Shakespeare: A worldwide classroom

Kolkata - Part 1

February 26, 2013

Tracy's WSF blog - KolkataI'm not good with crowds. I like my space. I always breathe a sigh of relief when I come home from meetings in London and get off the train to see fields with sheep and llamas. So I did feel a bit nervous about Kolkata, third most populous city in India.

In his blog about Delhi, Tom Piper talks about 'sensual bombardment' and 'a tangle of humanity'. Indeed. But it's amazing how quickly kindness and friendly faces can make you feel at home, and there to meet me at the airport was the friendly face of Anmol, our lead student from our partner school in India, accompanied by his father who promptly bought me a cup of tea - the first of many kindnesses I experienced from Indian people.

I quickly learned that when you meet someone in India, you meet their family - and are welcomed into it. The next day, Anmol and his mother took Lali (from South Africa - she had decided to join this trip too) and me on a sightseeing tour, telling us about the history of Kolkata, its integral role in the British Empire and its heritage of colonial buildings - all fascinating stuff.

Our lead teacher in Kolkata is Anjana, who is also Vice Principal of Delhi Public School (DPS). DPS is a relatively new, very big school on the outskirts of the city. My experience this week, unusually, was only with private schools. Compulsory education in India ends at age 14 and Shakespeare is generally studied post-14. There are state Secondary schools but Anjana estimated that 25-30% schools are private and families will send their children to those schools if they possibly can. Economic disparity is a way of life here. To Lali and I, there was glaring, often uncomfortable segregation between rich and poor, but our hosts took it as part of the rich tapestry of Indian life, and showed kindness where they could.

Anjana is not only an accomplished professional woman but also a very natural mother. She cares deeply about her students' personal as well as academic progress and welcomed both Lali and I into her home, and always made sure we were well fed. As a vegetarian, Indian food was something I really enjoyed.

The third addition to the Kolkata team is Dana, the theatre artist supporting the project. Anmol and Anjana had come over to the UK the September seminar; Dana unfortunately joined the project too late to come to Stratford but has proved a tremendous addition. She has helped the Arts Award students develop their performances of Macbeth and invited them to see a show created by the company she works with, Ranan, called Crossings which focuses on Lady Macbeth. At the show, the students also had a chance to talk with Felicity Kendall who was in town filming her Indian Shakespeare Quest recently shown on BBC Two.

One evening, Lali and I were the focus of an 'adda' - an informal discussion at the Ranan HQ. It was a wide-ranging conversation over two hours about Shakespeare's place in colonial history, contemporary culture and the familiar laments over a Shakespeare trapped in exam questions.

Our first school visit was to Sri Sri Academy, set up by Ravi Shankar; another relatively new school which puts a spirit of enquiry and the arts at the centre of its learning. Their dedication stone says: 'A temple of learning, dedicated to spread human values and stress free education.' Sounds good to me and it certainly had the feeling of being a very happy school.

We were treated to a welcoming ceremony including a performance of some sketches from Rabindranath Tagore, and then I led two one-hour 'Introduction to Shakespeare' sessions,  each with around 50 11 and 12 year-olds.

Their general knowledge about Shakespeare was impressive and their enthusiasm as Montagues and Capulets in Act 1 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet was infectious. One boy was particularly proud of knowing that Shakespeare invented words and would occasionally insist on telling us another neologism that he had remembered.

Working with large numbers was an interesting challenge. So much of RSC work is about connection. Michael Boyd has said that the ideal number of actors to work with in a rehearsal room is much the same as a classroom: too many and you weaken the opportunities and advantages of an ensemble, but maybe that's cultural, the personal space we feel we need as western Europeans.

I don't know, but my experience in Kolkata was of young people who seem more open to each other and to learning through new experiences than their Western peers, and perhaps this allows them to connect more easily even in large groups. Anjana's sister is a Primary Head in a school with 8000 pupils. She told me they do shows with 3000 children! Key roles are passed on and shared between students and every child gets their moment on the stage.

Photo by Tracy Irish © RSC

by Tracy Irish  |  No comments yet

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Teaching Shakespeare