Twenty-five years ago, when Martin D’Souza wore a clown costume for the first time, all he wanted to do was take it off. His boss, a party manager, had put him into the costume and expected him to clown around and make the tony Juhu audience laugh. Though he tried hard, he could just not drop his social conditioning. He stumbled around, he recalls, and it turned out to be the most difficult evening of his life.
Yet, somebody was impressed. Every time the event management company he worked for as a college rookie had a party to organise, D’Souza was ordered to become the clown. The extra Rs 50 he was paid to get laughs in addition to the Rs 200 he earned as a “boy around the room” would seal the deal; and soon, the reluctant clown was doing jugglery and acrobatics, apart from mime and magic shows. Today, the 46-year-old is Flubber the Clown and a celebrity of sorts.
What does it take to be a clown? First, perhaps, the wrong kind of education to start with. D’Souza is a physics graduate from St Xavier’s College, Mumbai. If that’s not serious enough, he’s also an MBA from Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies. It was with these heavy degrees under his belt that he decided to attend University of Wisconsin in the US to study, well, Clownology. As a full-time clown now, he loves his job. “I feel a sense of empowerment when I am in costume,” he says, “The performing environment can keep changing through the time I am Flubber, but I always feel in charge. Keeping the audience happy is central to Flubber’s existence.”
While D’Souza’s wife Roshni, a chartered accountant, loves his clowning and chips in as his manager, his parents were not easy converts. When they saw a show of his, they were shocked that he would go through all the trouble to be a clown.
Most people are familiar with circus clowns—rather unkempt, impoverished, badly dressed and smelly, the kind best kept at an arm’s length. With circuses on the wane, though, these clowns are gone. Their modern-day avatars are far more sophisticated. To them, clowning is an art form, one that’s gaining more and more practitioners. According to D’Souza, there may be 40,000–50,000 urban clowns in India who are doing their own shows and developing new skills on the go. To popularise the art form, he set up Mad Hatters, an event management company, and is soon to join the faculty at Wisconsin University as a Clownologist. He has been taking informal classes across India in any case, and expects to offer a formal course in the subject in Mumbai shortly. The fee would be Rs 5,000 per student. “Students have to breathe their own life into their clown persona and choose their own clown names,” he says, “One has to keep improvising the clown character to cater to demands of the educated urban class.”
Most of India’s urban educated clowns have regular day jobs with clowning just a way to fulfil a passion. Since it’s not a lucrative profession, it makes sense to live two lives: as the career-oriented day time employee and the fun-loving evening clown.
There are lots of young women who are signing up to be clowns as well. The advent of women in clowning has changed the field not just in India but also abroad. Even male clowns agree that women often make better clowns, since they have an artistic way of putting things and an emotional way of connecting with audiences.
Crystal, 20, is a final-year student of Management Studies at St Andrew’s College in Mumbai. Fascinated with balloon sculpting, the art of giving a balloon assorted shapes, she was keen on becoming a balloon sculptor. Her search led her to a clowning workshop conducted by D’Souza that offered the requisite training. She signed up, and while at it, she gave clowning a go as well. “The workshop was fun and being a clown is fun. I have been clowning for a year now,” says Crystal. Three of her girl friends are also clowns, and though the Rs 500 they get for two hours of clowning is not much, Crystal says that she does it because it is “super fun”.
Crystal’s parents are supportive of her decision to play the clown on occasion, but are clear that it will not be a career choice. “A whole new world opens up when I am in my clown costume,” she says. “It has opened my vision to what I want to do and have stopped being bothered by people’s opinions. The first time I wore my costume, I felt intimidated and embarrassed. I enjoy it now. It has made my personality stronger.”
Yogesh Baldotra, 31, is a Pune-based infotech engineer. A neurolinguistic programming coach, Yogesh works with Cognizant as a trainer, helping with the “learning needs of employees”. This job is important to bring in the money needed to indulge his real passion. The end of office hours is the start of his second life as a clown. Though he set up a troupe called Fire Weavers in 2008 in Pune for regular stage theatre, street plays, participatory shows and short films, a trip to New York and an interaction with a clown called Arnold changed Yogesh’s plans and he turned to clowning.
Pune Funny Bones Company was the firm he set up to take performances to the city’s club circuit. “The audience has changed and expects much more from entertainment. The modern clowning that we do is not as easy as it is perceived to be. Keeping an audience happy and entertained with witty lines and action while they nurse their drinks is a huge challenge. Clowns have to keep bettering their own standards,” says Yogesh, whose clown name is Taar.
