The following appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Culture+Travel along with the article "Laugh and the World Laughs With You."
Laugh Your Way Around India!
As a laughter tourist, you’ll explore territory few vacationers see. There are several thousand laughter clubs in India, but it’s the large central state of Maharashtra that has more than anywhere else on Earth, with several of them in every town and city. To join in, all you need is loose fitting clothing and the desire to laugh. The clubs were founded on the idea of being open to anyone, and there are no fees. Once you have found a club, you then join either the men or the women and simply follow the leader’s commands. After bouts of protracted laughter, the ice is broken and invariably you will soon be introducing yourself to the curious locals. The founder and chairman of Laughter Yoga International, Dr. Madan Kataria has a great website where you’ll find a list of clubs and events in India (and also around the world). But word of mouth is often the only way to find a number of clubs. Most meet at sunrise so try to find a club close to where you are staying—especially since you’ll be getting up at the crack of dawn. laughteryoga.org
A small affluent city in the southwest corner of Maharashtra, Kolhapur is famous for shoe making, hot cuisine, wrestling—and, of course, laughter clubs. There are over 50 in the district. It’s a relaxed place that lacks the oppressiveness of many cities in India. Visit the temple to the goddess of wealth, Mahalakshmi; a couple of palaces; the beautiful lake; and the nearby hill station. It’s 12 hours by rail, or one by air from Mumbai.
The owner of this well-run modern hotel (with two good restaurants) is a member of the Ruiker Colony Laughter Club. Staff members are very helpful and know all of the club locations—most of which are within a 10-minute drive. They will gladly organize a car.
G.J.G. Yoga Academy
Dr. Dhananjay G. Gunde is credited by many within the laughter movement as being instrumental in the advance of Laughter Yoga. He has taught yoga to a president of India and is the yoga therapy consultant to Bombay Hospital and Medical Research Centre, as well as an orthopedic surgeon in his home city, Kolhapur. Dr. Gunde’s regular class at the G.J.G. Yoga Academy is a good introduction, incorporating many laughter yoga techniques.
The “Best Laughter Club” of 2003 is led by B.A. Kolekar, and excels in Crazy Laughter. A large club with over 100 regulars, it’s in Peth Vadgaon, about 10 miles outside Kolhapur. It meets daily at 6:00 a.m. in a field just outside the village next to a water tank and a huge banyan tree. After laughing with this club, join member Sampat Nayakawadi, a well-known painter, for a tour of his studio.
This large club led by Laxman M. Powar meets daily on the grounds of an old British quarantine hospital located on the outskirts of town in the direction of the airport. There is a large Muslim contingent, and sometimes women in burkas come to laugh. The club performs its laughter drills to a series of whistles.
Nana Nani Park Hasya
Led by the irrepressible Dr. Dilip C. Shah, the two-time all-Indian national laughter champion, this is a club for those seeking high-octane laughter. Dr. Shah started the first Laughter Club in Kolhapur and is a well-known leader within the laughing community. Email him for laughter club meeting times and for information on local laughter events.
Mahavir Gardens Club
Mahavir Gardens is a beautiful park in Kolhapur. A big and well-organized club founded by a woman known to all as Mrs. Davare meets here regularly. Its specialty is the delightful Train Laughter, in which a single file is formed to chug around the flowerbeds and the roses. A couple of hundred yards away is the much smaller club, the Mahavir Gardens Morning Walk Club. This one comprises former members of Mrs. Davare’s club who defected, because they were tired of being told what to do. True to their beliefs, the morning walkers encourage visitors to follow their lead and do whatever they feel like doing.
Ruiker Colony Club
Founded by Advocate Arvind Shah, this medium-sized club has between 40 and 50 members who attend sessions 365 days a year. The club meets in a small square dominated by a very large tower; then it moves to a nearby hall during the rainy season. The club’s favorite varieties of laughter are Mirchi (hot chili) Laughter and Lezim (a tambourine-like instrument) Laughter.
Tapovan Ladies Club
This all-female club led by Jayshree Patil meets in the late afternoon in a large open space on the outskirts of Kolhapur. The members are housewives and mothers, so it’s impossible for them to meet early in the morning, a time when they’re busy getting their children ready for school. The Tapovan Ladies is another of the big Kolhapur clubs, boasting an average attendance exceeding 100. It’s open to women only but is worth a visit to see the club perform Bird Laughter.
This club meets on a hill above Kolhapur next to a magnificent shrine to Lord Ganesh (the elephant god). The location offers unimpeded views over Kolhapur and of the sunrise. Founded by Dr. Dilip C. Shah, who now leads the Nana Nani Park Hasya club, the members meet at 6:00 a.m. every day but Sunday. Attendance fluctuates, varying from 30 to 60 laughers.
Mumbai is the birthplace of laughter clubs, so finding one shouldn’t present a problem.
Taj Lands End
This very comfortable 368-room business-centric hotel in the elite Bandra district is handy for the Laughter Heaven club. For businesswomen—or lady laughers—there’s a dedicated women’s floor, served by lady butlers. Check out the modern organic restaurant, Pure.
