What does it take to be a professional clown?
A lot of physical discipline, and a deep-set desire to see people happy
“Are you all having a good time?” asked the pot-bellied man for the second time, staring down at a mob of eager, 10-year olds nodding and cheering in unison with their equally amused guardians. In one corner of the courtyard of Mumbai’s High Street Phoenix mall, a gathering mass of strangers seemed to briefly share a reality very different from the one found in the routine existence passing them by. A reality exaggerated for effect through oversized shoes that are always out of step with the world and oversized smiles, frozen in perpetuity even in the face of near constant misfortune.
Martin D’Souza is Mumbai’s foremost professional clown. As ‘Flubber the clown’ Martin has carved out an alter ego of undeniably noble intent. “The most important ability for a clown is to be able to give away happiness” says Martin who is also a part of the World Clown Association, and Regional Director of its West Asia and Middle East wing. “Most commons mediums of laughter today, like laughter itself, are temporary” he explains when asked just what the world of professional clowning demands. But his fan base, whose median age happens to be eight, finds delight in the negative twists of fate that befall a clown – does this expose a fundamental attribute of human nature to clowns? “One of our key beliefs is that everyone is fundamentally good, besides, there are other types of clowns besides the tramp, who happens to largely suffer the ill blows of fate. I am an Auguste clown, embodying a goofy, slapstick persona”. Joining him on stage to celebrate the International Clown Festival (organized by Martin himself) were Sparky, Benji, Timmyto and Lo-Lo – all highly accomplished clowns embodying the basic personas that make a clown. Timmyto, who hailed from Mexico, a country rather fond of clowns, happened to be a Classic White clown – a persona defined by extreme physical skill, simple monotones and minimal makeup. Then there are the Tramps and the Naughty clowns, the latter being the persona whose transgressions find a target in the tramp.
Like all high ranking clowns, Martin happens to have a lot of experience and training. “I was invited through a scholarship program in Wisconsin, US, and I came across a real clown face to face. It was like stepping into a cartoon movie”. The art of clowning, like most arts, requires patience and perseverance. “It cannot be done alone. You need to interact with other clowns, attend clown conventions and when you’re trained, match your character to any one of the four key personas”. Today Martin regularly teaches courses and hosts workshops in clowning at colleges and universities. He even claims that youngsters can make a decent buck on the side if they clown part time. Not all of them need to pursue it full time.
But let’s get down to brass tacks. Clowns are scary. Admittedly, it’s the adult world that has lost the ability to read a clown’s language, but even then, how do you pacify the birthday kid who is sobbing at the sight of the rictus that was painted to be a conduit of laughter and joy? “The movies are responsible for this, where clowns are played by actors. Clowns are not actors. And movies subscribe to a lot of stereotypes. Hollywood portrays clowns negatively the same way Bollywood portrays cops. It’s only once you interact with them that you realize the truth” Martin clarifies. “We always give the power to the child. It’s the child who has to allow us to enter his/her world. If a child doesn’t do that, we don’t proceed with the show. We make the child invite us into her space; we make eye-contact and let them know there’s nothing to be afraid of”.
Is it possible that clowns might find a greater audience in India – a country where overt, burlesque forms of comedy triumph over subtle, nuanced forms of satire everyday? “People in the west are no longer as receptive to clowns as people in India. A lot of my colleagues from the US and Latin America have noticed that people in India operate under high levels of stress. And even a small gesture such as a smile from a clown, seems to have an incredibly positive effect on them”.