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Sammamish summer drama camp teaches lesser-known Indian history

In the span of one week, kids learned and performed a play about the Indian king Shivaji Bhonsle, complete with sword fights, authentic costume pieces from India and even a Bollywood dance number. - Nicole Jennings/staff photo
In the span of one week, kids learned and performed a play about the Indian king Shivaji Bhonsle, complete with sword fights, authentic costume pieces from India and even a Bollywood dance number.
— image credit: Nicole Jennings/staff photo

There are some famous rulers usually in the western hemisphere that we’ve all learned about over and over again, through schooling, books and portrayals in movies: Alexander the Great Julius Caesar, Henry VIII, Louis XIV.

But how many of us can name any facts about or, for that matter, have even heard of Shivaji Bhonsle, king of the Maratha Empire in India from 1674 to 1680?

It is this heroic warrior prince who takes center stage in the East Meets West Summer Drama Camp, Sammamish resident Archana Sunil’s summer drama camp for kids, now in its fourth year.

And this year, for the first time, participants not only acquire knowledge about the fundamentals of acting they also get a lesson in Indian history.

In the span of one week, the young thespians, aged 8 through high school, learn a script about the life of Shivaji and have it ready to perform by Saturday afternoon. While the main focus of the camp is theatre, participants also get a taste of Indian culture through different artistic and athletic activities, such as basket weaving, sculpting, games of Cricket and musical performances on Indian instruments like the santoor.

“It’s an overall enriching camp,” Sunil said. “The goal is to share Indian culture with the community.”

Sunil, who was born and raised in India, writes every play that the camp performs. It’s a task that usually takes around half a year to complete, as Sunil does meticulous research to make sure she has every detail correct.

This year’s play chronicles the battles between the teenage prince Shivaji and the Mughals, who ruled much of India from the 16th through 18th centuries.

“When he was born, India was under Mughal rule for centuries,” Sunil said, explaining that being conquered by this foreign dynasty was causing India to lose much of its culture.

When Shivaji was just 15, his mother Jijabi “inspired him to take his country back from the invaders,” Sunil said. The intrepid young warrior triumphed and gained considerable land from the foreign power, forming the beginning of the Maratha Empire.

Shivaji remains a prominent figure in India, with his image gracing statues and commemorative postage stamps. The Mumbai airport was even renamed the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in the 1990s.

Desite his legacy, Shivaji is mostly absent from the history books of the American educational system, as is much of Indian history. This, said Sunil, is exactly why she wanted to call attention to the important and inspirational young ruler.

“For some reason, India is not included in the textbooks,” Sunil said, noting that studies of Asia tend to focus more on China. She finds this unfortunate and ironic, since the population of Indian immigrants has grown in recent years.

“On the Plateau, [the Indian population] is so big, yet we don’t see much learning about the culture,” she said.

However, it is not only in American schools that leave Shivaji out of the curriculum. Growing up in India, Sunil said that she never learned about the royal warrior. She believes the reason lies in the political climate.

“He was a strong force against the Mughals, who were Muslim,” Sunil explained, adding that it is not considered politically correct to teach any part of history that paints Muslims in a negative light.

“Politics is what drives history books,” Sunil said. “Whatever is convenient is what we’re taught.”

Sunil doesn’t intend to let any sort of politics dictate what she writes. She already has come up with the theme for next year’s play, starring Lachit Borkuphan, another 17th century military man who fought the Mughals. And after that, the men can step aside in favor of some girl power Sunil intends to write about the warrior queens who fought the Mughals.

“Given that the camp is usually mostly girls, I think that would be a good one to do,” she said with a laugh.

Not only is the camp mostly girls, but it is also mostly children from Indian families. Sunil wants to change this in future years, so that kids of many different cultures can mingle and share their traditions with one another.

“It’s a wall I’m trying to figure out how to break,” she said.

Sunil had been dreaming of creating an opportunity to share her culture with her community for years, but it was not until her husband, on a visit to India, witnessed a school badly in need of funds that Sunil knew she had to do something to help. She came up with the idea to form a summer drama camp to spread knowledge about Indian culture, and send the proceeds back to India.

All proceeds from the camp go toward the Kanchi Kamakoti Seva Foundation, which funds medical care, poverty relief and education in India.

And the camp allows Sunil, who has been writing scripts since she was a child, the chance to live out her theatre ambitions, though she insists that it is the children who are the real stars.

“It’s simple storytelling I let the kids tell the story,” Sunil said.

 

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