“It is not enough to try to remove wants; you can never remove them completely from outside; the far greater thing is to rouse the will of the people to remove their own wants.” — Rabindranath Tagore, A History of Sriniketan by Uma Das Gupta, published by Niyogi Books.
Does political freedom eulogised by masses ensure housing, clothing, food, love kindness, self respect and education to all the beneficiaries of a newly structured country? Centring around this theme, we bring together writing around India’s Republic Day, when the country adopted its new constitution and called itself an independent republic with its own self-defined preamble. This happened on 26th January, 1950. Here we carry writing that reflects on the then and now of the people who have lived by that constitution defined in 1950. Some of the issues had been voiced centuries ago, by Akbar, the grand Mughal, subsequently by greats like Tagore who died long before India became an independent entity and more recently by Nabendu Ghosh. These issues, ranging from the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, education, health have been variously taken up among people by NGOs and writers who have come forward to voice and act to awaken the majority to make a change. Are people then better off now than they were in the past?
An excerpt from Shazi Zaman’sAkbar: A Novel of Historydetailing his interactions with Surdas and Braj, showcasing syncretic elements in the past, where homage to power clashes with spiritual aspirations. Click here to read.
Give Me A Rag, Please:A short story by Nabendu Ghosh, translated by Ratnottama Sengupta, set in the 1943 Bengal Famine, which reflects on man’s basic needs. Click here to read
For the Want of a Cloth: Ratnottama Sengupta muses on an NGO who has won a Magsaysay Award for his work with cloth distribution in India contextualising it against the issues raised in Give Me a Rag, Please by Nabendu Ghosh. Click here to read.
Among Our People: Devraj Singh Kalsi gives a fictitious account of a common man’s quest for security in a country that is one of the world’s largest democracy. Click here to read.
Potable Water Crisis & the Sunderbans: Camellia Biswas, a visitor to Sunderbans during the cyclone Alia, turns environmentalist and writes about the potable water issue faced by locals. The support often comes from beyond the border lines and from people who live through the ordeal. Click here to read.
Ideally, I would love to start the New Year with laughter and happiness! Then perhaps, the whole year would be dotted with humour …
Laughter clubs often practice laughing for health benefits. I know the pandemic makes both guffawing outdoors or in a group hard but think of the funniest possible thing and, perhaps, you will start laughing. For me what works other than children’s and monkeys’ antics, are my trips to the dentist, especially the trip where I wondered on the fringe benefits of ‘laughing gas’ (as given in the PG Wodehouse novel of the same name), only to be informed that it was used exclusively for young children. For me, an adult, there was only — you have guessed it — the jab that numbs your lip function to lubber. I discovered if I could make light of a dentist drilling by learning from Harry Potter (the spell to get rid of the terrifying boggart, who took the shape of the thing you feared most, was to imagine the funniest thing, focus on the humour in it, and shout ‘Riddikulus’ with a wand pointed at the creature in the form of your worst nightmare), then I could pretty much get rid of most fears.
The other thing I have been wondering for sometime is can one write an editorial that is humorous when the content is serious? I would have wanted to ask that question to many, including Ruskin Bond, who continues as one of my idols. I would love to touch hearts with the humour and the sensitivity that flavours his writing. It is tough to convey a complex thought with the simplicity and elegance of a writer who can be read and understood easily. I think we have a few of them around and I interviewed one. You all probably know him well— Rhys Hughes. I have given the reasons for the interview in lieu of Mr Bond, who continues a distant star beyond the horizon of online interviews. We discussed humour and its role in literature, leaving out completely in the cold, the fictional Mr Bond who answers to the names of James and 007 and has made entertaining films, which can be seen as serious or non-serious.
Another major issue in this world currently is climate change. In keeping with the need for acceptance of this reality, Keith Lyons introduced us to a nature lover, author and adventurer Kenny Peavy, who loved the fictional adventurer called Indiana Jones and has been working towards living in harmony with nature. He moved to Indonesia from America and is trying to raise awareness. You can find much, though not elephants, in the interview that encompasses the story of a man who cycled across a continent on a bike made of bamboo. However, you can find some writing on a king who acquired the skill to ride and tame elephants in our book excerpt from Shazi Zaman’sAkbar: A Novel of History. The excerpt does not showcase his elephant taming skills as did the Bollywood blockbuster Jodha Akbar but is focussed on bringing out the syncretism in the Mughal monarch’s outlook which made him seek out exponents of other religions. Sangita Swechcha’s and Andrée Roby’s anthology, A Glimpse Into My Country, with excerpts of short stories from Nepal and Zimbabwe, like Kenny Peavy, cycle across multiple borders as does our fiction. We feature stories from within and without the continent with Fazal Baloch recombining a couple of folklores from Balochistan to a single tale. Fiction from young writers highlight compassion and a varied perspective. Steve Ogah has a story from Nigeria which almost rings with overtones of Alex Haley’s Roots. Sohana Manzoor has given us a poignant narrative with an inspiring twist at the end, an absolute antithesis of the humorous one she rolled out for us last month. Candice Louisa Daquin has also given us an exceptional short fiction along with her column where she discusses the changing face of families in the current context.
While Daquin’s focus is mainly towards the West, we have an essay from Sanjay Kumar on families that live in the greyer zones of big cities, children from an outcropping called Nithari in Delhi, where they or theirs suffered neglect, abuse, carnage and cannibalism in their formative years. Introducing the impacted children, Kumar explains how they transcended the wounds that lacerated their lives. This piece is a precursor to a column called ‘Children of Nithari’. Starting February, the abuse victims will give us a story a month which will be translated by young volunteers from pandies’, an activist theatre group founded by Kumar, and published in Borderless. Another article from Balochistan reflects on the lack of literacy and efforts to bring children into the folds of schooling. Pakistan ranked 99th out of 132 countries on the literacy survey in 2021. We are privileged to be the voice of the unheard.
