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To India and back again: A cultural exchange

In December 2013, Voice Box Theatre's Michael Ritchie and Fiona Oliver-Larkin journeyed to South India. They went to create connections between children in Scotland and India, to initiate pen-pal relationships and to connect schools. They worked with educational initiatives based on Waldorf methodology and with NGOs and government supported slum schools.


Voice Box Theatre managed to raise £2000 with the generous support of donors, friends and family through a crowd-funding campaign, to help with travel costs, accommodation and teaching resources. Here follows a summary of Michael and Fiona's time in India.

Our Hosts in Mumbai: TRIDHA Waldorf School 

TRIDHA Waldorf School is nestled in amongst the winding back streets of Andheri East, a district in the North of Mumbai. 10 minutes in a rickshaw (about 30 pence) to the Pumphouse and from there the school is a short walk away. TRIDHA is a large and rapidly growing school. The grounds are large for a city school with plenty of outdoor space. The slum to the back has encroached on the grounds, but they don't seem to mind. The director, Patrick, says that this is just the way things are in Mumbai: people live where they can.


We stayed here for two weeks, working with TRIDHA in the mornings, and outreaching into slums and deprived communities in the afternoons.


For the first part of the morning, we went into classes to assist and contribute to the morning rhythmic time. This is where the class learn songs and poems, and work with coordination and basic movement skills. We were able to contribute with Scottish songs and poems, as well as skipping and juggling skills. We brought a lot of new material to the classes and it was rewarding how receptive and appreciative both teachers and students were.


We also performed Selkie Tales for the classes: The children were keen to tell us how much they had enjoyed the show, and indeed to give us specific feedback. Despite the language barrier, it was clear that they had been completely engaged by the narrative of the story, movement and the songs. They produced some really beautiful artwork, depicting the story. Our performance style was proving to be even more successful than we had hoped!


We spent a lot of our time at TRIDHA working with and mentoring the Games and Sport teachers, whose background is in coaching. They were hungry for additional material and teaching practices and we had a lot of fun sharing ideas, joining in, observing, and running lessons with them. As a bonus, we taught them both to juggle. It was gratifying to see them implementing our advice and new teaching methods through our time there.We were also invited in to the teachers meetings and were given the opportunity to run Bothmer gymnastic workshops for the teachers. They found some of the trust exercises particularly challenging and enriching. They decided to continue to work with some of these in future teachers meetings. We are exploring the possibilities for returning to run longer full-time workshops, as there is so much more we can cover.


TRIDHA's yearly Mela was on Saturday 14th December and they invited us to perform. It was a large and exciting affair, with a turnout of approximately 2000 people and a wonderfully festive atmosphere. The theme was 'Global Village', and the individual classes had stalls representing countries from all over the world. We performed in the evening, clowning, juggling, acrobatics and singing. The children of the school were able to join in with Wild Mountain Thyme, which is one of the songs we had taught them.


Cultural Exchange: TRIDHA

As part of our project, we are exchanging letters, pictures, cards and gifts between school children in India and in Scotland. We carried letters and gifts from The Edinburgh Steiner School's Class 4 and presented them to Class 4 in TRIDHA. It was inspiring to see the children in TRIDHA responding to their new pen-pals, writing about their school, their homes, their favourite things. The exchange between these two classes is now firmly established. The latest from Edinburgh to TRIDHA is a large poster, made by the children and along with it, animal drawings for the class to cut out and attach.

Into our Adventure: Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia

The school we are visiting caters for first generation educated children. This means that their parents are generally illiterate. The school is 13 years old, built in an old garbage processing unit and run entirely on donations. Giving is important in Indian culture, and it is common to give to charities regularly. The school pulls in enough sponsorship to pay the teachers a reasonable salary, and the children are given uniforms, basic supplies and basic hot food every day.


