The Ides of March: Shakespeare & Teenagers

March 15th. The Ides of March are come. Witheringly hot, in some unholy display of Mars-nature. Some kids who just did the ICSE literature paper were stunned to have a question on Artemidorus. “Why him?” they screeched, “He is just one tiny character in that miniature Act II Scene III! He never shows up again! Who cares about that act?” Ah, but I do. For one of the Theatre Lab kids – Shubham Goenka – performed it so beautifully that I will forever hear his voice calling “Caesar, beware of Brutus…” etc

Theatre Lab folk come in roughly two sizes:

“…the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.”


“…the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad”

I don’t take them “mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms”, though I assure you, some parents would admit those ones with glee.

And by the time they reach “soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard”, they’re usually married and working at a BPO.

So to this in-between lot of school boys and lovers, I try and bring Shakespeare. I do other classics as well - last term we learned how to sight-read the four parts of Ernst Toch’s The Geographical Fugue and we’ve had small sucesses with Kalidasa in translation - but it is to Shakespeare that I find myself returning time after time.

Studying Julius Caesar with Zui for her boards has been sweet pleasure. The three of us would read together in the evenings, passing roles between us, loving how the cobbler takes the piss with Flavius and Marulus. Mender of soles, indeed! And Act III Sc III, where the mob kills the wrong Cinna. They mean to kill Cinna, one of the conspirators and end up killing Cinna the Poet instead. Tragic irony and madcap humour. The wrong, stupid, mob-inspired killing of the artist.
Third Citizen
Your name, sir, truly
Cinna The Poet
Truly, my name is Cinna.
First Citizen
Tear him to pieces; he's a conspirator.
Cinna the Poet
I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet.
Fourth Citizen
Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses.

And the exchange between Brutus and his young servant Lucius in Act IV Scene III slayed us everytime. Dig this:

…..Canst thou hold up thy heavy eyes awhile,
And touch thy instrument a strain or two?
Ay, my lord, an't please you.
It does, my boy:
I trouble thee too much, but thou art willing.
It is my duty, sir.
I should not urge thy duty past thy might;
I know young bloods look for a time of rest.
I have slept, my lord, already.
It was well done; and thou shalt sleep again;
I will not hold thee long: if I do live,
I will be good to thee.

Wicked, innit?! Us and our (new word) calumnious minds!

But seriously, children and Shakespeare are a match made in heaven. I mean, what’s not to love? There are clowns and fairies and ghosts and murderers and love and ship wrecks and kings and queens – all the stuff of fairy tales. And Iambic Pentameter is the rhythm of children’s lives anyway.
Check this out:

“My cycle’s got a badly punctured tyre.”
“You touch my X-box and I’ll break your head.”
"Did you like the blue chick in Avatar?”

Da-Dum/ Da-Dum/ Da-Dum/ Da-Dum/ Da-Dum//

So it’s horribly sad that most children in India only meet Shakespeare through a dire academic syllabus that prescribes the poor old Bard to them in the VIII grade or so. By which time they are terrified and freeze at the first sight of a Thou or Thy. What a loss! To deprive children of the fun and madness of enacting Shakespeare.

I started out by just reading Charles Lamb to Zui and her 3 year old classmates. But soon we were hungry for the real thing and it felt good and muscular to wrap our mouths around “Double, double, toil and trouble/ Fire burn and cauldron bubble.” So, 3 little girls dressed up with glee as 3 little witches – black dresses, wigs and purple eyelashes - stirring potions in my gigantic, old biriyani vessel by firelight. They made and painted little cardboard charms to throw in their cauldron –

Fillet of a fenny snake,
(Quoth Kim “What’s a fenny snake, Aunty Kirtana?” Quoth I “No idea darling!”
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing

The rest were easy – eye, toe, wool, tongue – really, how could a child resist Macbeth?!

Regarding The Tempest, oh boy, shipwrecks are such a lure. Just make sure you have plenty of rope, tie some to a roof or a tree so as to enable swinging and climbing, a few white or blue monochrome saris as waves or sails and one loud voiced child who can cry “Boatswain!” Have a chorus wield imaginary oars and let them cry “We split! We split!” My inspiration for this scene is always Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prospero's_Books

We watched it in ’91 when it first came out. Sir John Gielgud’s voice, the multiple Ariel’s swinging high and the image of one of the Ariel’s pissing from his swing onto a little paper boat causing it to topple…what a gorgeous metaphor. Incidentally, one of the Ariel’s is played by James Thierree, grandson of Charlie Chaplin and great grandson of Eugene O’Neil. There’s poetry in it.

