A bunch of youngsters visit hospitals regularly and through their ‘clown’ acts, are making a difference in the lives of those who desperately need joy.
On a gloomy Sunday afternoon, I find myself accompanying an enthusiastic gang of youngsters who are busy painting their faces and prepping for a session in which they will act as clowns.
Describing themselves as “a bunch of people who love cheering people by playing clowns in hospitals and spreading joy in the lives of others,” Compassionate Clowns is all about bringing a difference in the lives of those who are sick. I’m curious to find out how they do it.
The pediatric ward at St. John’s Hospital suddenly comes to life with the surprise entry of a jolly bunch of clowns. Their grand entry, pointy red noses and colourful cheeks instantly catch the attention of parents and children.
A quirky introduction, a few synchronised rhymes to break the ice, and soon the “compassionate clowns” are entertaining everyone with their trademark “banana” song. Excited kids look up and take notice, while their parents are smiling and clicking images. Dressed in the hospital’s pale green uniforms, some children hesitantly join in the fun and banter, not minding the bandages of IV drips on their wrists.
“We don’t have a set pattern. We usually gauge the situation with every kid and then start by just running around or playing with them. It’s mostly organic and sometimes we develop tricks on the spot,” says Lalantika Venkatraman who has been volunteering for these sessions for over two years now.
From struggling for permissions to perform in hospitals to recently going international, Harish Bhuvan’s cheerful venture, Compassionate Clowns has seen its fair share of ups and downs.
After the bumpy start and initial challenges
Harish Bhuvan was on the verge of popping sleeping pills after being diagnosed with clinical depression, when an idea changed his life. A chance meeting with an old college mate took him to Brigade Road where he a watched a clown perform for the masses.
“After watching the performance, my friend Nivendra and I discussed how it would be act as clowns in a hospital to help patients laugh and recover. And that’s how the idea dawned on me,” shares the 27-year-old.
Soon Harish quit his well-paying research job at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay and since then there’s been no turning back for this creative youngster.
“The initial challenges were mostly about acquiring permissions. Hospitals were sceptical because they were not aware of the healing effects of these sessions. Funding (mostly for props) and team management have also been persistent problems,” says Harish.
Humour has therapeutic effects
Each session begins with an introductory circle where new clowns are welcomed and a minute of silence is observed in gratitude. “The idea behind this is to feel grateful for everything - be it a small act of kindness or even a big blessing that’s exclusive to your life. “When we do this, all our suffering either vanishes or diminishes. This helps us cheer the children in the ward better,” says Harish. This is in line with the motto of Compassionate Clowns who believe that ‘gratitude and suffering cannot co-exist’.
This type of activity where humour is used to spread cheer has proven to have therapeutic effects and Harish claims the techniques have promising “side effects” and helps lower blood pressure, decrease stress hormone levels, and increase immunity building T-cells.
Twenty-two-year-old Allam Shah, a counselling psychology student at Christ University explains how empathy plays an important role.
“When we act as clowns, we show we care. We bring a smile on their faces. This makes a difference,” she says, adding, “We have witnessed instances where children with motor skill disorders have sat up and played or patients running high temperatures have recovered and been discharged from hospitals after participating in these sessions.”
Compassionate Clowns regularly conducts its weekly sessions at St. John’s Medical Hospital. They have also organised sessions for children suffering from cancer at Kidwai Memorial Institute of Oncology.
“My sister introduced me to the group. Initially I was hesitant but once I joined, I was hooked. I have felt a great deal of happiness in making children smile for the past two years. Compassionate Clowns is more like family to me now,” shares 25-year-old Sunil K gladly. In fact, I found a new meaning to life by working with them,” he adds terming the experience as “therapeutic” even for the clowns.
Growing strong as an organisation
Started in January 2014, Compassionate Clowns has gained popularity mostly through word-of-mouth and their Facebook page. “I’m happy that the organisation has now evolved into a reliable entity. But we mostly depend on donations by people who believe in the cause,” says Harish who is positive about acquiring funding in the coming days.
He also values the lessons he has learnt as a ‘clown’. “With each session, the clown and the patient, grow. Each clown's journey is unique, they plan and come up with ideas on how to connect with every sick child they meet.”
Terming the experience as bi-directional, Compassionate Clowns follows a few basic rules during their sessions in pediatric wards - no feeding, gadgets or toxic humour. Each session wraps up with a reflection circle where every clown speaks at length, sharing the day’s experience.
Harish is also ecstatic about Compassionate Clowns’ international debut in Singapore in collaboration with Sanrakshan Pvt. Ltd. “The response to the sessions conducted at Muslim Kidney Action Association and Association for Person with Special Needs (ASPN) has been fantastic and I hope this partnership continues”.
Though the future remains uncertain, Harish and his team of Compassionate Clowns are optimistic about extending their reach to most hospitals in the long run.