On the outskirts of this charming metropolis, a streak of metal railway lines pierces the hint of the countryside and I found myself in the modest abode of an exemplary artist who has made his mission to change the educational landscape of our society. This is a story of a pioneer, who has taken an initiative to implement his vision about how drama can be used to positively impact the field of moral education.
Walter Peter is a stage and theatre artist who has been working extensively with and for children, teachers and youth of the country since 1993 to promote the concept of Theatre in Education (TIE). An Ex-TIE Company Member of National School of Drama, New Delhi, he is currently working with CRY, an NGO that works for the rights of children, as a facilitator, actor, writer, director and designer of plays which he performs in all corners of the country to explain his vision and mission.
With a burst of emotions on his face and a sparkle in his eyes, Walter begins his story by talking about his childhood and his family that played a major role in developing his artistic inclinations and helped in shaping up his interest for drama and poetry.
“I grew up in a very modest neighbourhood with limited resources but then I have always thought of myself having a very khurafati (innocently mischievous) mind-set. I loved to draw and paint but we didn’t have the money to buy new crayons and water colors and so I used to complete the drawing homework of my friends and relatives using their materials. This helped me a lot since I went on to become the only student from my school who cleared the theory and practical exam in drawing in the 12th standard.”
“My elder brother loved to watch dramas and plays and my mother used to sing at the old radio station near the Kashmiri Gate in Delhi and these probably exposed me to the more expressive arts and pursuits of life. I started participating in the school dramas and community poetry readings and I realized that they helped me in emotionally expressing the observations about the behaviours of society that I made in my mind.”
If we were to look at the background of all those people who made a great impact on the world, one would invariably find that one defining moment in their childhood which made all the difference in their lives. And this is why Walter earnestly stresses the importance of working with children because even Batman would just have been Bruce Wayne, if not for that poignant incident that he experienced as a child. With a solemn intensity in his eyes and an ardent fervour in his pitch, Walter talks about why he prioritizes his activities for children in particular.
“Why not children? They are the ones who will shape up our country and our world and it becomes very important to provide them with the right kind of ambience and interaction at that age itself. It pains me to see the news channels prioritizing child segments only when there is sensationalism involved. They don’t have 10 minutes for children until and unless a kid falls into a pit or gets raped. On a daily basis, we see hundreds of kids getting disappeared or forced into labour. Why do we wait to make a story about them unless and until something bad happens to them? I wish to talk about them. I want to be a voice for them. It would
very foolish to neglect the young assets which make up at least 40 % of our country’s population because they are the ones that matter.”
It is true that the art of drama and theatre has been sidelined and neglected to a solitary circle of enthusiasts and have been subjected to nothing more than a leisurely recreation by the masses. With a vehement shake of his head, Walter dismisses the bigoted and narrow view of the art and talks about the far reaching benefits and implications of this untapped medium of education.
“I feel that all the subjects that we study like Maths, Science, History, Philosophy, Poetry and others ultimately talk about the concept of living a life. Each individual subject may approach that concept differently, some at a more molecular level while some at a more pragmatic level and all the progress we do, we document it in books and a very constricted definition of education would be the study of these books. I feel that Theatre in Education can help in bringing these books alive. Nowadays, we have very progressive technologies which are affecting the way we see education but ultimately it is all electronic and it lacks in feeling, which according to me is the most important ingredient. We need to make the children get more involved and more interactive with the things that they are learning. And this is where Drama in Education can make a difference. Drama can be that podium which can eliminate the hierarchies of social and economic classes and bring everyone at the same level to achieve an ulterior motive.”
“I can describe my whole vision and concept in two words. ME to WE. A society is made of individuals and it is an individual that goes through different experiences in life that develops his societal attitude. So we need to talk about “ME”, especially in schools because it is imperative to make a child aware about his own potential and capabilities. I believe that drama helps an individual to connect with himself, gives the power to believe in one’s imagination and can help in creating a collective consciousness of “WE”. Drama can be a natural medium of artistic expression whose scope can be unbounded and which can help in creating a perspective.”
More often than not, when we see people who are passionate towards a cause, be it freedom fighters or religious campaigners or any such groups of people, there is an indomitable spirit that allows them to sacrifice material comforts and their other cultural obligations. With a characteristic zeal in his eyes, Walter talks about the driving force in his life that keeps his journey going.