OK it’s true, sometimes in the summer, when it’s too hot to do more than lounge around on mats and groan about life and living, it gets a bit wordy. Especially with 12-14 year olds who are out of sorts with text and just want to get on with some “…acting, Kirtana! Why does he talk so bloody much, this dead, bald guy?” So last summer, we did a dumb show of the assassination of Julius Caesar. I would recommend this as an exercise to any group of actors, regardless of age.

14 characters including Caesar, Mark Anthony, the conspirators and the servants were cast and told to be deadly serious and just do what they were told. All of them wore white t-shirts. A basin of red paint was placed in the acting area. Then the actors were asked to merely walk through the actions of Act III Scene I, with no dialogue at all. In addition, before they approached Caesar for the assassination, they were to dip their hands in red paint. They were accompanied by the beating of a chenda.

It is a chilling sight to behold. From white to gory; the strategic and meticulous build up of actions to the assassination and thereafter. When Casca begins the assault from behind Caesar…when Caesar looks up at Brutus…when Brutus urges the conspirators to bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood…when Anthony shakes each of their hands…Stripped clean of text, Shakespeare’s theatrical vision is precise and visual.

And the best part of working with Shakespeare is that one never runs out of material. There is always something new to learn and explore. The sonnets, female characters, archetypes… it’s endless. This summer we’re going to try As You Like It.




Grade 5

God, I love 5th graders! They’re like raw guavas and skinned knees and wet swimsuits and squeaky voices and hot chocolate fudge and Akon and tight hugs and fake burps and real farts all served up at once.

We had 31 of them over for camp at Infinite Souls recently and… well, I lost my voice. Seriously, by Day 2, it was gone. I can pin point the exact moment when it departed – it was 3.45 am, Feb 21st.

I was fast asleep by 11.30 pm having exhausted myself begging kids to get into their tents and hit the sack for we had a 6 am trek the next day. Deep in some wayward dream I heard a huge, piercing scream and rushed out, hair awry and eyes frenzied, only to find all 31 wandering about in Superman pajamas, flashing torches like fireflies and saying “Varun did it, Varun did it” like 30 stuck records. Said Varun kept it up with a contrapuntal “I didn’t, I didn’t”. Turns out they had been awake all the while, the little devils, while innocent I lay asleep and dreaming. Then apparently Varun tripped over a tent cable and fell on one of the girl tents and Vanchika screamed like a banshee and then they all fell to bustling about like 4-foot tall busybodies. Long and the short of it…I lost my voice. It could be terror or else acute laryngitis.

I shone my pathetic Motorola phone light into Varun’s tent balefully, hoping the sight of me would cause the inmates to cower in fright. I opened my mouth to yell at them and here’s what came out “W..gr..h…f..grrr….t.” So they giggled and said, “What’s happened to your voice?” and that was the end of that.

They’re indescribable, this bunch. Like a mouthful of pop-rock; pop-blitz-crackle-spark. Driving you craaaa-zy and then making you collapse laughing. Somewhere in that dreamy liminal space between babies and stroppy teenagers.

Here are 10 wonderful moments from this camp:

1. Watching them play with Bamboo and Mushroom, delighted that the dogs would climb the hill with them.
2. The rounds of fake coughing. It started with one real cough at about 1 am and then continued from tent to tent; a good 30 mins of fake coughing.
3. All of them worrying about not having brushed their teeth before setting off on a trek. “Then how can we drink water on the trek?”
4. The boys rapping “Don’t trust a halli, never trust a halli” and “Meet me at the MTR”
5. One of the boys crying because someone said, as he lay in his sleeping bag in his tent “You look dead, dude”.
6. Shiv telling me his dog’s name is Cosmic Energy, “But we call him C.E.”
7. Watching them try Burma Bridge, try Tyre Wall, try Zip Line – nervous, worried, agrophobic – but not about to let it show too obviously
8. The two bodyguards (one of the children is from a political family) telling Vineeth that they were scared of wildlife and snakes
9. Arya telling me Vineeth’s scary ghost story during the trek with others filling in details
10. Watching them discover that someone had squirted them with Dabur Red toothpaste in the night. Oh, the fury!
11. The incessant questions about food. “What’s for lunch?” soon after they’d eaten breakfast.
12. Watching them try archery and see their hands afraid to let go of the arrow.
13. Their delight at the meal they cooked for us by themselves - wow
14. All of them exhausted and asleep by 9 pm the second night.
15. The moment when they say goodbye and they hug and dog pile you to the ground.

