started by playing another variation of Bombaya, we then practised “We’re Here”, followed by another Spacewalk including tongue twisters and warming up their bodies. After this we transitioned into a game where the children formed their bodies into different animals. I started by getting them to close their eyes and focus on changing each of their body parts into the body parts of the animals. After this I got them to walk around the room as their animal. This was done to varied success depending upon the student. Some really took on the activity and transformed into the animal but other struggled for a multitude of reasons which I guess include confusion and embarrassment. After the activity we de-briefed what the usefulness of this activity was to theatre. The students recognized that often actors need to play animals onstage. I then asked them to solve the problem of performing an animal that was vastly different than a human. One of the girls in the animal walk game was a peacock so we focused on this for a moment. Liz took all four of the girls and helped them form their bodies into a peacock. They did quite well and the boys wanted to try a similar challenge. I split the group into four groups 23 | P a g e
and we tried in small groups to become a tiger, sparrow, horse and giraffe. After they had a few moments to prepare each group performed. They all did quite well and had a much better idea about why this activity was important. After this I wanted to teach them tableaus just as I had with the elders the day before. I asked each student to reflect on what they thought was one of their favourite moments of their life so far and to present a tableau with the title “Ladies and Gentlemen this is the time…” I gave them time to rehearse their tableaus. Then each group performed. This activity was the least effective I have facilitated for them so far. My guess is that they had difficult grasping the concept of favourite moment and I should have found something stronger as a focus. Next week when I work with them I want to change things up. Playing mirror and spacewalk and Bombaya each day has gotten us into a rut. Next week, I really would like to get them thinking about their lives through theatre and reflecting upon what it means to their community to have the Isha School there. I am not sure exactly how I will do this but I think it will be very helpful for them to reflect upon these issues leading into the formation of the Intergenerational Theatre Company. The Isha School will benefit from these children ability to advocate for the school and for rural Indian children. I am not fully sure how to go about this but I have all weekend to think about this. Friday, July 26, 2013 I do not have anything formally scheduled until Monday. I may have a meeting with Dr. Gunasekaran but that may not happen until Monday. It is a reprieve in my schedule that allows me time to work on an article I have due for Alt. Theatre on August 16. Currently, I sit at a little over 5000 words and the editor asked me to submit 3000 words. Also, I am changing the thesis so… it is a good thing a have a couple of free days. Sunday, July 28, 2013 It has been an uneventful few days. It has been most welcome though. I was able to complete the article I was working on and read books that I dragged along to India with me as well as some 24 | P a g e
that I bought in the Ashram. It felt great reading the likes of Nehru, Gandhi, and Spivak while in India. Their words seemed to ring louder in my head while here in the country of the writers’ birth. Nehru’s revolutionary words are no different than any other revolutionary I have read – strong, passionate, and devoted. His words have a sharp poignancy that brings to the forefront the cultural momentum it took for India to gain independence and the difficult road it was fighting against colonialism. I enjoyed reading Gandhi’s words on the development of a constitution for the Ashram he started. It makes me realize what it takes to be a devotee and how challenging his protest against the British would have been. A number of the seniors here are devotees and I can now see that their behaviour is related to the philosophy and spirituality he dedicated his life. After reading Spivak I have a better understanding of her ideas on the Subaltern and specifically her writing about Subaltern not being able to speak. She never once meant that the subaltern cannot utter words of have discourse but simply that even if they rise in protest or have any other utterance that it will not be listened to by people in a superior economic position. If the subaltern is ever listened to then they cease to be lodged in subalternity to rise up to a higher status. This will definitely be reflected in future instances when I site her work. 25 | P a g e
Monday, July 29, 2013 Turns out today will be an uneventful day as well - which is fine by me. The vehicle and driver that normally would take me to the school and to the university are being utilized to help one of the elders who became ill overnight. They need to drive to a distant hospital. This means that tomorrow and Wednesday will be jam packed. I will need two meetings with both communities to prepare them for the first intergenerational meeting, a meeting with Dr. Gunasekaran to approve my ethics application, a meeting with Ramalingam to confirm the budget for the intergenerational theatre company, a final meeting with Babu and Ramilingam to de-brief my visit, and, of course, the first intergenerational meeting. I am ready for this. Now, I will let today’s open schedule begin by continuing my readings of Indian authors. I have just picked up one of the books from the Pondicherry Ashram’s founder Sri Aurobindo. I want to include a quote from him here in my journal. India, shut into a separate existence by the Himalayas and the oceans, has always been the home of a peculiar people with characteristics of its own distinct civilization, way of life, way of spirit, a separate culture, arts, building of society. It has absorbed all that has entered into it, put upon all the Indian stamp, welded the most diverse elements into its fundamental unity. This has certainly been my experience here. Think back