A well-known club in Mumbai is Laughter Heaven, which is situated next to Bandra Joggers Park. The club boasts its own laughter arena enclosed behind railings featuring laughter motifs. The club claims to be the only laughter club visible from outer space! The laughter here can be a bit insipid, and the club’s close proximity to apartment buildings feels claustrophobic. Nevertheless, it’s
worth a visit.
If you’re staying in the Andheri or Juhu neighborhoods, take a pilgrimage to the small park in Lockhandwala Complex (part of Andheri) where Dr. Madan Kataria started the first club in 1995, which still meets daily at 6:15 a.m.
View From Behind the Camera
by Stefan Merrill Block
Eight thousand miles from home, hired for a job far beyond my experience level, encircled by hysterical, chortling throngs with whom I could not speak, I knew that the important thing was to maintain the proper expression. A 20-something Texan, plunked down on a hillside in rural India at dawn, fumbling with the video camera I was hired to operate, I tried to feign a certain bemused nonchalance as the Tramboli Laughter Yoga Club of Kolhapur cavorted about me, performing its daily exercises. By the end of that first morning of shooting, my face had set and hardened into the grin it would maintain for the vast majority of the coming weeks, a grin warm, distant, and encouraging, a grin that tried not to betray my suspicion that all the Laughter Club members were, in some fundamental way, absolutely out of their minds. But as we filmed Laughter Club the evidence of their insanity kept accumulating:
• We captured Madan Kataria, the laughter guru of the world, as he was greeted at the train station like a triumphant, returning king, paraded around by his acolytes, women touching his shoes and covering him with flowers, men blow-ing horns, chanting his edicts, feeding him fruits, nuts, and other unidentifiable treats with their own hands.
• We met Arvind Shah, a grave and angry laughter autocrat, ordering the uniformed throngs of his Laughter Club to stand in formation and laugh precisely on command.
• We followed a political maelstrom of near-Shakespearean proportions, set off when laughter rebel Dilip Shah attempted to skew the ascendant laughter movement to his own vision, establishing a massive event, a world laughter competition.
• Everywhere we went, in every park, in every town, every morning, we found hordes of laughers hopping, tickling, and dancing with a joyful abandon I had to envy.
Just as the laughers of India baffled and intrigued me, so did I seem to baffle and in-trigue them. Presumably because I was head and shoulders taller than any local, they dubbed me “Titanic” (a nickname my friends in America find hilarious, given that even playing Wiffle ball leaves my arms sore for days). As Titanic, I seemed to garner an odd, wholly unearned celebrity around town. Titanic’s movements and background were fodder for local newspaper and TV. When Titanic came to parties, guests asked for his autograph. When Titanic walked down the sidewalk, parents made him pose for photographs with their children. After it became known that Titanic lived in New York, men everywhere would put their hands on his shoulders as they sadly, knowingly said, “Twin Towers.” When Titanic spoke of the price of curry in America, boys invited friends over to hear, afraid their reports of the conversation wouldn’t be believed. But what most perplexed, even vexed the laughers of India was Titanic’s unwillingness ever to stop filming, his constant darting around, with the director, in search of a better shot, as their subjects laughed and pranced about them.
“Do they ever stop with the cameras?” one of Kataria’s disciples once asked his guru. “They’re American,” Kataria shrugged. “It’s a work culture.”
“Why don’t you relax?” the man asked, approaching. With both of my hands supporting my camera, I couldn’t deflect his fingers as he forced some globular confection into my mouth. “Enjoy snack. Laugh a little.” The truest cultural barrier between us had become obvious: not one of taste or language or experience, but a deep belief in one another’s absurdity.
One evening, after many weeks of filming, Arvind Shah, the Laughter Club czar, took us up into the cool, grassy hills above Kolhapur. He and some members of his club had bought land there years before, with plans to fulfill a now moribund vision of Kataria’s: the creation of a compound called Laughter City, a kind of ashram for the silly, far from the clutch-es of the curmudgeons of the world below. But due to drainage issues, inaccessibility, and financial limitations, the land proved nearly impossible to develop. That didn’t stop Shah from taking us to the summit, where, even in his mid-70s, he remained certain he would live to see his utopia rise. Along with several of the prominent citizens of Kolhapur whom he’d brought with him, Shah then treated us to a demonstration of daily life in his imagined city.
“Bird laughter!” Shah called to his companions. “Start!”
The men flapped their arms like bird wings, laughed like dodos, leaped on the hilltops as if the lightness of their vision might make them suddenly go airborne. Scrambling behind with my camera and gear, I stumbled and swore. Thankfully, Shah paused to allow me to catch up. Once I reached him, I lowered the camera to wipe my sweat. Shah, a serious, irritable, and hardworking lawyer, recognized the exasperation and weariness in my face. He approach-ed me, then stood by my side as he giggled at his friends, who were still flapping and laughing in the distance. I grinned my false grin.
“You are most wonderful persons to make a film most important,” he said. “But, by God, do I have something for you!” Then he reached over and tickled my ribs. I hoisted my camera, but the footage I then captured of Shah and his friends was shaky and useless. I couldn’t help myself. I was laughing.
The film is currently being screened at international film festivals and will be in U.S. theaters later this year. A trailer can be seen on the website.
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