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Mihika Jindal

The clown: Building a legacy of warmth & happiness

Mihika Jindal talks to Pravin Tulpule, an ex-naval officer who decided to prematurely retire after 18 years in service, to follow his true calling, a life of clowning around and bringing people joy.

Pravin Tulpule on his phone.

lowning after a long stint with the Navy seems like quite a shift. How did it all happen for you?

A. Of the last three or four generations of Tulpules, I'm the first one to take the stage, so I am not sure where I harboured these genes from. The Navy happened because my sister married a naval officer and I was as enchanted by the uniform as women usually are. I served as a commissioned officer for 18 years in the Navy, which is when I figured that I will not be able to pick up my next rank, and my love for clowning was increasing by the day. While still with the Navy, I managed to win prizes in some entertainment conventions. Many sponsors approached me to act for them but I had to clearly deny all those opportunities because I was still with the armed forces. Nevertheless, I realised its potential and also the fact that I can be funny.

Q. Does the act of clowning provide you with some kind of catharsis?

A. I think so. The clown's mask is official. Under its garb, he can get away with almost murder... almost. He can release his feelings and bottled up emotions and get back to his normal self just by shedding that costume. It was perhaps working as some sort of catharsis for me, because I couldn't have done these things in my original self. I am not suggesting I was stifled in my uniform, but I definitely had a protocol to follow.

Q. When did you perform your first show?

A. I performed my first act in 1974-75. My father had a spare bathrobe that became my first magic cloak. My friend and I sat overnight making carbon-copy tickets and went around locally, selling them for 10 and 25 paise. We had a hall where I had set up my stage and my friend agreed to be the door-keeper. I had some 80 tricks up my sleeve then that I could perform confidently.

Q. You are not formally trained to be a clown. How did you develop your skills?

A. I studied in a convent throughout, which took care of my language, and the Navy helped me with my confidence. As for the tricks, I have learnt things on my way. Some tricks are self-taught, some picked up from books and some through initial help from the madaris (street magicians), who are an apprehensive lot. They don't fear competition but are scared of being exposed because they are associated with superstitions and black magic. They are very particular about passing their knowledge down their own generations. Only persistence worked with them. Plus they'd always expect something in return. As a school kid, I had nothing much to offer, so I would show them a trick or two and they'd let me in on some of their secrets.

Q. What is your usual target audience?

A. Anyone and everyone. Typically, magicians and clowns are only perceived as entertainers for kids, but in fact it's for everyone. Whenever I perform in hospitals, I have a handful of children and many more adults. My acts don't necessarily require a stage. I have performed at hospitals, in slums and even on footpaths. I get into character almost instantly.

Q. How do you see yourself as an artist?

A. I occupy this space between a magician and a clown, where I am not looking to create a "wow" effect or to get the audience puzzled about my tricks. For me, it's more about making my audience happy. As a clown, you have to give the upper hand to your audience. I make children laugh by making myself look silly. You have to get on the stage thinking that you are an idiot. Unless I can laugh at myself, I can't expect anyone to laugh at me. And that has been a part of my grooming. Besides other things, my parents and I would definitely share our goof-ups and blunders and laugh out loud at each other.

Q. Is there anything unique that's part of your act?

A. I have developed this specific streak which is called "care clowning". At its nascent stages, care clowning is not limited to showcasing your tomfoolery and making people laugh at your stupidity; it is about adding value to your act and passing a message. I inculcate and deliver very basic messages through my acts — like having a good breakfast before you leave for school, or about respecting parents, teachers and elders. Chakachak, one of my magic words that emphasises on keeping your hands clean and maintaining basic hygiene, works especially well when I am performing for slum kids. It's easier and more effective to deliver serious thoughts through funny acts because it creates a mental hook, as against a nukkad-natak (street play), for instance, which mostly fails to engage its audience because of its preachy nature.

Q. Do you work independently or with other organisations?

A. I have been part of the core team and a mascot for Toy Bank, a children-oriented NGO, for the last nine years. I perform for them at the Mumbai Marathon every year. I am also associated with an NGO called Vidya which works for women empowerment where I conduct workshops; Cancer Curative where I convey anti-tobacco, anti-gutka and anti-drugs messages through my acts; Electrical Safety Forum where my comic acts revolve around electrical safety and electricity conservation. I also perform in corporate events and schools, which takes care of my bread, butter, cheese and jam and makes it possible for me to continue my social work.

Q. What has been your proudest accomplishment so far?

A. I was performing in Bangalore a couple of years ago and was having a fun argument with the kids in the audience, contending about who the best cook they knew was. Children were screaming to establish that each of their mothers were the best. The point that I was trying to drive home was that mothers prepare a meal with this secret ingredient called love, and so the food in the lunch-box should not be wasted; that we can share it but never waste it. This entire idea got sold to one child who was perhaps a poor eater.

As a clown, you have to give the upper hand to your audience. I make children laugh by making myself look silly. You have to get on the stage thinking that you are an idiot. Unless I can laugh at myself, I can’t expect anyone to laugh at me.

Months later, I was performing again when this lady came on stage to share her experience of how her son had improved his eating habits because she would quote my character every time her son threw a fit around food.

Q. Who is your inspiration?

A. I respect Raj Kapoor ji a lot for bringing the joker to India and portraying it so beautifully. But because of that character, people assume that every joker is sad from within. Also, technically, there is a distinction between a joker and a clown. While a joker makes you laugh through his antics, a clown will make you happy. And the thing with making someone happy is that the feeling sticks around for longer. And that's my idea — I want to make people laugh and share an emotion.