Two essays that ring of concerns raised in the Kenny Peavy interview are to do with climate crisis in the Sunderbans and waste disposal in Delhi. Both of these are written by researchers who are working on these issues.
We have travel pieces from Australia – one is a sailing adventure by Meredith Stephens and the other is about a trip to the Sand Dunes of Western Australia by Shernaz Wadia. Ravi Shankar has also taken us through winters from the Everest to New York with his globe-trotting non-fiction. Penny Wilkes takes us on a flight of creativity with beautiful photography.
We have a stellar layout of translations. Professor Fakrul Alam translated another poem by Jibananada Das and Borderless is honoured to publish it to the world for the first time. We have a translation from Korea and another of a Brahmo hymn, Aji Shubho Dine, by Tagore, which is sung often during festivals. The icing in our Tagore section in this issue is Ratnottama Sengupta’s translation of the Kobiguru’s ‘Two Birds’ (Khanchar Pakhi Chhilo) along with a musing which reflects on the perspectives of the two contemporaries, Tagore and Saratchandra. She has also translated a well-known Bengali poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Dutt wrote just before the advent of Tagore and had an interesting past which has been vividly depicted by Sunil Gangopadhyay in Those Days (Sei Somoy in Bengali), a novel that has been translated by Aruna Chakravarti. Bhaskar Parichha has given us a tribute on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Fakir Mohan Senapati, who, he claims, has the same standing in Odia literature as Tagore in Bengali or Premchand in Hindi.
Parichha has also reviewed Amit Ranjan’sJohn Lang; Wanderer of Hindoostan; Slanderer in Hindoostanee; Lawyer for the Ranee. It looks like an interesting read where an immigrant Australian came supported Rani of Jhansi in India. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Selma Carvalho’s Sisterhood of Swans, again a story of migrants and their lives. The theme seems to echo among the books that have been reviewed this time, including Gracy Samjetsabam’s take on Anuradha Kumar’s The Hottest Summer in Years, a story about a German immigrant to India in the twentieth century. Meenakshi Malhotra’s review of Somdatta Mandal’s translation of A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885) highlights the views of a traveller rather than an immigrant as the lady did return home after a ten-year sojourn in Britain. As Meenakshi contends, “The process of travel offers opportunities for emancipation where exposure to other cultures offers her a way of viewing and of gaining a perspective on her own experiences and that of her sisters in India. Krishnabhabini constantly refers to her Indian sisters and bemoans their sorry state and ignorance when she sees how active British women were in their families and societies…”
I was supposed to try my hand at a humorous editorial, but I realise that is tough when the ground is small. For humour, we need rolling acres where we can etch out each detail till it cannot be milked further for laughter. But I promise you I will keep trying to please the readers till one evolves to write like Ruskin Bond.
I would like to thank my fabulous team who even if not actively contributing to content are always at hand to advise and help. I would especially want to thank both Sohana Manzoor and Sybil for their fantastic artwork, which is as wonderful as their writings. I would like to give heartfelt thanks to all the contributors who have made this journal possible and each reader who comes back to our journal for more every month. Some of the pieces remain unmentioned adding to the mystery of the content, just like, Christmas gifts which need to be unwrapped and continue a reality even in January in some parts of the world – the Russians celebrate on January 7th and the Spaniards extend their festivities to January 6th.
Do take a look at this month’s edition for not just the stories mentioned here but for more.
I wish you all a wonderful New Year filled with laughter.
Sanjay Kumar gives us a glimpse of how theatre has been used to transcend trauma and create bridges
This essay uses the material of five years of continual theatre workshops conducted from mid 2006 to the present day with young adolescent children, siblings and neighbours of victims of sexual abuse and cannibalism in Nithari, India. My point of entry is that of a practitioner of workshop-based theatre with the activist theatre group, pandies’ theatre (Delhi).
pandies’ theatre, though registered formally in 1993, traces its origins to 1987 when some students and teachers of an undergraduate college in Delhi University decided to move away from the flippant, meaningless plays put up in the name of competitions and festivals by theatre societies of various colleges and take up more meaningful full length plays staged at the commercial auditoriums in more or less half commercial manner. The society performed Lorca, Ngugi, Strindberg, Vicente Lenero, Genet and Brecht in that order. Surviving under the rubric of a college was becoming difficult. Students who had completed their studies wanted to be with us, students from other colleges wanted to join and there was consistent opposition from college authorities regarding the wasted time of the students and the unconventional themes of the performances. pandies’ theatre was born in 1993.
Moving away from a college and a university, with four teachers including the author as the office bearers and an executive committee consisting of ex-students. The initial strength of the group was around thirty members and the active component continues to be so though the total number has grown larger. Begun with a simple agenda of staging plays relevant to our ethos and time, it has evolved as an activist group – left, feminist and atheistic. It started as a proscenium oriented English theatre group but from 1996 turned increasingly activist taking on projects rather than plays. The dominant number of women among the younger members assured a feminist beginning for the group.
