Old newspapers are their steppingstone to the stage

June 12th, 2008 - 11:44 am ICT by IANS  

By Alkesh Sharma
Chandigarh, June 12 (IANS) Old newspapers may not mean much to you and me, but for the slum children who are part of a theatre group here, they mean the whole world. The group, Theatre Age, with ragpickers, shoeshine boys, domestic servants and others as its members, has been able to sustain itself over the years thanks to old newspapers that are collected by its volunteers and sold as scrap.

“Our volunteers collect old newspapers from people and sell them to scrap merchants. It brings us adequate funds to run our theatre group for slum children,” says Theatre Age president Zulfiqar Khan.

“Most of our students are illiterate. They are mostly ragpickers, shoeshine boys, labourers, servants, car-washers and wayward youth,” Khan told IANS.

Khan, who perceives theatre as the perfect medium for poor slum children to express their talent, says the NGO runs only on the basis of old newspaper sales. Theatre Age works in Chandigarh’s slum areas.

Operating from the premises of the Government High School in Sector 24 here, 25 students are currently enrolled with Theatre Age. Of them, 10 attend various government schools.

“Some of the students of Theatre Age are studying in my school. All of them are from very humble backgrounds and they would not have come to school if Theatre Age had not helped them,” points out Government High School principal Maninderjit Kaur.

The group was started in 1992 with over 35 students from the Janta Colony slum area in Sector 25. It staged its first full-fledged performance “Raja Aur Kisan” in June 1993.

The group has never looked back since then, taking up social issues like environment, female foeticide, AIDS and de-addiction.

Theatre Age introduced two hours of classroom teaching for its students in 1997 to overcome the handicap of completely illiterate pupils. Nearly 20 of its students have cleared the Class 5 examination so far.

Said Khan: “We don’t accept anything in cash from people. If anyone wants to help us, they can donate old newspapers to us. We don’t want any grants or fat cheques from the government or corporates. We have around 500 members and every month around 450 of them donate their newspapers. The volunteers are growing in number,” Khan pointed out.

The idea to collect and sell old newspapers came from a ragpicker student who was part of the group in 2003.

“Earlier we used to perform at various places and collect money. Raising funds was never easy for us. Initially, members also contributed Rs.100 per month. But the idea to sell old newspapers was groundbreaking for us,” he said.

Khan himself is a gold medallist from Panjab University’s Indian theatre department from where the likes of Anupam Kher and Kirron Kher took their lessons in acting. Khan did a brief role in Mahesh Bhatt’s film “Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan” a few years ago.

Theatre Age students have done well. A shoeshine boy is now a makeup man with a TV channel, a vagabond is a soldier in the Border Security Force (BSF) while a few others are conducting theatre workshops themselves.

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