The youngsters' vacant and distant look of having too little food and too much time to think about it gives way to wide-eyed anticipation as hundreds sit fidgeting in a wide circle on a dusty lot of a slum resettlement colony, waiting for the show to start.
Most of their parents are at work in the hardscrabble world below the poverty line in India. So frail little girls of 6 show up carrying infant siblings and jostle bigger boys for a place to sit.
A murmur of excitement ripples through the crowd when a dozen brightly costumed mimes, their faces white with greasepaint, arrive and begin their well-rehearsed routine. A dwarf's warm-up antics brings shrieks of laughter from the steadily growing audience, laughter which in turn brings sardonic smiles to the leathery faces of the few old men who are standing on the fringes, and who have seen harder times than the children.
It is street theater time in New Delhi, an hour of gaiety and silliness in an otherwise drab and joyless day in the warren of narrow mud alleys and tin-roofed huts.
On the face of it, it is entertainment for entertainment's sake, and if the children think otherwise, they don't show it. But beneath the slapstick comedy and Keystone Kops humor played in the dustbowl before the children is a message intended to cause conflict in their minds and a disturbing awareness that their lives are all wrong.
Aloke Roy, founder and director of the Theater of the Oppressed, calls it "awakening" to the inequities and outrages of life in the slums.
"We think talking about Gandhism, socialism, social revolution or whatever is totally useless unless a person is conscious of the problems he faces in everyday life. The sad fact is that most of these people haven't even identified their problems," said Roy, 43, a former art student who has been producing street theater here since 1967.
Street theater has long been an institution in India, a country where the appetite for escapism seems insatiable but also where an appreciation of the concept of finite resources is finely honed. The average income is less than $200.
There are a dozen street theater companies in New Delhi alone, and the art form is burgeoning elsewhere in the country. Some of them, like one Marxist group here, are blatantly political, and others, like the groups formed by feminist organizations, concentrate on narrow issues such as dowery or the alarming rise of murders of brides whose families fail to meet extortionists' demands for cash or property.
The Theater of the Oppressed, however, claims to be aligned with no political movement, and is the only theater company that produces consciousness-arousing street pantomime on a broad range of social problems.
Its 23 scripts deal with issues ranging from discrimination against Untouchables to corruption among public officials to the dangers of malnutrition and exploitation by black-market merchants. All of the skits are written to arouse children's social indignation, which, Roy said, is carried to the homes and transmitted to the parents.
Roy's street theater group, which is supported by the World Council of Churches and other international groups, puts on 300 performances a year in 20 New Delhi slum colonies. The average audience is about 1,000, the director said.
Its mimes are young people without acting experience who are drawn from the resettlement colonies and taught to dialogue with the community about the conditions of the poor.
The object, said Roy, who as a radical art student was expelled from Delhi Polytechnic Institute in 1958 for organizing a demonstration that shut down the school for 15 days, is to summon reaction from people who have become so enured to poverty and inequity that they have accepted it as a way of life.
"It creates conflict in their minds, and that conflict may be unpleasant. But it is the first step toward change, if there ever is going to be change. They have to translate the conflict into action and insist on a change in their everyday lives," said Roy.
In one recent performance, a skit illustrated the hardships of a mother of seven children. When the narrator asked the young audience how many children would be better for the family, the youngsters cried "Two, two!"
In another, in which a high-caste Brahman beats an Untouchable for entering a temple, a man in the audience blurted out an anguished protest and was quieted only when Roy explained to him the moral of the skit. Even then, the man complained that the caste atrocity scene was so odious that it should not be portrayed.
Although the theater receives some financial assistance from a family planning department of the Indian government, officials have treated it warily. Police have harassed performers from time to time, claiming an illegal assembly, to which Roy said he responds, "Ask the people. If they object, I will stop."
The director added, "The government doesn't deny that the problems exist. But they don't like the effectiveness of the programs and the response we get." Several slum colonies have formed social-action organizations on the basis of grievances portrayed in the pantomimes, he said.
Considering that Roy is a Brahman who lives in the fashionable Vasant Vihar neighborhood of upper-class New Delhi, his slum-oriented street theater is all the more remarkable.
"The Russians think I am a CIA agent because I get money from America, and the Americans think I am a KGB agent because we are talking about social revolution. But the fact is, I have no truck with either side, and they can both go to hell. I'm talking with the people," Roy said.
In one of his skits in a South Delhi slum, an enormous man dressed in a devil's costume and portraying the Malnutrition Monster grappled with a family which, like most people here, exists on bread and lentils.
When the narrator extolled the virtues of spinach as a dietary staple, some of the children in the audience began flexing their bone-thin arms in a parody of Popeye.
Roy looked at the childish posturing and said, "I suppose if I wanted, I could proselytize these kids in radical politics. But, frankly, I'll be happy if I get them to eat some spinach and not be so sickly."