to my experience showing the elders the “Am I Invisible” scene. I showed this with the idea that I could try to teach the community the English version of “We’re Here” but instead “the Indian stamp” was put upon the song. They took my offer, from Canadian culture – the Canadian GeriActors and Friends’ song – and created a unique Tamaraikulam Elders Village song in Tamil. This phenomenon is consistent with my experience with the Isha students. I have had the students working with Spolin and Johnstone activities that I have used throughout my career in Canada and instead of the students taking up the activities in the same way as North Americans they apply “the Indian stamp” - Space work turns into a cricket match and Mirror turns into an exercise in Yoga. On the one hand, this shows the delightful openness of the playful theatre activities developed by Johnstone and Spolin but that is not what I am learning here. What I think I am seeing is the resilient strength of the Indian people here in the Cuddalore district and at large the Indian people. Their culture has been infiltrated by many different philosophies, religions, ideas, political structures, art, and people of great influence but instead of ever being fully taken over by any of these infiltrations they accept the influence while morphing into the Indian fabric. I remember in my Religion 100 in freshman – a world religion course – my professor, a Lutheran Minister who led an exchange group to India each year, told us that when Christian missionaries first entered India they were met with open arms. The Hindi people loved Jesus and immediately adopted him into their religion going as far to worship him as a god in their temples. To this day there are still ashrams dedicated to the study of Jesus that are not affiliated with the Catholic Church or any other Christian sect. This story has stuck with me over the years and now I can see how this could actually happen here. With every artistic offer I make to the Indian people they accept it while putting “the Indian stamp” on to it. I adore this 26 | P a g e
discovery. I still have to be concerned about being culturally dominant while implementing this theatre company for the people here but this discovery will alleviate any need to worry about being too soft footed while planning workshops. I can have faith that the theatre work we do here will be affected by the inescapable Indian Stamp. Tuesday, July 30, 2013 Today was just the kind of jam packed day I was prepared to deal with. The morning started at the Isha Foundation. The children were happy to see me and I decided to start the day by clearly explaining to them the entire project. Both the principals and I had explained the project to them already but neither of us had taken the time to write it on the whiteboard and make sure they understood everything about the project. I explained every detail from the origin of the idea with Michael Etherton visiting Edmonton until the end of the tour in Mar 2015. They were very excited and were happy I took the time to do this for them. After this I showed them the “Am I Invisible” scene. It was difficult for them to understand all of the English in the scene but they recognized both the Bombaya song and “We’re here”. Next I asked the group to decide on a song that we would sing for the elders tomorrow. They decided upon a song called Kurjidhapadham. We practised it several times until I was satisfied that they could perform it well. Then we practised “We’re Here” so that would be fresh for tomorrow as well. I am hoping they will perform it on video tomorrow alongside the Tamil “We’re Here” which the Elders will teach them. Next I wanted to see if between the nine children and I we could quickly develop a scene and perform it for the principals of the school. I asked each of the students to think of what they wanted to be when they grew up. Then they would proclaim “Ladies and gentleman! When I grow up I want to be a…” and then they would perform the action of the job they want. They did a great job of this. Some wanted to be doctors, scientists, and there was a lawyer, a software engineer, and an actor. Once they successfully performed these, I asked them to think about some of the children in India who do not get to go to school. They knew of their realities and decided they wanted to sing the “We’re Here” song and dedicate it to the children in poverty. So, we developed some lines together in English and then started our performance. Since they had just watched the “Am I Invisible” scene, they started singing Bombaya when they entered (on their own – I did not coach them to do this) then performed their job, said their brief dedication, and finished by singing “We’re Here” - A very similar structure to the G&F scene. I directed them to touch up bits of the performance and then we did a performance for their principals. It went very well. The director wiped tears from her eyes as they performed and overall I am very proud of the children. We threw the scene together in only about 45 minutes and it is something that had a reasonable level of quality to it. What I learned from working with them in this capacity was their ability to take direction and their ability to perform. Both are at a high level and will serve the future purposes of the Intergenerational Theatre Company. I made a short video of this performance and I am going edit it so Isha has a copy they can post to their Facebook account. After this Gnana and I drove to Pondicherry to meet with Ramalingam. I quickly showed him the video of the children’s scene, which he enjoyed. Then, he told me that Mani would be joining Gnana and me for the meeting with Dr. Gunasekaran. I had met Mani briefly before but I did not 27 | P a g e