Oh, that’s more than 10…never mind.



I knew Angelica only briefly, but quite indelibly. Theatre is a wild and intimate thing that enchants you into thinking you know the heart of a stranger. She wafted, fairy-like - open, soft - across to us from thousands of miles away. Her native, as we say in Karnataka, being Santiago, Chile. Perhaps I should call her the Water Fairy Oolong or the Shui Xian? For Angelica loved tea. The tea pluckers, tea ceremony, tea-houses…she traveled far and wide to learn more about this plant and brew and social ceremony. But on her Facebook page she describes herself as Siri Mukta Kaur… And there is a picture of Tripura Sundari low down on her page! Ha! What worlds might she have visited?

She was a performance artist with a thing for tea…

Tea is the agricultural product of the leaves, leaf buds, and internodes of the Camellia sinensis plant, prepared and cured by various methods. “Tea” also refers to the aromatic beverage prepared from the cured leaves by combination with hot or boiling water, and is the common name for the Camellia sinensis plant itself. After water, tea is the most widely-consumed beverage in the world. It has a cooling, slightly bitter, astringent flavour which many enjoy.

Tea was, after all, part of the Ay Ombe Theatre tradition. Like fasting and samba and early morning silent meditations. Many a time, I came on one or the other of them drinking tea in Josefina’s room. Brew, pour, sip, talk.

Around the small rehearsal space Angelica paced, making it her own. Watching intently, as Radha Sullur drew Chitaara and Rangoli on the floor. Painting mandalas using powdered laterite that has remained, as is, on the floor today. She made a tea ceremony for us, patient, as it grew dark and we were lit with only a single lantern beneath the thatch. Then she swept a pile of tea dust, that she bought from the Vardenahalli chai kade, onto a pan and sprinkled it in a ring around the space. She left her hand-prints on the floor.

Angelica is a genus of about 60 species of tall biennial and perennial herbs in the family Apiaceae, native to temperate and subarctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere, reaching as far North as Iceland and Lapland. They grow to 1-3 m tall, with large bipinnate leaves and large compound umbels of white or greenish-white flowers. Some species can be found in Purple Moor and Rush Pastures.

On Febryary 27th 2010, Chile was struck by an earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter Scale. The epicentre was near Conćepcion. This quake is said to have changed the earth’s axis and rotational speed thus shortening our days by 1.26 microseconds. It was followed by a tsunami alert. All this was reported in tiny news items buried somewhere in the Bangalore newspapers.

Maria Angelica Perez Germain was on Juan Fernandez Island with her boyfriend when the wave struck. Her boyfriend was found, but her friends and family are still looking for her.

Remember Valparaiso?

On Drinking Tea Alone...

In my own hands I hold a bowl of tea;

I see all of nature represented in its green color.

Closing my eyes I find green mountains and pure water within my own heart.

Silently sitting alone and drinking tea, I feel these become part of me.

On Drinking Tea With Friends...

What is the most wonderful thing for people

like myself who follow the Way of Tea? My answer:

The oneness of host and guest,

created through 'meeting heart to heart',

and sharing a bowl of tea.

- by Soshitsu Sen, Grand Master XIV, Urasenke School of Tea




Seeds: Malnad Mela

When we were children and summer meant our grandmother’s rambling, musty home in Adyar, the best quiet-time game of all was The Tamarind Seed game. When the rest of the house shut the green wooden shades against the afternoon heat and slept, us cousins would lounge on the bougainvillea-clad verandah and play Tamarind Seed game. Other seeds figured in our lives as well – pumpkin, bitter gourd, ridge gourd were all carefully collected and laid out to dry in the sun on the terrace. One Rudrakshi seed sat on the back of my mother’s brass tortoise. Tulsi seeds were used in kashayams. Kanakambara seeds were collected, as were lilly seeds, balsam seeds, Bachelor’s Button seeds. In fact my grandmother, Jaya Kumar, was a veritable clearinghouse of every variety of flower, vegetable and fruit seed that grew in her garden.

