Laughter The Best Medicine
Outlook|August 05, 2019
Laughter The Best Medicine

Clowns are dispensing a booster dose of laughter in hospitals to help patients cope with pain and improve outcomes

Lachmi Deb Roy

Contrary to the image of hospitals as sterile dens of despair, the paediatric ward at Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai has an air of unbridled cheer. Dr Laff-a-lot sports a red bulbuous nose, yellow wig and waistcoat dotted with smileys. His vibrant outfit stands out amidst the muted colours of the ward. The moment he entered, children broke into laughter and began clapping. “Dr Laff-a-lot is here,” together they yelled, excitedly.

Dr Laff-a-lot, Pravin Tulpule’s alias, is a 58-year-old medical clown in Mumbai. He uses storytelling, magic and clowning techniques to help reduce pain and the stress of hospitalisation, and help people cope with their condition. Although clown doctors cannot cure diseases, they provide emotional succour. Most hospitals focus on the physical health of patients and tend to neglect mental health. Medical clowning fills this void. One of the most celebrated clown doctors is Patch Adams, whom Robin Williams immortalised in an eponymous film. Adams pioneered the therapy in the 1970s, but India is catching up with it only now and it is not widespread still.

“Dr Laff-a-Lot is my clown name when I visit hospitals and patients. Otherwise, I masquerade as Happy the Clown,” says Tulpule, the Mumbaikar spreading joy after voluntary retirement from the Indian Navy. It’s just that the sailor always wanted to be a clown. “Both these characters are about 20 years old. My stage name is my ice-breaker. It amuses people and makes them curious about me.” Shakespeare had Falstaff, remember?

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August 05, 2019