“You can say that I found my calling in Theatre for education. See, there are a lot of government as well as private institutions that work for children and they might be doing a good job too. But I see myself as an entrepreneur who works for the satisfaction that it gives to my soul. It gives my life a purpose to be working for a cause and I feel happy that I contribute to build a better society. I have worked for 11 years at the National School of Drama in Delhi as a casual and a permanent artist and I received a lot of exposure for this concept of Theatre in Education then, but when I decided to step out, I had to face a harsh reality that in our conventional society, there were no jobs for me. I was surprised to find out that such an important tool which can be used to impact the society, education, youth and be used to bring the necessary changes in the society was not acknowledged enough in the nation. I got associated with CRY and I then got the chance to work at the ground level with the underprivileged and the village kids and I have never looked back since then”
“I have travelled almost 90 percent of the India doing workshops and dramas and spreading my concept of Theatre in Education. I have worked with the teachers in Kerala, the theatre artists of Goa, an organization called Swayam in Chennai, the children of the North-East India, the remote villages in Kashmir and a long list of other places. The idea is to include the children and give them a platform to voice their observations and what they think about the different issues that they have to deal with. This is basically the collection of raw data which helps me in conceptualising the ideas that can be included as a teaching method in the curriculum of schools.”
Walter believes that he has a magic masala called Theatre in Education for Change through which he can prepare a concoction of different workshops that target the specific audiences as well as the specific subjects and issues of the society. With a clear and well defined focus, Walter performs various workshops with teachers, annual day workshops, workshops for teenagers, process oriented workshops and many others.
“The most important workshop that I do is with parents. It is disappointing to see a wide gap of communication between the parents and their children, especially in teenage years, where the children tend to be involved more with the society and their friends rather than with their parents. This is a delicate phase because the children start developing their own opinions and own ideas about the world and expect their parents to treat them in a mature adult manner. It is highly imperative that parents understand this fact and try to solve the issues through mature and healthy discussions rather than imposing their own preconceived notions on their children. We need to allow our children a certain amount of freedom and a personal space and develop the ability to listen to them and if we can do that, we can reduce the amount of child suicides that happen in this country.”
“So in my workshops with parents, I try to develop dramas that revolve around these issues and involve both the parents and their children into the act with the roles reversed so that they can actually understand each other better and start seeing things from each other’s perspectives. Sometimes the children need to understand and sometimes the parents. You won’t believe that at the end of these plays, there are tears in the eyes of both of them. The children are overjoyed to see their parents dance and sing and play with them while the parents start to see their own children in a way they have never seen before. And when I see this, I realize the importance of the work that I am doing.”
Walter Peter is a man of many talents and it was hard to believe that this splendid work that he had been doing for more than a decade did not find a bigger canvas to be projected upon. So when I finally asked him about the kind of future that he envisioned for Theatre in Education and for himself, he looked at me with a solemn sadness and desperation of someone who has been shouting loudly for a long time without anyone to there to listen to him.
“I am an artist and I know how to do the execution but I am not so good at branding and marketing my work. All the corporate companies have a CSR program where they apparently fulfil their social responsibility by distributing eateries to the children or by sponsoring some money to some schools. See I am not against all this but what is needed is not some one day happiness programs but a decent process which can actually help in changing things at a grass-root level. I believe that if they adopt the TIE concept, they can create a strong movement of change which will have a larger impact because of their widespread resources.”
As our conversation near an end, I ask Walter about the scope of taking this in schools. The nerves on his forehead tighten. He tells me how at 43, he sometimes gets frustrated. He breaks down. And while he says this, he pulls himself back up and says,
“Mera ek sapna hai. To have Theatre in Education in each and every school of India and in each and every state because I have seen the kind of positive impact that it has on the society. If something like McDonald’s can be set up in every corner of the country, we can surely accomplish the development of this positive concept at a deeper and a wider level. I am ready to invest and contribute my life resources to make this dream a reality and I will wholeheartedly embrace anyone who wishes to contribute for Theatre in Education.”
As I made my way back to the city, I could hear the siren of a train piercing the steadfast tranquillity of the sun-kissed afternoon and penetrating the siesta of the citizens who had finally gone to rest. Maybe it was the siren of hope. The siren of change. The siren of Theatre in Education.
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