The choice of a clown name comes from within, agree all. They argue that clowns don’t choose a name and then give it a persona. It is the other way round: one must develop a persona and then sift through hundreds of clown names and find one that works for the persona.
Pune Funny Bones conducts regular interactive clowning sessions with senior citizens at Joggers Park in Pune’s Kalyani Nagar. “The most important activity for senior citizens is their morning walk,” says Yogesh, “So we decided to make it fun for them. Initially they have inhibitions, but after a while they start loving it. Clowning with them is fun.”
Royceton Rodrigues, 31, is a wealth management advisor with Jain Investments Pvt Ltd. During the day, he sits behind a desk and advises people on their finances, and after office hours, he clowns around at events organised by Mad Hatters. When he revealed his passion for clowning at his job interview, the room was abuzz with excitement. He hosts quite a lot of events for his firm and is seen as a good entertainer.
Royceton owes his success as an event manager to his clowning. “I was a shy and introverted person,” he says, “Clowning has changed me, as I had to evolve a lot. When I got into my clown costume, I became a different person. Since I was non-recognisable, I could do whatever I wanted. This gave me the courage to try out new acts. It was a challenge to be on stage and I got over it.”
Standup comedy is the biggest challenge that clowning faces today. Unlike the former, which is often laced with innuendo and adult jokes, clowning has to be ‘clean’ as the audience has children and senior citizens too. ‘Wit for all’ is the operating mantra.
The modern-day clown has to place much emphasis on the language—whatever little may be spoken during the act. According to Yogesh, the first five minutes of the performance are crucial. It’s make-or-break. “If you can make the audience laugh and keep them happy in those five minutes, they will be yours for the entire evening,” he says, “If not, it will be a very bad evening.”
That is where a clown’s get-up and makeup play an important role. The clown’s personality cannot either be frightening or overpowering. It has to be smile-worthy at first sight. The costume must be clean, ironed and perfumed. The makeup cannot be jarring and runny. Contrary to stereotype, it has to blend in with one’s natural complexion. Moreover, the makeup has to move with the face; it cannot be static. The style of the clown costume dictates the style of makeup. As a clown ages, the makeup too must adapt to the changing contours of the face. The shape of the clown’s smile sets the tone for his or her personality. D’Souza’s voice of experience says that the shape of the smile must be chosen after much thought.
On a table in D’Souza’s house in Andheri, dietician Rujuta Diwekar’s bestselling book Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight enjoys a prominent place. He recommends it to the overweight and endorses its advice. “I am a huge clown,” he says, “That’s my personality. I am rotund and kids love the red, blue and yellow colours worn by Flubber. My jiggly stomach may be a hit when I am in costume, but it is an energy sapper. If a clown is not fit, he or she is a goner.” Exercise and breathing exercises, he adds, are central to ensuring a steady flow of energy into the act. With clowning being 70 per cent physical activity and 30 per cent talking, weight management is indeed crucial.
Clowns have to know some instantly identifiable skills such as juggling, magic shows, balloon modelling, miming, stilt walking and uni-cycling. While men are naturally inclined towards juggling, uni-cycling , stilt walking and miming, women tend to prefer balloon modelling and magic shows, typically.
All of them are unanimous in saying that clowning is about being in touch with one’s inner child, the little person within who is in awe of everything. They also attest that since they took up clowning, their personalities have seen much change—they are positive in thought and action now, have turned into extroverts, think of multiple options for every single problem, and have become happier in general.
According to Clownology, there are broadly three types of clowns in the modern age: White Face, who is on top of the clown order, is the aristocratic and stylish one who usually leads the act; Auguste, who is naughty, with big laughter and big smiles, is given to messing with the acts of others; and the Tramp or HoBo, who is depressed and down in the dumps, wears tattered clothes and features lower down the clown hierarchy. The HoBo clown is rarely seen in South Asian settings, though he is popular in the US.
For aspirants, there is plenty to look forward to. The World Clown Association holds regular camps for clowns from around the world at Wisconsin. This is an orientation programme for would- be clowns. Each year, Mad Hatters host a clown festival in India. Spanning a month and held in several cities, even in smaller towns, this is an opportunity for Indian clowns—and prospective clowns—to interact with their counterparts invited from overseas. This year, the festival is scheduled for October, and smiles are already being shaped in preparation.