As the decade moved and majoritarian communal hatred flourished, pandies moved away from a simple secular outlook to a more definitive atheistic position. Post 2002, following the heart-breaking Gujarat pogrom, the group took a conscious decision to target anti-communal forces and work intensively with young people and these have been the high points of recent years. The group has penetrated more and more into the margins, working specially with under-privileged children from diverse area. Our work, which is now almost totally activist, can be put under three divisions: first, scripting and directing performances (largely adaptations and original scripts) for the proscenium, first staged in a commercial theatre and then used also for Awareness programmes; second, using theatre as a means of generating awareness on diverse issues ranging from feminist theatre to gay rights to child rights and rights of religious minorities and this attempt includes legal and legislative intervention. And the third and at the moment the most focussed area lies in creating theatre with young people with a view to articulating trauma, containing conflict and getting space for marginalised voices in policy formulation.1
For resources the group often looks within. At times the projects are funded, like when the politics of the funding agency agrees with that of pandies’. For instance, the group has worked with the government in the late 90s on HIV awareness and reform in laws against rape and at various times with like-minded NGOs (Non-Government Organisations) on issues of child rights and gender. However, especially in its more radical projects (including the one discussed here), the group is often forced to turn to its own resources, which means money from friends and from the members of the group, including those who are working in the project itself. pandies’ has increasingly felt that whereas funding is required for large-scale work and to bring about social and legal change, incisive shorter projects, that do not derive funding from outside bring an uncompromising radical sharpness to the work and need to feed into agendas of reform and contribute towards policy-making. For its performance-based awareness campaigns and specially its theatre teaching workshops with young people the group prefers to move in where there is some pre-existing infrastructure (as the school Saksham in the example here, or an NGO run camp for displaced children or a state-run reformatory) but is not averse to move in directly where its members perceive a dire need.
Workshop based theatre at Nithari, the focal point of this paper, assumes extreme importance for me and my colleagues at pandies’ as it provides a uniquely sustained and sustainable foray into assessing the viability of performance as a process of social amelioration, even if it is of one kind of workshop based activist performance in one area. As the Chief Facilitator I attempt to graph changes that theatre workshops and performance bring in the consciousness of the participants and facilitators as young, trained facilitators (some in their late teens and most in their twenties) work with the survivors of a traumatic carnage. I proceed further to try and examine wider implications of these changes.
The Carnage and its Context
Nithari was placed on the national centre-stage in December 2006 – January 2007 as, after two years of unceasing complaints from its impoverished residents, the police finally moved in to discover carcasses of fifty-three children from the drains of the posh houses bordering the village. That story of severed limbs and rotting body parts forms one of the most enduring narratives in the written and electronic media in the country.
The carnage is intimately linked with the complex multi- layerity of life in a city like Delhi, the capital of India. The rampant growth of Delhi has forced the national government to extend the city beyond the parameters of Delhi’s administration and create a National Capital Region to divert this growth. At the moment the pan-construct (NCR) includes areas of three states, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, besides Delhi and New Delhi. Coerced proximal living of different classes creates many problems in Delhi itself and these get compounded as one moves to the NCR. Chunks of rural land have been taken over by the state governments for urbanisation – building roads and industries, malls and multiplexes. Pockets of small, old “villages” exist juxtaposed with posh multi-storeyed residential apartments and offices that rank among the most expensive in the country. These old rural spaces survive as the source of menial help – maids, servants, gardeners and fruit and vegetable sellers – for the rich residents around. Many old villages have become slums, the abode of migrant labour that comes here from all parts of the country to improve its lot. The disparity creates palpable tensions. The residents of these poor pockets, specially their children, some of whom have been born here and many have spent most of their lives here, are sensitive to the blatant display of wealth by the rich residents and especially, their children. They are also resentful of the looking up the barrel that this mode of living inevitably entails.
The rich middle class claims its tale of woes. Its voices are hegemonic and define what is the norm and what constitutes aberration:
“Crime is a big issue, thefts, robberies and murders abound,” they tell us, “These poor children, children of the poor do drugs, they steal and one has to be careful even of one’s cell phone on traffic lights.”
Such narratives seek to obfuscate the many crimes of exploitation and neglect of the poor.
Nithari is a paradigmatic illustration of the anomalies above. An erstwhile village, present slum, in Uttar Pradesh, Nithari, is situated just on the outskirts of Delhi, in the National Capital Region. Its residents are mainly migrant labourers and vendors and it lies in the extremely upmarket township of Noida. The carnage at Nithari, also provides an adequate rupturing of the hegemonic narrative of the middle class; the crime is hideous and inflicted on the poor children by its rich residents.
Headlines (electronic and written) pursued the discovery of the bodies and all processes that followed (including ours) have had to negotiate with the effects of this mediatisation. The stories of the media followed a perceivable pattern from investigative journalism to sensationalism. The “reporting” started with a fragmented list of possibilities: organ trade, extraction and sale of blood, involvement of a medical syndicate, apathy/ collusion of the police and the administration, trafficking gone awry, perversion and sexual abuse of young boys and girls at the hands of rich, adult exploiters and of course, cannibalism. The place became a focal point and soon media stories highlighted certain causes with the erasure of others. The violence inherent in such hostile class juxtapositions was quickly sidelined, the criminal neglect of the area and its inhabitants including issues of sanitation, health and education totally pushed under the carpet and the apathy of the police and the administration was put on the back burner. The residents of the area; the families and friends of the children who died still yearn for those investigative threads to be pursued. Media stories narrowed and rested on a sensational perversion as a rich man and his servant were netted by the police under the charge of kidnapping, sexually abusing and killing the children. This became real material for headlines. The servant would entice the young with goodies: chow mein and chocolates, the older rich master, a pervert used to rape and sodomize the children and the servant, the real maniac, would chop them and eat them later. The media explored different psychological angles and nightmarish stories of the servant’s confessions – like his preference for the raw livers of children – still appear.2
Moving away from these narratives I will try and re-create the story of survivors; a study of the consciousness of young children aged 7 to 15 at that time, who lost their siblings and friends in the incident and have tried to make sense of their lives. Can these fragmented stories of forced sexualisation, of lost childhood, of questioning the sanctity of the institution of family and of the distrust of protectors constitute an evolving collective consciousness?