know him very well but after what happened in Dr. Gunanasekaran’s office I will consider Mani a dear friend and a fantastic colleague. When we first arrived to his office, Dr. Gunasekaran was about to take his lunch so we went to the canteen to eat. I was thankful for this since I had yet to eat that day. We sat and ate. Dr. Gunasekaran spent a majority of the meal on his phone. Being Dean and Head of a department of a university is a busy position. After lunch we returned to his office, he invited in another Theatre Professor and we started to talk about my research. Dr. Gunasekaran handed the other professor all of the ethics applications documents I had forwarded to him and asked the other professor to read them and see if they made sense to him. After leafing through the documents for about ten minutes he and I had a discussion for an additional ten minutes about the full breadth of my research project and what exactly I intended on researching in the two communities. Then, Dr. Gunasekaran asked the other professor to describe the project to him. They spoke in Tamil for about the minutes with Mani filling in any details that the other professor missed. Then, Dr. Gunasekaran grabbed his secretary and told him what to write for a letter and told Mani and me to help. This turned into Mani doing most of the writing and me correcting the grammar. After we finished we printed it off and then went back into Dr. Gunasekaran’s office. He had a few minor edits to the letter and then also asked me to write a letter detailing exactly what our formal relationship was at this point in time. He was most concerned with three items: that I sought ethics approval from him, that his involvement was voluntary, and that his travel expenses would be paid by HelpAge India. We went back to his secretary’s office and wrote my letter and finished the edits to the other. We entered his office again and he signed the letter and then I had a huge smile on my face. At this moment he said that a deal is never complete unless we went to have tea and get a small snack. Gnana drove the four of us just off campus to find tea and some very tasty fried hot peppers. For a moment another professor from the Tamil Language Department joined us and then some students recognized Dr. Gunasekaran from his acting career. After our snack we took Dr. Gunasekaran back to his office and left. I learned a lot about this man while spending these four hours with him. First off, he is a very busy man. The entire time we were meeting he was either answering questions from a seemingly endless amount of people. It reminded me of watching an episode of MASH where Col. Henry Blake was constantly getting different pieces of papers shoved under his nose to sign by Radar O’Reilly. The only difference being instead of one Radar there must have been fifty. It makes me think back to my original impression of him. I thought he was a very abrupt and short man. I 28 | P a g e
now think this impression was just due to the fact that he has a revolving door of people constantly demanding his time and therefore deals with matters very quickly. I am finding that with a lot of Indian men of high ranking positions. In Canada, there is a much smaller population and this is reflected with the amount of time people in high ranks can spend with any given person. Here in India, with the massive amount of people the speed of relations is very rapid. I imagine on any given day Dr. Gunasekaran deals with hundreds probably even over a thousand people and I would guess Ramalingam works at a similar speed. I also discovered that Dr. Gunasekaran is a very talented and famous man to the status of living legend. Mani was somewhat nervous to meet him, not because of his office but because he had seen many of his movies and had attended his folk music concerts. Until this point I had only viewed Dr. Gunasekaran as a scholar and if you look up his scholarly achievements they are impressive on their own but his contribution to Tamil art is unparalleled. A large reason for his fame is his cultural status. He is Dalit, which was one of the â€œuntouchableâ€? classes in Hinduism. He is famous for being an actor that broke through despite racial inequality. This is very interesting. He expressed a very keen interest in coming to Canada to perform and deliver some of his scholarly work. I am going to put some serious thought and effort into helping him come to Canada. His story and art would be of interest to many Canadian scholars and I would love to help him get exposure in our country. That is all for today. I am trying to throw together a couple of videos for Isha before tomorrow. I really need to invest in better video editing software and I wish there was a faster internet connection butâ€Ś I should not complain. From where I am sitting I think life is pretty good right now. Tomorrow will be another adventure. I am excited to see what happens when Isha and TEV meet. Wednesday, July 31, 2013 Today was a great day. I am very happy with how the first meeting between the elders and the Isha students went. It was much shorter than I had anticipated but that is because we were late leaving the village. Today is the day taxes are due in India so Ramalingam and Babu were busy preparing the final documents with this process. 29 | P a g e
When we arrived at the school the principal and vice-principal gave the elders a short tour. They went into most of the younger grades. It was wonderful to see the elderly men and women interacting with the three and four year-old students. At this point it was about 3 PM and the students had to leave on the bus at 4 PM. Because of the time crunch the principals and I decided to arrange a short program to happen for the older school children. While grades four through nine assembled on the second floor long room (where they normally meditate) the Isha students met with me quickly to rehearse singing “We’re Here” in English and the elders and Babu worked on “We’re Here” in Tamil. After the short rehearsal we went upstairs to perform. There were around 250 students assembled. The principal started by initiating a short meditation chant - all students joined. After this we started the program. First the principal introduced the elders, Babu, and Ramalingam. Then she introduced the students and I. She went on to describe the intergenerational project that we were starting here on this day. Then, I quickly introduced the nine Isha students I had been working with and we sang “We’re Here” in English and the audience applauded their efforts. Then Babu counted the elders in and they sang Palum Paluum. They clapped as they entered singing this song and all of the students joined in. It was very loud. Then after the applause, Babu introduced that the same song that the students had just sung was now going to be sung to by the elders in Tamil. They sang the song to more applause. Then, the elders taught the song to all of the students. This took about three minutes. As soon as everyone was ready, the entire long room full of Isha students, the eight TEV residents, and a handful of teachers, the principals, and lucky onlookers like me, sang “We’re Here” in Tamil. It was an amazing sight. Over 250 students singing a song protesting elder visibility to a huge group of students This was a fantastic learning opportunity for the students and a great forum for the elders to be heard in their community. Babu 30 | P a g e
