When Hans Christian Andersen arrived at the children’s home
By Finn Lassen
From a former visit we knew that the girls would entertain us with dancing etc. during Pongal in January 2015. In order to get a little balance in the cultural exchange we – three Danish guests – also had prepared a small performance.
A talent scanning among us within song, dance, and music had shown to be in vain, and the idea of introducing Danish fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen as puppet theatre arose. Of course the fairy tale had to be one of those with the odd types who do well, “Clumsy Hans” or similar. “The princess and the pea” was chosen since it should be performed in front of a group of girls each of them with their own princess dreams. From friends crazily interested in theatre we borrowed puppets: prince, princess, king, and queen.
It necessarily had to be in Tamil considering the many small girls who do not understand English, but the “Hans Christian Andersen Library” in the writer’s home town, Odense, is known for having the fairy tales in 139 languages. So of course I called them and just asked for borrowing the fairy tale in Tamil. Unfortunately the conversation was quickly interrupted when I was told that we had different opinions regarding the word “library”. And unfortunately I couldn’t “just have a couple of photocopies sent”.
We now had two alternatives:
- An intensive course “Learn to write and speak Tamil in one week” (tried to search in the internet with no results). It couldn’t be THAT difficult. Checked wikipedia: “The Tamil alphabet has 12 vowels and 18 consonants, but these can be combined in compound letters and though result in 247 letters.” Oops.
- We now tried to have the problem solved in our circle of acquaintan-ces. Arun is from Copenhagen but originally from Tamil Nadu – same Indian state as the children’s home – and saved us by delivering the most beautiful handwritten transla-tion in few days.
Arun was rather distrustful to our plans of an intensive “spoken Tamil” course and even provided us with a sound file where he read aloud his translation of “The princess and the pea”.
Originally we were thinking of practising the puppet play during the long flight to India, but a superficial psychoanalysis of the surrounding passengers on Air France told us that they would not be interested in watching princesses who were ” black and blue all over their body” across the flight seats again and again. Regardless of whether it would be in Danish, English, or Tamil.
Nothing less than The Royal Theatre in Copenhagen had donated a green button that would be the main prop of the fairy tale: the pea. And in the shopping town Pondicherry we went out hunting “twenty mattresses” and “twenty eider-down beds” in puppet size. The shop owners who sold us 40 facecloths in 2 different colours must have believed that we really needed to clean ourselves up, and they were even right.
Now the great day for the performance dawned and we became aware of how unprepared we were. The puppeteers had a single rehearsal, but fortunately they showed out to be naturals and should definitely hunt a professional career in world leading Punch and Judy companies.
Gowsalia, who is in the 12th class, had agreed in the Tamil reading, but how should the Danish puppeteers – who had still not pulled themselves together and learned Tamil – find out where the story line had come to? The most skilled person in both Tamil and English showed out to be Hanne and Ernst’s driver Bala. He was now pulled into the classroom, and 10 control points were put in the same places in the Tamil and English fairy tales respectively.
The blackboard could be used to hide the puppeteers and was now humped to the platform in front of the common house. The girls were gathered, and now it went on with the evening performance. Gowsalia read aloud each of the 10 fairy tale parts in Tamil and whispered to me how far she had come (so loud that everybody could hear it, “number seven” etc.). The puppets then played during my subsequent reading of the same part in English.
We had embroidered the fairy tale a little, e.g. about where the prince had searched for his princess, and showed some pictures. The girls are clever at geography and recognised most of the places. Of course it caused enthusiasm that the prince apparently had been at Taj Mahal and in Tranquebar nearby!
When the prince took the princess for wife the cheers seemed to take no end, but the fairy tale doesn’t end by this and it was hard to get silence for the last part: “… and the pea was
put in the museum, where it may still be seen, if no one has stolen it.”
There, that is a true story!