Interaction with the Facilitators
A further point of interest for me, Nithari, or rather the charity school Saksham3 there, is also the site of interaction between young trained activists – facilitators of Delhi’s pandies’ theatre and the child-survivors of the place. A core group of about 12 facilitators have been working with about 250 children at Nithari. These are young men and women in their late teens and early twenties, middle class and with some training of conducting theatre workshops and lots of enthusiasm. They too are all invariably in a subversive relationship with the grown-up, norm-defining voices of their class. Many certitudes of middle class existence are being challenged here: the valorisation of family, the sanctity of marriage, the hegemony of adult voices, the efficacy of the education system, middle class notions of success and right wing decadence – the hold of religion and morality on our conduct and behaviour. In tune with the young at Nithari, the facilitators have helped create performances that in their rebelliousness give a lie to much that is valued and valorised in our structures.
This mutual process of learning and teaching spanning five years has used many dimensions of the workshop mode to explore the nuanced connections between performance and affirmative action, ferreting on the way the insidious link between mainstreaming attempts and developmental policies, identifying often the source of victimisation in the hegemonic voices of the mainstream and locating equally often the core of misery in the very space that ostensibly provides relief. This process raises questions: Is performance Cathartic? Does it provide trauma therapy? Or does it look beyond to envision a better future for all? Does it fire radicalism? Or does it mainstream radical thought? Is it a tool to critique policy, especially developmental policy from the marginal perspective? Does it bring in marginalised, radical voices to alter the course of development? Is the workshop-based mode of theatre an articulation of subversive, disagreeing voices? And can it avoid the snares of co-option into the status quo? The questions abound.
Moving on from the first public performance in April 2007 through seven performances till April 2010, I will structure my study on a close study of three performances.
India Habitat Centre – April 2007
Constitution Club (Haq) – January 2009
American Centre – July 2010
In its workshop mode, pandies’ uses two methods, differing primarily on the amount of time spent to cover the various stages. Where there is a time constraint, or where the group works in conflict zones4 or with incarcerated children in reformatories or in NGO run camps, the preference is for intensive five to six day workshops with the volunteers often living on the site and working on a 24 hour format. The various stages of the method given below are covered fast and a performance is created. Working with young people in a marginalized community, on the other hand as in Nithari, the group often slows down the process keeping its visits limited to a couple of times in a month. The stages of the workshop are covered once and a climax is created in terms of a performance when either an occasion exists or an occasion is created. After the first performance, the method becomes more and more centred on self-expression and creation as pandies withdraws and the young work more among themselves analysing and critiquing the processes around them. The more experienced among them assume the role of facilitators for the uninitiated. pandies intervenes intermittently to create and cater for an occasion with a performance. The Nithari story, punctuated with workshops and performances provides a rare enabling narrative highlighting not only the efficacy of theatre to change the world but also exploring which side of the class spectrum needs that change.
The Play-workshop consists of an adaptable, flexible methodology. The broad aim consists of putting the sufferers through a process of going inside themselves and creating performances based on their collective experience. The facilitators, after initiating the process recede into an a la carte mode, available on demand.
We begin with exercises – physical and theatrical. These exercises are a part of the repertoire of all theatre groups (narrativising truths and lies, completing broken images, forming images and “machines” – adapted from Augusto Boal, Brecht, Dario Fo and also culled from indigenous Indian traditions5). Physical exercises that make the children focus and help remove preconceived peer formations give way to theatre exercises. Image making provides a good transition. We give the children a word and in ten seconds, using their face and bodies each child has to individually create an image that according to her/him reflects the word. Words are weighted, often in pairs or multiples (father-mother, local politician – bureaucrat, policeman – activist) and the process of introspection has begun. Each child is looking within her/himself interpreting to cull images that correspond to his notion of the word.
Collective image making follows individual exercises. At this point the group is divided into smaller groups. Each group is now given a word/concept more complex than earlier (family, life in Nithari vs. life in Noida, scene in a Noida mall, children of the rich, my village-slum/ how I would like it to be, my society/how I would like it to be, grown-ups, etc.). Each group collectively creates an image/picture corresponding to the concept given. In the image, each child must represent something and the total picture convey the group’s collective view of the concept. The challenge is that everybody watching should be able to guess the word/ concept from the image. The process of collective introspection, of looking into each other’s experience and creating a collective picture has taken place. Image making leads to “machines” – repetitive representations of collective images where sounds and movement are incorporated and communication taken a step higher, however, language is not used as the mode of communication.
Collective introspection is taken a stage further by narrativising. As they get more relaxed, they relate stories from their lives. In workshops that are event/ trauma centred, the participants are encouraged to talk about their experience of that event, otherwise, foregrounding concerns on issues of class exploitation, gender disparity, communalism and casteism, the facilitators give them “topics” to tell narratives from their extended experience. They are playing and at the same time it is real. It is a re-creation, done before a specific audience consisting of the facilitating group, the caregivers (in this case teachers of Saksham) and the rest of the children in the workshop. Each group then proceeds, with the help of one facilitator, to create a narrative that tries to incorporate the experiences of all the members of the group with the proviso that the narrative as a whole should make sense as a story. Each group chooses its leader, writer/ collator and presenter. This narrative, often very sketchy and containing bits of everybody’s story and at the same time not being really anybody’s story, is then played into a theatrical performance.
pandies’ usually prepares small theatrical pieces for each set of workshops. These piece(s) are generally presented after the narrativising session to elicit further discussion and throw theatre ideas at the participants before they prepare their own skits.6 Each group, then, first makes a small skit around the short story they had created earlier. The instructor’s intervention is strictly on demand and the participants work largely by themselves. Using more ideas from the workshop, these plays are built into performances of about twenty to thirty minutes each. Often, specially if the target is a public performance, these performances are tied together for a longer episodic production. But where there is homogeneity of themes, the more challenging mode is to try and create one sequential script combining experiences from all the narratives. The performances are geared to what the children want to tell us. At times they stress messages that they feel we want to hear but oftener they do get charged up and highlight events that have disturbed them and they want us to know.
