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A Clowning Glory

A few doctors are bringing an alternative healing method to town

A Clowning Glory
Tribhuvan Tiwari
A Clowning Glory

On The Nose

  • Diya Banerjee has tried to create a better awareness of the efficacy of clown therapy
  • Her documentary The Hope Doctors was ­released in 2014 to a wave of ­critical acclaim
  • She calls her own clown personas Jhumpa, Saucy McCuddle and Shanti Salaama


A midst the flurry of white- coated doctors and purposefully striding nurses on a busy morning at the Arav­ind Eye Hospital in Pondicherry, two red noses stand out. But it’s not a peculiar medical affliction that has brought Fif Fernandes and Hamish Boyd—them with the colourful nasal appendages—to hospital this morning. They too are here as healers and the red noses are part of the uniform, their own clinical props, much like the stethoscopes that dangle around doctors’ necks. Soon, Fernandes aand Boyd will begin their rounds and do their juggling acts to the accompaniment of delighted squeals from young and old patients. On occasion, a doctor will even endure a jocular spank from them—if that’s what a patient wants!

The curious goings-on at Aravind Eye Hospital are all part of a pioneering programme under which trained “medical clowns” or “therapeutic clowns” assist in a holistic medical treatment process by channelling that old piece of wisdom about laughter being the best medicine. The practice, which has become popular in Canada, Italy, Israel and parts of the US, is still in its infa­ncy in India, but slowly gaining traction.  “Hamish and I are professionally trained medical and therapeutic clowns,” says Fernandes, a Tanzanian-born person of Indian origin who worked as a therapeutic clown (and a theatre professi­onal) in Canada before returning to India. Both come from medical families and have been trained in Israel, which has emerged as a centre for training; they now run the Komali MeDi Clown Academy in Auroville.

Over in Delhi, clowning artist Ashwath Bhatt, trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art , has been working to let hospitals in India open their doors to him. “It has been medically proven that laughter helps in the healing process,” he says. Studies in Israel have shown infertile couples exposed to medical clowning for six months being able to conceive, even sooner than other couples on IVF program­mes, which were rather more stress-inducing. From some accounts, clowns have been used as medical healing assistants right from the days of good old Hippocrates.

Bhatt has used his clowning skills to therapeutic effect at the cancer support services CanKids and CanSupport. He recalls how one day the mother of a 10-year-old boy with cancer was agonising that he had not eaten in two days. “We started clowning around and playing with a banana and soy milk pac­ket; and as he watched, he suddenly reached out and helped himself to two bananas. Everyone was stun­ned.” For Bhatt, it was an epiphany: he had found his vocation. There is a fine line between medical clowning—which helps distract a patient—­and therapeutic clowning, which ties in with holistic healing and wellness. The concept is so new that the medical fraternity is yet to recognise its potential, says filmmaker Diya Banerjee, whose film The Hope Doctors records the successful transformative role that clowning has had in medical spaces in the West. Her story also highlights the few hospitals in India where therapeutic clowning is being deplyed. At the paediatric cancer ward at AIIMS, for instance, oncologist Dr Rachna Seth uses distraction therapy during the  harrowing but unavoidable chemotherapy procedures and has a TV installed in the common lobby where kids can watch cartoons and have their attention diverted from the pain of injections. 

In many cases, the clowns themselves have had troubled pasts. Bhatt, a Kashmiri Pandit, fled a burning Srinagar in 1993, and says that in many ways he has not moved on from the trauma in Kashmir. When his mother was in hospital undergoing painful radiotherapy for cancer, a friend from Aus­tralia who came visiting started clowning for her. “My mother began laughing like a kid,” recalls Bhatt. Fernandes says she was inspired to take up therapeutic clowning by two of her aunts. “I’d visit my aunt in hospital every day, and entertain her, the other patients and their families.” The other aunt was a Franciscan Missionary of Mary. Fern­andes used to accompany the Sisters to leprosy homes and those for the destitute, and perform puppetry and clowning for the inmates. “I did not know then that I would take this up as a profession,” she says.

But it’s still hard to be untouched by the trauma and the distress that they see around them. “A lot of medical clowns get overwhelmed by it,” says Bhatt. “You have to be detached.” But the sense of exhilaration they feel when they are able to touch a troubled patient with their antics is unm­atched. Boyd and Fernandes—whose ‘clown’ names are Dr Papa­dum and Papadee—say they have no set routine; they improvise and they always seek permission. “With a two-year-old, for instance, it could start with a peek-a-boo; for an older child, we might walk into a door to help him or her loosen up,” says Fernandes. She recalls asking a 94-year-old man if he would like to dance; he promptly got up and waltzed with her, which loosened his long-term memory. Bhatt points out that it is not always about making people laugh, but about making people in a trauma situation feel better. Eventually, says Bhatt,  it comes down to the kind of “connect” that the clown develops with the patient. He recalls two striking instances when such a fortuitous connection happened. In one instance, a woman in an old-age home, seeing him for the first time, instantly opened up, saying, “Come,  I know you!” Volunteers said that was the first time in a long while that she had ever laughed. Another time, when his team was playing with kids with cancer, one of the children started clapping and playing—the first time in days that he had moved his limbs. What was more striking, the child was blind. “Again, it was just the co­nnect,” says Bhatt.

But such anecdotal evidence of the therapeutic effect of medical clowning hasn’t been enough to persuade senior doctors in India to open up their minds—and their hospital doors—to this emerging healthcare practice. Bhatt says he’s been to some leading hospital groups, and met top offici­als and has often been told that “these thi­ngs happen in America, not here.” But the hospitals that did invite him want him back. Fernandes and Boyd too have had positive feedback from Chennai hospitals. They are already busy with their routine in Auroville and Chennai, and are looking for the prog­rammes to be recognised by the government. Fernandes conducts a module in clowning for social work students at the Stella Maris College. She trains freshers at the Aravind Eye Hospital in Pondicherry to apply humour and distraction therapy in their own lives and in everyday patient-care routine. “My job is to create hope,” she says. If that requires her to smack a doctor on the head every once in a while, well, so be it.


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