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Last Updated: Friday, 30 April, 2004, 11:30 GMT 12:30 UK
Spartacus returns to fight child slavery

By Charles Haviland
BBC correspondent in Bangalore

Drama from the Spartacus production
The production has attracted a wide cross section of actors
"Where are the slave costumes?" shouts a stressed director, followed by "Get me the lion's head!"

The adrenalin is flowing in advance of a dress rehearsal for "Spartacus Returns" in the southern Indian city of Bangalore.

The ballet-cum-play about freedom has already been staged eight times in Bangalore and at the recent World Social Forum in Bombay (Mumbai).

The work tells the story of Spartacus, a gladiator-slave in ancient Rome who led thousands of others in a freedom revolt before being captured and crucified in 71BC.

It then has Spartacus reappearing as a child in modern slave conditions - criticism of the fact that India has 100 million child labourers under the age of 14.

Bold themes

One deep, booming voice resonates around the dressing room - that of the show's charismatic director, writer and composer, John Devaraj.

No man is free till all men are free
Spartacus aka John Devaraj

He has drawn many people into its fluid cast, including former street and working children rehabilitated by children's charities.

Fourteen-year-old Ananth used to work in a bar. He has lost a leg to bone cancer, yet on stage he dances and even somersaults.

Mr Devaraj says he was thrilled to hear Ananth's powerful singing voice.

"The spirit of Spartacus comes from this boy with just one leg," he says.

Then there's 26-year-old Mioi from Hiroshima, Japan.

She met John by chance and, having no drama background, at first declined to join his cultural organisation.

Children in Indian Spartacus production
The cry for freedom is a persistent theme of the play

"He told me he could organise my talent," she says, "and that moved me."

Mioi can now dance and mime.

The themes are boldly drawn - Rome is shown being built with slave labour.

Absolute power appears in the shape of Julius Caesar, arrogantly laughing at an orgy of eating, then deciding whether gladiator-slaves should live or die once they have fought to the brink of death.

Spartacus - played by John Devaraj himself - then tells his best friend, Julian, he would kill him if it meant winning freedom for his brother slaves.

"No man is free till all men are free," he declares.

They escape and free thousands of slaves, but are later recaptured and Spartacus is indeed forced to kill Julian in a fight.

He and 6,000 other slaves are hung on crosses to die.

Match factory

In the second half the freedom theme arrives in modern times as the children take centre stage.

Spartacus is "reborn" as a child in modern slave conditions working in a match factory.

Spartacus fights Julian
More than 35,000 children have seen the show

He leads a gang of child slaves building Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, whipped by a giant whose face is coloured like the Stars and Stripes.

The anti-US sentiment is rammed home when an evil genie rounds up children, forcing the world's best-known soft drink down their throats.

The America-bashing sits very uneasily with the broader theme of freedom from slavery.

But Mr Devaraj insists that child labour is kept alive precisely by US-spearheaded globalisation, which he sees as a successor to Roman imperialism.

"It's as a result of globalisation that children are coming from the villages to the cities, enlarging the mass of working children in this country," he says.

"They have to be emancipated."

Ready market

"Spartacus Returns" certainly helps break down the barriers between the deprived and more privileged children within its cast.

As well as acting in it, 12-year-old Arun from St Joseph's Indian High School does voluntary work helping reach out to street children who want to study.

Spartacus in training
The play also breaks down barriers between cast members

"It's a powerful story - if everyone sees this, we can make another world," he says.

The show's producer, Father Melvin Pinto, says he wants children taking part to realise that they are not just in it for themselves.

"They have to be committed to creating a society meant for others," he says.

By deliberately performing to audiences of children, it is finding a ready market for its message against child labour.

Mr Devaraj says the show has already reached more than 35,000 children.

He hopes to take it abroad, first to the Children's World Congress on Child Labour in Florence, Italy, in May, where he hopes to bring local children into the audience and the casts.

As theatre, it is spectacular, featuring a giant on stilts, a pantomime lion and a flock of peacocks.

Mr Devaraj composed most of the music and counts among his inspirations Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and of course Hollywood, whose epic version of Spartacus starred Kirk Douglas.

The latest version of the story may not win as many Oscars, but its impact on people's lives could be equally influential.

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