What is 'Hospital Clowning'? Why is it gaining momentum in India?

Steena Joy
·Contributor
·6 min read

In these gloomy pandemic times, there is not much we have to laugh about. Many of us would wish we had a Patch Adams, the character played by late actor Robin Williams in the movie of the same name. Well, that movie was based on Dr Patch (Hunter) Adams known as the architect of the concept of Hospital Clowning. 

Explaining the simple concept which he conceived in 1971, Dr Adams said, “The role of a clown and a physician are the same: it’s to elevate the possible and to relieve suffering.”

Patch Adams, the character played by late actor Robin Williams in the movie of the same name was based on Dr Patch (Hunter) Adams known as the architect of the concept of Hospital Clowning.
Patch Adams, the character played by late actor Robin Williams in the movie of the same name was based on Dr Patch (Hunter) Adams known as the architect of the concept of Hospital Clowning.

In the last 40 years hospital clowns have grown in number globally and today are an integral part of many hospitals all over the US, UK and Europe. Doctors say that with the intervention of Hospital Clowns or Medical Clowns, patients and particularly children, have better chances of recovery and their response to treatment is more positive.

India is waking up to this concept and the credit for this goes to The Little Theatre based in Chennai.

Founded by Aysha Rau 30 years ago, The Little Theatre's Hospital Clown Troupe is the first of its kind in India. And the Institute of Child Health (ICH) Egmore has the distinction of being the first one to have such a unique programme in place on a regular basis. The Little Theatre's outreach programme at the hospital started on June 8, 2015 with the support of The Coast Guard.

Founded by Aysha Rau 30 years ago, The Little Theatre's Hospital Clown Troupe is the first of its kind in India. Her daughter, Dr Rohini Rau is India’s first certified medical clown
Founded by Aysha Rau 30 years ago, The Little Theatre's Hospital Clown Troupe is the first of its kind in India. Her daughter, Dr Rohini Rau is India’s first certified medical clown

Aysha’s daughter, Dr Rohini Rau is India’s first certified medical clown. Dr Rohini recalls how the concept of hospital clowning was discovered by her mom who was doing an online course on child psychology and her partner happened to be a medical clown. 

“My mom thought it was a great idea for The Little Theatre to bring hospital clowning to India. She invited one of the top trainers from the New York Goofs, Hilary Chaplain, who came down to Chennai. Thirteen of us were trained for two weeks. And our Hospital Clown Troupe was born.”

A serious profession

Dr Rohini took it up as a serious profession because of her interest in the arts and she felt it was a great way to blend Art and Healthcare. She points out that here the results are visible almost immediately - though treatment takes time, clowning brings smiles to the faces of patients and there is a feel good emotion about it.

The Little Theatre offers three levels of Hospital Clowning training of 15 hours each. This is followed by an observation period of three months before you are a certified Hospital Clown with the option of joining The Little Theatre Clown Troupe
The Little Theatre offers three levels of Hospital Clowning training of 15 hours each. This is followed by an observation period of three months before you are a certified Hospital Clown with the option of joining The Little Theatre Clown Troupe

During Covid respecting the safety of both, patients and hospital clowns, The Little Theatre decided to suspend physical operations for the time being. “Even hospitals were not allowing us to visit patients, so we decided to do online sessions on introduction to hospital clowning. We do it as a three-hour session. We even did a Level I workshop for a group of people from Ekam Foundation. So we were able to still keep it alive but I think now it is becoming even more important to get back to Clowning once everyone gets vaccinated. It is even more important now as people have realised how mental health is being affected in these times sitting isolated inside the four walls of your homes, not being able to interact with other people or move out. Hospital clowning will definitely play a huge role post Covid than ever before,” says Dr Rohini.

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The Little Theatre’s big strides

Hospital clowning is still very nascent in India even after five years. Very few organisations are taking it up seriously. The Little Theatre offers three levels of Hospital Clowning training of 15 hours each. This is followed by an observation period of three months before you are a certified Hospital Clown with the option of joining The Little Theatre Clown Troupe.

Many countries like Canada, UK, USA and Australia have dedicated hospital clowning programs where it is offered as an undergraduate degree. Israel even offers a paramedical degree in hospital clowning where you can become a qualified nurse practitioner alongwith the skills of medical clowning which Dr Rohini thinks is the future. “Hopefully here in India too, we will be able to integrate it into the medical system to get a lot more aspirants involved in this wonderful artform,” she says.

Many countries like Canada, UK, USA and Australia have dedicated hospital clowning programs where it is offered as an undergraduate degree. Israel offers a paramedical degree in hospital clowning where you can become a qualified nurse practitioner alongwith the skills of medical clowning
Many countries like Canada, UK, USA and Australia have dedicated hospital clowning programs where it is offered as an undergraduate degree. Israel even offers a paramedical degree in hospital clowning where you can become a qualified nurse practitioner alongwith the skills of medical clowning

Also for those of you who want to take up hospital clowning as a career, it is not necessary to be a doctor or in the medical field. Dr Rohini says, “But it is very important to have the skills of any art form so that you are very much in touch with yourself. Clowning is nothing but the essence of who you are. It is the true character that comes out when you are yourself. So it is important not to have any mask or any inhibitions going in and you have to be open to learning a lot and most importantly you must have a sense of empathy. You have to empathise with what the patients are going through, what the doctors are feeling, what the workers are feeling.”

She also cautions that you may become a certified clown but once you step into a hospital the environment is very different – it is very negative, filled with despair and sadness. A lot of people cannot handle this and sometimes it can get to you so there are very few people who can actually excel in this.

She feels that it is important to treat a patient holistically and not just medically and this is where mental health is very important. Towards this end, The Little Theatre has opened a Creative Therapy Studio on the premises of the Institute of Child Health (ICH) Egmore - the first of its kind in Asia! This studio will engage in alternative and expressive art therapies along with medical treatment. This will be for terminally ill or cancer patients or elderly adults who have to undergo long treatment in hospitals.

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