After Gujarat pogrom 20027, pandies’ had taken a decision to use the workshop mode of theatre with children of varying regions, classes and religions to mitigate religious bigotry. A special focus was on marginalised children of slums or bastis who are targets of such bigotry. Volunteers of the group reached Saksham, Nithari through a mutual contact in May 2006 the place that continues to be the site of our intervention. Using secular ideals (religion and caste) as the backdrop we started working with the children on different issues.
Using our tried methodology we started with three or four visits a month usually on every Saturday. In keeping with standard practice with the sub-groups, stories were evolving around trafficking of children, problems in education of the girl child, masculine bias in stories of romance and impact of communal riots on children living in urban slums. In the early months it became apparent that children, a handful who had been coming to the school and many more, including the participants’ siblings and friends, had been disappearing for over two years. Reports were being lodged at the police station but the police personnel were dismissive and nobody had imagined the extent of the carnage.
The interaction between the facilitators and the participants was proceeding fine. A bit overawed by these middle class somewhat older youth, the participants were also hugely attracted towards them. And they often used mimicry, humour and undercutting as a way of asserting their equality.
The workshops too were showing more than satisfactory progress. In six months we had completed the process of group making, gone through the crucial stages of making collective images and machines and reached the point where the four created groups were devising their short stories. The four groups working along with their facilitators were moving in different directions. The first group was working out a love story and seeking to make a gender statement through it. The second was focussing on the necessity of educating girls. The third centred on trafficking and sensitive issue of the sale of children of their class. And the fourth taking the issue of Hindus and Muslims living together focussed on existing communal discord and the need for harmony.
The Carnage and Trauma Workshops
Six months down the process and Nithari suddenly became the most often used word in the vocabulary of the NCR. For five weeks after the discovery of the carcasses, the police cordoned off the entire area and nobody was allowed to go there except residents. There was the fact of the carnage and the devastating stories of the media some of whom held the greed and the criminality of the residents as the real reasons of the carnage. The toll on the participants was apparent. When we went to meet them we were met with the most unusual silence. These were extremely expressive children, hard to suppress. They had been struck dumb by the horrible findings and the media stories that followed the revelation of the carnage.
As facilitators we had to get proactive and we started daily workshops dealing with trauma. In these trauma workshops we cajoled them into expressing their hurt, their anger, their opinions – in anecdotes, in fictionalised stories or in silences. Expressing without words worked and they reverted to silent machines, to recapitulate and express what they felt about the carnage and its media reports. As a collective their consciousness reflected confusion and hurt; unable to comprehend what happened they were combating with why it had happened. Borrowing from the rhetoric of those around including their parents, schoolteachers and the many TV channels many took recourse in self-blame as their first vocal expressions:
“The children who died went for chow mein, for sweets and chocolates,” they said, “They were greedy and paid the price for it.”
Clichés like “if one is not greedy then one survives” followed. The repercussions could be felt in many ways. Their parents were locking them in their houses while going out seeing it as the only means of ensuring their safety. Something vital had been lost. The innocent dignity that often characterises children of this class was gone. The event had sexualised them in the ugly forms of child rape, coerced sodomy and cannibalism.
In the trauma workshops, through silent machines, the groups re-enacted what they thought had happened in the house where the children, their siblings and neighbours, were killed. Soon we were also getting oral narratives of children who had escaped abduction and little later, full skits of their perception of the event and its causes. Indifferent exploitation by the rich, hostility of the police and the state administration and insensitivity of the media emerged as the dominant themes.
Is trauma cured, or at least lessened by such a cathartic release? By going back to it and seeing it without the initial fear and shock? In this case, the answer could only be a partial affirmation. Emerging out of a stunned silence was only the beginning of facing trauma. The participants and the facilitators, together with the teachers and parents decided that a public performance was essential. It would restore confidence and self-worth that had been lost in this episode. A performance before the oppressive rich was required, required to present their point of view from the margins before the class responsible in the larger sense for the trauma. Further many harsh things were being “reported” about them, their parents and their dead friends that had to be corrected. There was a fear; the fear of sensationalism – after all they would be seen as Nithari’s children – exotic animals who had the spotlight. But that fear had to be suppressed before larger gain. We all also felt that the sense of guilt had to be eliminated and a collective future envisioned to “moving on” from here.
The facilitators too had to deal with trauma. For people working with them nothing can be more devastating than confusion and hurt on the faces of loving, aspiring children. The facilitators responded to the theatre of the grotesque by passionately furthering the process of performance creation by the participants and by preparing small skits of their own to assert their position and articulate what they had learnt at the workshop.
The First Performance
The first event was at the India Habitat Centre(IHC),8 Delhi in the open amphitheatre on the 9th and 10th of April 2007. The two-hour performance contained samples from the trauma workshops, supportive skits from the facilitators and above all, four episodes from the holistic workshop started earlier, six months before the discovery of the carnage.
Four pieces were from the trauma workshops: An oral narrative by a girl who had escaped abduction, one machine and two skits re-performing the event itself. This section was an illustration of both the Cathartic process and its limitations.