Q. So, apart from being a caring clown-magician-entertainer, do you find time to do other things as well?

A. I write poetry and I am a trained teenage behaviour counsellor. I am also a mime artist, a tarot card reader, a puppeteer and I conduct gardening and puppet making workshops with children. I am very fond of cooking and kitchen experiments and appeared on a Marathi cookery show once. I believe in doing everything as long as it's not illegal.

Clowning after a long stint with the Navy seems like quite a shift. How did it all happen for you?
A. Of the last three or four generations of Tulpules, I’m the first one to take the stage, so I am not sure where I harboured these genes from. The Navy happened because my sister married a naval officer and I was as enchanted by the uniform as women usually are. I served as a commissioned officer for 18 years in the Navy, which is when I figured that I will not be able to pick up my next rank, and my love for clowning was increasing by the day. While still with the Navy, I managed to win prizes in some entertainment conventions. Many sponsors approached me to act for them but I had to clearly deny all those opportunities because I was still with the armed forces. Nevertheless, I realised its potential and also the fact that I can be funny.

Q. Does the act of clowning provide you with some kind of catharsis?
A. I think so. The clown’s mask is official. Under its garb, he can get away with almost murder... almost. He can release his feelings and bottled up emotions and get back to his normal self just by shedding that costume. It was perhaps working as some sort of catharsis for me, because I couldn’t have done these things in my original self. I am not suggesting I was stifled in my uniform, but I definitely had a protocol to follow.

Q. When did you perform your first show?
A. I performed my first act in 1974-75. My father had a spare bathrobe that became my first magic cloak. My friend and I sat overnight making carbon-copy tickets and went around locally, selling them for 10 and 25 paise. We had a hall where I had set up my stage and my friend agreed to be the door-keeper. I had some 80 tricks up my sleeve then that I could perform confidently.

Q. You are not formally trained to be a clown. How did you develop your skills?
A. I studied in a convent throughout, which took care of my language, and the Navy helped me with my confidence. As for the tricks, I have learnt things on my way. Some tricks are self-taught, some picked up from books and some through initial help from the madaris (street magicians), who are an apprehensive lot. They don’t fear competition but are scared of being exposed because they are associated with superstitions and black magic. They are very particular about passing their knowledge down their own generations. Only persistence worked with them. Plus they’d always expect something in return. As a school kid, I had nothing much to offer, so I would show them a trick or two and they’d let me in on some of their secrets.

Q. What is your usual target audience?
A. Anyone and everyone. Typically, magicians and clowns are only perceived as entertainers for kids, but in fact it’s for everyone. Whenever I perform in hospitals, I have a handful of children and many more adults. My acts don’t necessarily require a stage. I have performed at hospitals, in slums and even on footpaths. I get into character almost instantly.

Q. How do you see yourself as an artist?
A. I occupy this space between a magician and a clown, where I am not looking to create a “wow” effect or to get the audience puzzled about my tricks. For me, it’s more about making my audience happy. As a clown, you have to give the upper hand to your audience. I make children laugh by making myself look silly. You have to get on the stage thinking that you are an idiot. Unless I can laugh at myself, I can’t expect anyone to laugh at me. And that has been a part of my grooming. Besides other things, my parents and I would definitely share our goof-ups and blunders and laugh out loud at each other.

Q. Is there anything unique that’s part of your act?
A. I have developed this specific streak which is called “care clowning”. At its nascent stages, care clowning is not limited to showcasing your tomfoolery and making people laugh at your stupidity; it is about adding value to your act and passing a message. I inculcate and deliver very basic messages through my acts — like having a good breakfast before you leave for school, or about respecting parents, teachers and elders. Chakachak, one of my magic words that emphasises on keeping your hands clean and maintaining basic hygiene, works especially well when I am performing for slum kids. It’s easier and more effective to deliver serious thoughts through funny acts because it creates a mental hook, as against a nukkad-natak (street play), for instance, which mostly fails to engage its audience because of its preachy nature.

Q. Do you work independently or with other organisations?
A. I have been part of the core team and a mascot for Toy Bank, a children-oriented NGO, for the last nine years. I perform for them at the Mumbai Marathon every year. I am also associated with an NGO called Vidya which works for women empowerment where I conduct workshops; Cancer Curative where I convey anti-tobacco, anti-gutka and anti-drugs messages through my acts; Electrical Safety Forum where my comic acts revolve around electrical safety and electricity conservation. I also perform in corporate events and schools, which takes care of my bread, butter, cheese and jam and makes it possible for me to continue my social work.

Q. What has been your proudest accomplishment so far?
A. I was performing in Bangalore a couple of years ago and was having a fun argument with the kids in the audience, contending about who the best cook they knew was. Children were screaming to establish that each of their mothers were the best. The point that I was trying to drive home was that mothers prepare a meal with this secret ingredient called love, and so the food in the lunch-box should not be wasted; that we can share it but never waste it. This entire idea got sold to one child who was perhaps a poor eater.
Months later, I was performing again when this lady came on stage to share her experience of how her son had improved his eating habits because she would quote my character every time her son threw a fit around food.

Q. Who is your inspiration?
A. I respect Raj Kapoor ji a lot for bringing the joker to India and portraying it so beautifully. But because of that character, people assume that every joker is sad from within. Also, technically, there is a distinction between a joker and a clown. While a joker makes you laugh through his antics, a clown will make you happy. And the thing with making someone happy is that the feeling sticks around for longer. And that’s my idea — I want to make people laugh and share an emotion.

Q. So, apart from being a caring clown-magician-entertainer, do you find time to do other things as well?
A. I write poetry and I am a trained teenage behaviour counsellor. I am also a mime artist, a tarot card reader, a puppeteer and I conduct gardening and puppet making workshops with children. I am very fond of cooking and kitchen experiments and appeared on a Marathi cookery show once. I believe in doing everything as long as it’s
not illegal.
 
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