Reflecting on a week in the City of Joy on World Children’s Day

(4 minute read / lifetime action)

Earlier this month I spent some time in Kolkata / Calcutta.  It is known as The City of Joy…and I would add to that Colour, Charm, Energy, Chaos and Complexity.  It is an astonishing place. Being there has shifted my perspective a little, as all great adventures do.

We – Andy Cannon, Gerron Stewart and me – were there to present Andy’s show Is this a Dagger? the Story of Macbeth as the opener at the inaugural Think Arts Festival,  on the invitation of the founder of ThinkArts, the incredible Ruchira Das. I met Ruchira in 2017 through Paul Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of Imaginate.  Paul knew we would get on and I can’t thank him enough for the introduction.  Ruchira has a warmth and energy that shines out of her and a sharp, curious mind that draws you in. We connect on a number of levels professionally and personally and I’m so grateful to know her.  Meeting Ruchira has expanded and challenged my mind and beliefs.

Ruchira saw Is this a Dagger? at the Edinburgh Festival in 2018. When she invited it to play at her festival I couldn’t understand how the ‘Scottish play’ would connect with a young Indian audience.  I get it now.  The response by children and adults to the show was inspiring.  The young people we played to in Kolkata know Macbeth – more than young people in Scotland do (in my experience).  They study it from age 13.  During the performance they quoted it alongside Andy and, after, they had a wealth of questions to help deepen their understanding.  The education these young people receive is clearly of a very high standard, but of course that’s not the reality for all children in India.

As well as being known as the City of Joy Kolkata is renowned for its poverty.  Despite this I was quite unprepared for the reality of it.  The drive in from the airport, past an extensive shanty town, gave us an early introduction.  Throughout the week our close encounters with people living on the edge of, and deep in poverty was difficult to bare.  Hardening the heart a little is one possible tactic for dealing with it – but not an easy one, especially with the children.  When I tried to help, on a few occasions, it seemed to misfire and I found myself increasingly confused and low.  The reality of poverty in Kolkata is very complex.  There is, of course, no easy answer to it or one would have been found by now, but knowing that doesn’t help when a small child stares into your eyes and pleads for your help.  Scotland too has its own poverty story but it is more hidden than in India, which is problematic in itself.  In Scotland and India unacceptable numbers of people are facing situations where they cannot afford the basics never mind engaging with the arts.

So facing this reality of child poverty how do we – Red Bridge Art and ThinkArts – reconcile our collective drive to ensure that children around the world have opportunities to participate as audiences in the best children’s theatre – when so many don’t have food, clean water, shelter, safety?  Over recent months I’ve been asking questions about what we do and why we do it thanks to current global political and environmental struggles.  My time in Kolkata has me questioning deeper still.  In a city where the average monthly salary is, reportedly, around £300 – how can it be possible to fund this endeavour and is it the right thing to do? Ruchira and her team’s passion and energy in making their vision a reality in their home city, however, is deeply inspiring. And witnessing audiences responding to our work always spurs me on.  Turning the question round, then, I find myself asking why children there – and here – should be deprived of any right – including the right to take part in a range of artistic activities.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is 30 years old this year.  The Convention sets out the fundamental rights of all children and young people.  The call to world leaders is to commit to making sure that every child, has every right.  In Scotland right now our government is in the process of developing the legislation to incorporate the UNCRC into Scots law. This can only be a good thing.  In fact it’s pretty monumental and should make a fundamental difference to children in Scotland.  Re-reading the 54 articles contained within the Convention I find myself nodding to each and every one.  They are all vital. Imagine a world where The best interests of the child is a top priority in all decisions and actions that affect children (article 3) and governments do all they can to ensure that children survive and develop to their full potential (article 4), and where every child has the right to relax, play and take part in a wide range of cultural and artistic activities (article 31), and, and, and…
(Go on – allow yourself a little longer reading time and read the summary of the convention here).

As I researched for this article I discovered that today, 20 November, is actually World Children’s Day – a day of action for child rights. It couldn’t be a more apt time to reflect and ask ourselves these questions.  Children are demanding their rights. Their question:  What will you do?

What will you do?

#WorldChildrensDay #foreverychild

By Alice McGrath, Creative Director, Red Bridge Arts, 20 November 2019





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