Biases and stereotyping, based on belittling class-based prejudices were repeatedly stressed. For instance, the girl’s narrative besides being a tale of fear and heroism detailing how she had escaped and rescued her younger brother from the men who had tried to kidnap her in a van (one according to her was the servant shown on TV) also recounted that she had been thrown away because she was ugly and a polio victim and the men laughed while throwing her out stating she wasn’t good enough for rape. Further, she had fought for and rescued her brother not only as he was her sibling but also because she felt that her family would have punished her had the boy been lost, after all he was a boy and normal, so more precious than her.
The machine and two skits were re-creations; recapitulated and rehearsed. While re-creating, they were also putting the trauma behind. They covered a gamut of perspectives – official narratives (both police and administration), media stories and the views of grownups in their neighbourhood including their parents. All three had the master and his servant at the centre of the event. The machine focussed on organ trade. The children are killed and cut up by a doctor/ surgeon and kept preserved in the freezer, the police drink with the master. A maid discovers the act, she too is killed, the police are again bribed and they sit as before drinking with the master.
The first skit brought in the involvement of the community in the process of bringing the events to light. Creative with stagecraft, they divided the stage into two parts – one representing the inside of the house and the other the village and everything outside. Inside, the story was again of children being cut for organ trade and outside, the inhabitants are getting upset over the disappearance of the children. They report to the police who are apathetic though not complicit.
The stage division erased, the residents break into the house to discover the cut up bodies. They summon the police with this evidence. And the police move in to arrest the two. The third focussed on sexuality and perversion. The master tells his servant to procure sex workers highlighting his preference for young dark women. The servant finding the task increasingly difficult kidnaps a young girl from the neighbourhood after calling her in to clean the place. The drunken master rapes her, scared of consequences, they together kill her and then cut her up to dispose the body. This becomes a usual process and after cutting the body, the two sit and eat its parts. Anxious residents call in the police but the master bribes them away. Going beyond Catharsis, the participants were providing their position on the rich and powerful. The plays did not make a class difference between the servant and the master, they were both part of the rich reality that both metaphorically and in this case literally, feeds on the children of the poor. The indictment was complete. The Police personnel came across as corrupt, drunkards who thrive off the crimes committed on the poor, one skit did show some hope from them, as they move in to act though it is after the residents’ initiative.
Four plays emerged from the workshops started six months before the discovery of the carnage.
The episode on love and romance was liberally peppered with Bollywood9 songs. It took up the issue of premarital sex and its implications for the boy and the girl. The boy aggressively pursues the girl. They go for a walk in the night, it gets too late and consequently, they spend the night at the house of one of his friends. Delicate in its treatment, the episode did not directly talk of sex but rather of the morning after. On return the girl’s family feels pressured to ask the boy to marry their girl but the boy resolutely refuses. The girl wants to move on but becomes the target of scandals and lewd remarks by lumpens (again Bollywood songs). The girl’s friend asks three important questions: Was there anything wrong in what they did? And if there was something wrong then were they both not equally responsible? Why does society punish the girl alone?
The play about the education of the girl child looked at the whole gamut of problems that make it difficult, despite state policy, to provide free education to girls of working class parents. It was set around a girl child of migrant parents who work from early morning and expect the girl to do the morning household chores. The teachers, though they feel the importance of educating girls, are insensitive. And the Principal chides the parents of the girl, who is not doing well because she reaches school after household work and when three classes are over, to welcome the chance provided by the government and ensure that their daughter avails of it. The insulted parents stop the girl’s going to school. As they get ready to marry her (despite her being under-age) the younger brother stands up for her and tells his parents that he will earn money to educate his sister. He exhorts other brothers to do the same and asserts that till male siblings stand up against it, the practice of gender-discrimination within the family will continue unabated.
The third play had begun as a narrative critiquing trafficking. The facilitators, fed on stories of sex work, trafficking and begging, thought that the children would naturally condemn such an exercise. Even earlier they were shocked that a few children had actually tried to defend the buyer of children. In the workshops following the discovery of the carnage, this feeling became the dominant feeling. Perhaps the participants were expressing their total loss of faith (tenuous that faith is even in other times) in the institution of family and possibly their unfathomable anger against the “protectors” in the family. The facilitator, as is the practice in such cases, allowed the children pursue their own thought. The alcoholic father first pulls the boy out of school and puts him to work but when that does not work he takes him to a nearby town and sells him to two businessmen. The men are actually good for the boy. They make him work in their shop but allow him to study in the evening and at night. Desire took over the plot. The boy goes on to become a doctor and returns to his village. The father, very ill because of his alcoholism, repents his deeds. The boy looks after him, starts a hospital in the village and works there.
The fourth play was a lesson in communal harmony. Good neighbours, a Hindu family and a Muslim family turn foes as the area comes in the throes of communal hatred. The children bring them together again as the Muslim child saves the life of his Hindu friend.
If we proceed to draw some tenuous conclusions from these plays without, to begin with, bringing the facilitators into play, we see that in these months, between January and April, the children had got beyond the need for immediate trauma therapy. The longer skits showed the limitations of the Cathartic process and evidenced their desire to engage with themes that the middle class thinks as its sole preserve: the romance story took the theme of premarital sex, apart from saying that society uses a different gaze while looking at the boy and the girl, the episode showed that the children were equipped to talk about an area usually regarded as beyond them in terms of class and age. They also ridiculed notions of romance of rich kids of their age for basing their fantasies on Bollywood recipes, false in any case and certainly ridiculous for them in their poverty.