made sure to take a moment to speak to the students. He asked the children to put their hands up if they had living grandparents or had other elderly people in their lives. Everyone put their hand up. He then said to make sure that they remembered this song and remembered to be respectful to the elderly. After this, the program was finished. It is a tradition to finish a program of this nature by singing the national anthem. Everyone did this and then we were done. I had a brief conversation with the students congratulating and thanking them. They did a great job being mentors for the other students in their school. I also said my goodbyes to them and also to the director and the principals. They have been so easy to work this and I am very grateful for everything they have provided me with. I also made sure to touch base with the elders. They had a wonderful time. They loved singing for the students and they loved visiting the classrooms. It was a great day for everyone. When we returned to TEV, Ramalingam and I finished our final details. I sent an email to the upper management at HelpAge India detailing all of the accomplishments of this visit and thanking them and their staff for the ongoing support. Then, Ramalingam and I talked about some budget concerns. Everything will be quite simple in this regard. Ramalingam suggested that the UVic students and I raise money for the village. If in Canada we raise $2000 dollars HelpAge India will be able to refurbish a vehicle that they will be able to use in the village and to support other HelpAge initiatives. I committed on behalf of the UVic students and myself that we will fundraise this money by Christmas 2013. This is a gesture that will go a long way in this community and I have spent a large portion of my career as a professional fundraiser in non-profit organizations so $2000 is an achievable goal. I think we may be able to surpass that goal. I will call a meeting with all the students in September and we will figure out a way to raise this money. It will also act as a group building exercise. I will also approach other areas at UVic that maybe interested in supporting this project pending approval from Warwick.
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My second visit to Pondicherry/Cuddalore HelpAge India and Tamaraikulam Elders’ Village from July 13-31, 2013 has been a resounding success. I have been able to complete all major objectives I had set out before my visit and have felt welcomed and at-home while achieving these goals. I was able to firmly establish the roots for the Intergenerational Theatre Company built from members of the two communities of Tamaraikulam Elders Village and Isha Vidhya Matriculation School. Both of these communities have fully committed to the project (each has committed in writing), I have been able facilitate theatre workshops with each community, and my visit concluded with a workshop which brought together the two communities where they created a short performance together. I was also able to confirm a commitment from Pondicherry University to help with the creation of the Intergenerational Theatre Company. Dean and Head of the Performing Arts Department Dr. Gunasekaran has committed as a voluntary advisor of the project and has also committed to share a list of recent grads of his PhD and MPA degree programs that would be candidates to make up the directing team HelpAge India will hire to be the leadership of the Intergenerational Theatre Company in May 2014. I also confirmed that Vaani Puduvai 107.8 FM has interest in this project and will broadcast promotions for the company and when the company has a performance, they will record for broadcast on their airwaves. For my University of Victoria human research ethics purposes, I was required to receive clearance from Tamaraikulam Elders’ Village/HelpAge India, Isha foundation, and Pondicherry University to conduct research in this community. I have received letters of confirmation of this clearance from each organization. All of these achievements were made possible by HelpAge India staff but most specifically to Venugopal Ramalingam. He arranged all elements during my visit and accompanied me whenever possible to assist in my negotiations with the many community groups. It is because of his help and the fantastic reputation HelpAge India has built in this community that I have been able to complete all major objectives. His staff members have been excellent as well. Between Dr. S. Sathiyababu, the drivers – Mr. Gnanasekar and Kumaran, TEV Staff – Prabu, Devanathan, and Manikandan they helped me immensely throughout this visit not only to perform my duties but to feel at home while in a foreign country. I should also mention that my wife joined me for the first two weeks of this visit and she fell in love with this community. The staff and elders of TEV made her feel at home during her stay and for that, I am eternally grateful. I feel very blessed to be a part of this project and this community. I am happy with everything that has happened to this point and I am excited for the future of this project. I leave India with confidence that the intergenerational Theatre project we are working on has the opportunity to be a special project for this community.
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Gusul Family Press Victoria, BC, Canada Copyright 2013 Matthew “Gus” Gusul
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