Dropped off on a busy junction, we crossed through the streams of honking traffic and ducked into a small alleyway. All along the streets we caught glimpses into small-scale factories: tanneries, with piles of fresh goat skins constantly being delivered; tailor shops full of men hunched over rows of sewing machines . Dharavi is a production hub. Labour here is at its cheapest. There is also a bustling street life: hawkers selling clothes and colourful kids toys; sizzling woks full of samosas and pakoras and a million other things all at once. There are tiny schools and temples everywhere, and everywhere, we had to watch our step, to avoid treading on and into the piles of garbage that litter these streets. We got thoroughly lost over the course of the next hour, pointed in good faith and with lots of encouraging smiles in the wrong direction many times, until we found a helpful man who stayed with us and guided us for about 20 minutes, further through the warren of back streets and alleyways until finally we arrived at our destination, the Sri Sri Ravishankar Vidya Mandir (SSRVM) School, Dharavi.


Simple concrete classroom blocks line a narrow open courtyard, topped with corrugated iron roofing on bamboo poles, with classrooms off to the sides. It is cool and quiet compared to the bustling heat outside. Our contact, the principal had left for the afternoon and it turns out that no one had been told we were coming. We were greeted by a couple of young, smiling teachers who were glad to hear about our performance and workshops. After about 10 minutes, around 100 children aged 5-15 emerged from the classrooms to where we'd set up our mat in the courtyard, where they sat on the floor and watched and listened with focused attention on our performance of Selkie Tales. Their feedback was again very gratifying, showing that without understanding specific words, they were able to follow the narrative. They had obviously been fully engaged and when we had finished some of the more enthusiastic children started playing and trying to climb on each other in imitation of our acrobatics.


The teachers were surprised and impressed, saying that they had never seen the children so attentive and engaged. They were keen to have us back for workshops and asked if we could also help out with the drama group.


We returned the following week to teach the workshops, and ran them for groups of 20-40 children at a time. The children were very keen and very able. They learned quickly. We managed to cover as much as we had hoped to in the time. Our only regret was that we had so little time to work with such enthusiastic and positive students. They were also incredibly creative with the new skills we had taught them and immediately began making up their own moves and tricks.


It is always gratifying to see young people working together positively and effectively. It was great to see the extra support and encouragement that they were giving each other to achieve the simple acrobatic balances. We also helped out with the drama group. They were working on A Midsummer Nights Dream for a performance in the new year. They struggle with English and this is a big focus for the school as having a good grasp of English opens up a lot of possibilities for future employment. We worked with theatre games which help to develop stage presence and a feeling for space.


Cultural Exchange: Dharavi

The children at the Dharavi School loved the book made by Class Ten at the Edinburgh Steiner School. They engaged with the pictures and were full of questions and eager to learn about life in Scotland and Edinburgh. We gave them an address, and they are writing letters back to the students who made the book. We are excited about their volunteering programme as an opportunity for Scottish School leavers and this is a connection we are committed to support and maintain.

The Doorstep Foundation: Education on a bus

The Doorstep School is an educational initiative that began on donated buses. Children are picked up from street corners and slums and taught as the bus moves from place to place. Their aim is to bring education to marginalised communities and they have enrolled over 10,000 first generation learners since 1990. So they have expanded and now share space with government schools, halls and any spare space they can gain access to.


We were met at the train station by one of the organisers and we walked with him, about a mile to the school. We stopped to pick up oranges for juggling (the idea is to perform with them and then give them to the children, demonstrating that all you need to learn to juggle is some pieces of fruit). We arrived at a large government school building on a busy junction, packed with market stalls. There were streams of children flowing in and out of the building, and we let ourselves be swept in with the flow.


Our performance and workshop space was a large hall with a stage. We didn't have long to wait for our audience, around 200 children in total, ranging from 4 to about 13 years. They sat on the floor, facing the stage. We started with some clowning and skipping, to hoots of laughter. We juggled to cheers and applause and we followed with our performance of Selkie Tales.