Decades later, when Konarak and I began farming, we were delighted to get most of our seeds from our neighbours; huruli, avare, halsande and togri. It felt like they were giving us more than just seeds. A glimpse into their kitchens and the kattu saarus and avarekai hulis of yore.

And so life ought to continue, plodding on gently, vis-à-vis seeds and their perpetuation. Except, we’re not in Kansas anymore. A quite insidious (because they come to us in the name of development, poverty-eradication and change) adversary has entered our world - genetically modified and branded seeds.

There are two fundamental issues at stake – the first has to do with the nature of genetic modification. And the second has to do with ownership and Intellectual Property Rights. Genetic modification, very simply, involves the addition or deletion of certain genes from a species. This can happen in nature when exogenous DNA penetrates the cell membrane usually for reasons of evolutionary logic. For instance, the mammalian immune system which is geared to modify so as to protect the body from an infinite array of antigens. Unfortunately, capitalism is not quite as benign. So when a tomato is genetically modified to ripen without softening, it is done so to increase shelf life, storage possibility and eventually profits. Sounds good, except that artificial genetic engineering hasn’t had the benefit of millions of years of testing and fine tuning and can have unpredictable and unrepeatable results with unstable transgenic lines. And rest assured no one will talk about the human and fiscal costs involved (think BT Cotton) while plugging it to poor farmers in India.

Finally, to me the biggie is the issue of ownership and community. Why the hell would we give up our birthright to free and unconditional use of a vegetable (brinjal) or a medicial herb (neem) or a spice (turmeric) and begin paying a for-profit company for the right to plant or use it? Where is the logic in that? In Magadi, during the ragi harvest, it’s impossible to get labour on our farm because every hand is needed for work on their own farms. Men, women and children of the family all have unique roles in the harvesting process and rightly so. I heard that in Ladakh the most important man in the village is the one who shares the common water source, moving a dam here, shifting a tributary there so as to facilitate equitable distribution. Water-sharing was traditionally a part of our farming culture as is seed-sharing. So why walk into the trap of dependancy and that too for the profits of some anonymous and gigantic company?

Enter resistance; what a beautiful notion!

In the lush Malenad region, on a farm in Sirsi, lives my old, dear friend Sunita Rao. She is an environmental educator having made the trek from pure science to farming a while ago. In 2001 she started the Malnad Forest Garden and Seed Keepers’ collective as a network of seed exchange groups focused on celebrating and endorsing biodiversity. This activity further developed into Vanastree (Women of the Forest), a collective that promotes forest garden biodiversity and food security through the conservation of traditional seeds.

A legend on their website reads -

A few small seeds have the power within them to feed a family; a fistful of seeds, the whole community. Our future depends on saving the traditional diversity of seeds around us.

This last weekend I attended Malnad Mela organized by Vanastree. Suddenly, in the mall-peppered mindscape of Bangalore, a colourful and diverse exhibition and sale of seeds, home-made produce and patchwork godhdis. It was so lovely that in minutes I had 8 containers of citronella/beeswax insect repellent, pudina and vilva pathra tambuli podi (to mix into curd or buttermilk on a hot summer day), Kai Holige, Malnad pickles, organic turmeric, vanilla bean (that I shall turn into crème brulee), pure apricot oil, wild honey, amla jam, organic cashew nuts and lemon pickle. And all of this for about Rs 1,500/-. Further, the sales from Malnad Mela will go towards nurturing traditional skills, sustaining livelihoods and upholding the idea of community. It blows my mind. It really does only take a spark…

I am drinking a delicious kashyam right now that Manorama Joshi of Vanastree said was good for laryngitis. It cost Rs 40/- for 50 gms as against a bottle of a common cough syrup (not suitable for children, don’t drink and drive) that costs Rs 57/-. The former is soothing and believable, the latter makes one feel like a drowsy elephant coming down off a very bad trip. I mean, seriously, consider the options!

Malnad Mela has been coming to Bangalore, to the home of another old school friend, Mala Dhawan, for the past 3 years and has had tremendous response. Sunita said they had many new faces visit this year and very many children. I have no doubt the idea will spread like wildfire because it’s beauty lies in it’s simplicity. It doesn’t require sponsorship or big funds to start a seed bank, to share seeds, to downsize, to resist. It’s the David and Goliath story, ya’ll.
Small is simply sweeter.