The second play having possibly the most clichéd theme was the most radical in its treatment. It showed the limitations of affirmative action when such action is imposed from above and without taking cognisance of the opinions of those for whom it is intended. The state provides free education but what is the state of this free education (the children at this charity school evidence that practically no classes were held in the administration school that lies in their area, classes started after the community, showing awareness of their rights, approached the local authorities and forced them) and the reasons for not sending girls to school are many: family “honour,” girl’s “purity,” somebody else’s property, reluctance to spend on auxiliaries like transport and stationery even when the education is free and above all, the necessity for girls to do household work in the morning before they can be expected to do anything else. No process of education can proceed without negotiating the above and as the play went on to show, when principals and teachers of administration schools chastise or take a condescending attitude towards the parents the end of the process has already taken place.
The plot of the third was the most unsettling as it took on the holy cow of social structures – the family. The anger against parents (often identified not as “my parents” but simply as the institution called “parents”) continues to be phenomenal and is second only to the hatred against the state machinery and the middle class (often seen as a continuum by the children). If parents cannot protect their children do they have the right to have any? And is it not more fortunate to be a slave in a rich household than a legitimate child in an impoverished home? Does not the first give more space and chances of success? And the one on religious harmony assumed special significance because slums are inhabited by people of all religions. In pandies’ experience, all slums in and around Delhi have at least twenty five percent Muslims. The play showed how slum dwellers live in harmony despite religious and caste differences, they are propelled into killing the rich of the other community by the rich of their own community at the outbreak of religious riots. Further, it fore-grounded the child as the point of reconciliation. Children are usually deemed too small for this loot and kill agenda. The bonds between them are far more difficult to break and can constitute the core of ameliorative process.
The workshops had keenly sensitised the facilitators and brought out their insecurities and traumas and their conflicts with the adult world. The skits enacted by them furthered the confrontation aspect of the performance as a whole. On the first day the four young members of the group, still in late teens, projected their own understanding of child rights and its violation by adults. The plot revolved around two single-parent families, one rich and one poor. The two were connected by the minor boy from the poor family who works in the household of the rich. His father, an alcoholic, subjects him to periodic violence and takes his money to buy alcohol. The rich boy, who is older though still in school, has his own travails under his high achiever mother. The two boys strike a friendship, the older boy introduces the young poor to drugs and the two do them together. They are caught by their respective parents with drugs on their person. The play placed the two families on the two sides of the stage. The mother scolds the son berating him for having failed her. He hits back accusing her of having no time for him between her lover and her career. In an evocative speech he asserts that her relevance in his life is that of an ATM card. On the other side of the stage and the class spectrum, the poor boy accuses the father of the same and also of defining the paradigm of drug abuse in the family asserting that his alcoholism is responsible for the ruin of the family and also the death of his mother. The play ended with visuals of confused parents.
No apology for drug abuse and no valorisation of the single mother who would have been a progressive woman in a usual pandies’ play, there was only an uncompromising critique of the institution of the family.
Had the Nithari experience equipped them to question this institution? On the second day, 8 facilitators all in their early twenties performed their skit. The ludic provided the explorative as the facilitators “played” children of Nithari and took up the drama from the bursting of the news of corpses. The Nithari children are playing, what would “play” constitute in the circumstances? They play various aspects of their lives. They play family but there is no protection for the children, only abuse, violence and exploitation, they play relationships but that’s about sexual perversions, they play police but its about bribery and beating the poor, they play media but its about sensations and career-making and they play the rich but it is about raping and eating the poor young. Emotionally arousing, the skit showed poor childhoods lost at the hands of the uncaring adults. Continuing in unabated waves and actually tying the play together was the recurrent news of the disappearance of children. Children of the poor disappear, will continue to disappear because they are nobody’s children. The facilitators had learnt from the lived experience of the participants.
The exclusively middle class audience showed a lot of warmth to the children and praised their courage but they had come prepared to watch a rousing scandal. The disjunction between the margins and the mainstream stood out in bold relief. The audience looked for anger, for a Cathartic release of angst and almost chided us for not showing more hatred towards the “two killers.” Adhering to theatre as a pressure cooker valve idea, the audience was seeking a purgation of negative emotions. They praised the participants’ courage but that wasn’t the sought for valorisation. The attitude of the media was much worse. Some members of a reputed TV channel had the audacity to ask me change the structure of the performance and have the narrative of girl, who had escaped, at the beginning because he had been asked to shoot that. There were problems: the children, especially during the audience interaction at the end, were a little awkward, they despaired that nothing would improve in spite of their efforts and remnants of self-blame persisted. However, the discomfort generated in the audience and the reviews assured us that we were collectively taking the early steps towards a theatre of class confrontation and the class other, (the middle class specta(c)tor) had been placed as the villain of the performance and asked whether s/he can visualise a better role for her/ himself.
After the first Performance
In workshop theatre the processes that follow from performance are equally dynamic and continue to graph the course of radical growth of the participants and also the facilitators. The intensity of the work done together from the discovery of the carnage to the first performance at IHC secured a lasting emotional bond between pandies’ and Nithari’s children. Many new children joined the workshops as the popularity of the school grew. In keeping with pandies’ methodology we withdrew to let the collective consciousness evolve by itself and let the basic plays of the first set of workshops get nuanced and grow into full length pieces and new plays emerge from the efforts of the participants. The expectation being that the older/ senior children would replicate the steps of the workshop with new participants with minimal guidance from pandies’members. We would go as a group intermittently when they would have a occasion/ function or when we could arrange a performance for them at the behest of an NGO who could cover expenses and also leave enough for a little treat for our young artists. The weekly workshops became monthly (at times less) discussion sessions for the participants to discuss issues that concerned them often leading to machines and skits on the same issue.