After the show, we took a 15 minute break, then ran workshops, first for the boys, then for the girls


.Unlike the scrubbed clean children in pristine uniforms of the Dharavi school, these children were wearing their uniforms on top of grubby vests and torn trousers, and we saw faces which seemed far older than their years. A few of the children were unusually fearful, in stark contrast to the majority of beaming smiles and energetic enthusiasm. One girl, of about four years old remained in an inner world for most of the time. Seeing her break through and communicate with a brief smile was heart-warming as well as wrenching. The teachers gave all they could and joined in the workshop with hands-on enthusiasm and obvious affection. They clearly know each child well and gave a lot of positive attention and encouragement. The children were younger than those we had taught at Dharavi, there were a lot of them, and they had a lot of excess energy and so we played a lot of games, as well as teaching some skipping and basic partner balances.


We were impressed by how well the teachers and support workers at Doorstep worked with the children. We were able to give examples to them of positive discipline during our workshop and we showed them how to teach fundamental movement skills through skipping and beanbag/(fruit!) passing.

Yellow Train: An organic experience 

Yellow Train is a new school on the outskirts of Coimbatore. It is set on an organic farm and is home to a small community of farm workers. We stayed in a large farmhouse, on the school premises. The school is beautiful. It is open and spacious, with a small open air hall and stage. It currently has grades 1-4, and it is expanding upwards yearly. The children arrive in a school bus, and breakfast is waiting for them. They eat together, and the day begins. The education draws on Waldorf methodology, as well as other teachings such as The Mother and Sri Aurobindo, but the main curriculum is the Indian National Curriculum, ICSE and IGCSE . All the teachers here are teaching for the first time. We found it incredibly inspiring and refreshing to see the fresh impulse of Yellow Train's new teacher's working so effectively and the new and the old in harmony.


We ran a day of lessons for the classes at the school, and helped with their current production of Noah's Ark. We included a lot of theatre games which encourage the imagination, with a focus on animals. A game that everyone particularly enjoyed was Animal Tag, where the chasers have to imitate a selected animal until everyone is caught. They were particularly able also in terms of acrobatics, achieving what we could teach them in the limited time available with graceful success. The teachers observed the lessons and afterwards began to use the new material and methods they had gathered.


On Saturday we ran a 7 hour workshop (with breaks) for the teachers of Yellow Train. We taught exercises for fundamental movement skills like rhythm, coordination and balancing. We talked about the physical development of children of the ages they have at the school, and practised gymnastic exercises according to these stages. We also worked with songs and rhythmic activities, integrating movement and eurythmy through gesture.


In the evening, the children, their parents and friends of the school were invited to our performance of Selkie Tales. We expanded it to 50 minutes especially for the event by including an element of audience participation. We invited the children in the audience to come onto the stage and decorate a spiral maze with marigold flowers. After the show we were interviewed by Parshathy. J. Nath. Her review appeared in The Hindu, Coimbatore:


“Movement and drama can bring a story alive” Parshathy. J. Nath 

Teachers and students of the Yellow Train Grade School sing aloud, as along with them sing two guests, Michael Ritchie and Fiona Oliver-Larkin, from Voice Box Theatre. They tell the children Scottish tales of the selkie, a mythical creature that takes the form of a seal but can also assume human form.


There is action, drama and acrobatics as the story of selkie and the sailor progresses. Fiona climbs on to Michael’s shoulders as he strides across the stage. She gracefully slides off his back saying, “The sea, my home the sea”.


The moment is touching and even the restless kids sit still and listen. “Here is your skin my Selkie, my love. Go forth and be free,” Michael sings.


The story telling concludes with the children playing with the marigolds strewn on the stage, as Michael plays on a flute. Music and the excited squeals of children break the silence of the night.


Cultural Exchange: Yellow Train

At Yellow Train, we presented letters from Class 5 at the Edinburgh Steiner School, and we carried gifts and returning letters for the students back in Scotland. There are 35 children at the Yellow Train School, and all of them now have Scottish pen pals. The children were delighted to receive the letters. The staff at the school welcomed the opportunity for cultural exchange.

The Bangalore Steiner School: Teacher Training and Home School Students

The Bangalore Steiner School is on the outskirts of the city. The school has a fleet of buses which ferry the children and staff to and from the school every day. It is in an idyllic setting. There are many climbing trees with tree houses and all sorts of self built climbing structures. One is even shaped like a ship. There are gardens and a playground surrounding the main house.


We came here to lead a course in movement within the Waldorf curriculum, the purpose being to help the teachers integrate fundamental movement skills into their teaching practice. We ran sessions every morning, talking about and moving according to the Bothmer and rhythmic curriculum. The teachers, who are mostly first time teachers, were very responsive, asking lots of questions. We were able to help them explore and resolve several issues relating to movement and social education that had arisen in the previous school term.


We also ran sessions with a group of home schooled teenagers. It became clear that they needed extra support in developing their social and movement skills so we ran games and activities such as group acrobatics and juggling with a focus on teamwork, trust building and social inclusion.

Bangalore: AMIGOS

We were contacted whilst we were working with The Bangalore Steiner School by Amith, who had read our article in the Hindu. He invited us to stay with him and his family, and we were able to perform Selkie Tales to two very different audiences. Amith runs an initiative called Amigos (, which provides non-academic education for children from schools at each end of the economic and social spectrum.


Our first performance was to 350 children at a private International School. We were given a microphone, which we didn’t use, and didn’t need to as the children although laughing occasionally were attentive and quiet. After the show, we ran a workshop with 30 or so of the older students, teaching them basic acrobatic balances and pyramids. After this, we were interviewed by two aspiring journalists in the 10th Standard.


In the evening we visited an orphanage, home to around 35 children. It is a small home which provides housing, school placements, food and basic living materials. The children, ranging in age from 5-18 sat on the floor in a room of about 4 square meters. This was certainly our smallest performance venue to date, and taking care to not stand on, or inadvertently kick any children or furniture we performed Selkie Tales


The interaction with the children was very gratifying. They were full of appreciation for Fiona’s singing and Michael was asked to play another tune on the pipe. It was overwhelming to experience the loving energy we received from the children at this orphanage. They were obviously destitute, with torn clothes and old eyes, but we felt blessed to see and support the initiative which is giving these young people a prospect at life away from the streets.


Cultural Exchange: Orphanage

We presented the children with one of Class 10's handmade books. A short impromptu English lesson ensued. As we pointed to each of the pictures in the book, the children relished the opportunity to show off their vocabularies and to learn about Scotland. They even learned some new words!

Mother Teresa's Roses: Mumbai again

Mother Teresa's Roses is a Christian charity for street kids. Michael met one of the volunteers in Bandra, exchanged numbers and so we arranged a visit. In a back street, past another busy junction, we found the place: a day care centre for 30 or so orphaned street children. We were ushered into the middle of the circle of children sitting on the floor and we did some juggling, some singing, and we performed Selkie Tales. We ran a short acrobatics workshop, and had a cup of tea. We communicated mostly in sign language, although one of the nuns spoke some English and translated the story for the others.

Back home to Scotland

Full of the riches of our experience, we arrived back in Scotland in the new year. Returning to the UK was quite a culture shock, and after a short recuperation period, we are tying up loose ends and following up the contacts we made. We bring back with us inspiration and a new enthusiasm for education and teaching. We are deeply grateful for the lessons we received on our journey with Selkie Tales in India. We feel blessed to have had this opportunity to have touched the lives of so many inspirational people.


Our journey took us from some of the most privileged to some of the poorest communities in the world. We worked with specialists in education, and first time teachers. We taught children who struggled socially, academically, and physically. We also taught children who excelled in these. We found that the poorest communities are home to some of the most capable.


The young people we worked with in Scotland have shown us tremendous support and interest for our work and we are grateful for their eager participation. The young people from India have filled us with a sense of wonder at their strength in the face of their individual difficulties. We are excited to see how the cultural exchange we have facilitated continues and grows. We are committed to maintaining relationships between schools and young people in both countries and are keen to continue and develop our work within marginalised and mainstream communities.


During our journey we had the opportunity to work with a lot of people, from many different groups and initiatives. Some of these we visited by chance, and were only able to stay for a day or two, meaning we were only able to begin teaching and learning. We wish we could have stayed for longer and have dedicated at least a couple of weeks at each initiative. This is definitely a lesson we will take away in planning future trips.


Thank you for your time, your interest, your support,


Michael and Fiona for Voice Box Theatre

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