The discussion sessions provided another measure of growth. Sexuality and sexual relationships form an integral part of any workshop involving young participants and facilitators. Nithari, with its sagas of rape and coerced sodomy of children, has had it inscribed from the outset. In a hidebound society like India, sexuality is taboo even for the middle class young and as many of them confess the incidence of abuse in childhood is very high with many blocking it out of their consciousness. The issue is further complicated for the young facilitator whose sex life has often just begun and s/he is boasting about it before peers, and/ or more often hiding it from figures of authority. Nithari discussions, and in-house performances became a revered space between the young facilitators and their younger participants where both could talk unbridled and in confidence, a space that neither side is willing to relinquish in a hurry.
Discussion sessions and ensuing enactments also revolved around local concerns. And these included issues of health and sanitation. At this stage the high points of the workshop are not holistic or climactic but often fragmented. After the Habitat Centre performance they discussed with us the drama around the kidnapping of the Adobe India CEO’s son (which had actually occurred in November 2006, a little before Nithari first hit headlines) who lived a couple of kilometres from the drains where the bodies were found. The boy had been “rescued” by the police in 48 hours. They had heard from their elders that the father had paid a total of Rupees 5 crores10, a lot of which was taken by the police. Their performances raised the questions: Was that the real reason why the police had bungled with the investigations around their companions? Didn’t they feel ashamed when they took their monthly cheques? This issue obviously affects the participants and has recurred in their public performances.
Another interesting performance was around the lynching of an ice cream vendor in the village/ slum. As per reports that we got at the workshop, the man was caught raping a minor, the frustrated wrath of the inhabitants was let loose on the man and he was lynched to death before the police got to the scene. Reaching the workshop while this had just happened in the interiors of the village/ slum, the spectacle that greeted us was of the children avidly licking ice creams. They had taken/ stolen the ice creams from his trolley as he was being lynched. Their teachers were very angry. The accused created a small skit around it. The man was justly reviled for being a child rapist and they defended themselves asserting that he deserved worse than their act and besides they had not actually stolen only taken ice creams from his van with full intention of paying if he recovered! We did not know whether to scold them or smile at their antics. Ethical framing was getting difficult.
An extremely important issue that repeatedly comes up is that of Child Labour11. The impassioned discussions and performances endorse that many affirmative policies of the state would be better if they took cognisance of the sectors that they are aimed at. One of the most interesting enactments on this issue was created around the following event. A young boy, son of an ice cream vendor and one of the brightest in our workshop, used to take his father’s trolley and sell ice creams two hours in the evening while his father (who was vending through the day) took his rickshaw to transport people returning from their offices (Noida had a difficult time in terms of commuting within till the metro was introduced there and rickshaw pullers made a killing during office hours). This brought in extra money for the family, which according to the son (perhaps taking inspiration from the play of girl child education that they had been performing) enabled the family to send his sister to school. The father was arrested under the Child Labour Act and it took six days of negotiations from us (and probably a hefty bribe from the man) to secure his freedom. The child, together with some close friends among the participants created a skit around the incident and many others followed. They all felt that it was not only unfair but also ethically wrong on the part of the state to have such laws. If you cannot provide children the right to education or to play, can you take away work from them too?
Further, if a child studies in an administration school in the morning, a charity school in the afternoon and is doing well in academics (as was the case above), was it correct to measure his family with the same yardstick with which one measured those whose children were sent for work 12 hours a day in factories or in the houses of the rich? And is not the work of children, like the one above, to be lauded as an act that enables the family and keeps the child away from harm (drug abuse and petty crime for instance). The government of the rich needed to think more like the poor. The laws need to be supple and more individual case centric. Many discussions, machines and skits followed on the issue of child labour and the framing of (better) laws on the issue.
The process of inner transformation within the community needed to be juxtaposed with the presentation of their points of view before activists, bureaucrats and politicians – policy makers in general. Intermittently, over this period of time, the children presented developed plays (from their first effort) along with shorter pieces culled from later workshops in spaces/ occasions provided by NGOs and government agencies.
The Second Performance
As another illustration of their growth I focus on one such performance. In January 2009 pandies’ was approached by a prominent Child Rights NGO, Haq, to perform on Child Rights. We felt it the occasion to show case a piece from Nithari. The children did most of the work by themselves with suggestions coming from pandies’ members during the last days of rehearsals. The performance took place at the Constitution Club, a popular, affordable place at the heart of New Delhi on the 29th of January, 2009. The participants had worked on – polished and added to two performances from the Habitat experience (girl child education and trafficking of children episodes) but what was really interesting was a long prologue, almost as long as an episode, that they had added entirely by themselves.
Reverting to the earliest exercises in the workshop, the participants had culled out the convention of the sutradhar, a narrator who is within and outside the plot. The narrator was a journalist. At times she acted as the raisonneur, giving out the perspectives that the play wanted to highlight and at other times she reverted to being a journalist, ridiculed and reviled by the residents. The prologue started with three boys sitting centre up stage – the first had his eyes covered, second his ears and third his mouth. The reference point was obviously the three monkeys of Gandhi (the father of the Indian nation)12. But they are not Gandhi’s monkeys, they represent personnel of the Delhi Police who see nothing, hear nothing and are incapable of opening their mouth to critique or take a position. She has come here to “celebrate” the second “anniversary” of Nithari (it was almost exactly 2 years from the discovery of the carnage). The Prologue was structured around her asking questions from the residents and their answers.
The residents curse the police for not being there when they were required and now just sitting there and ogling women. Anger against the happenings of Nithari finds vent against the house where the killings took place. The children who play around deliberately pelt it with stones aiming to break panes and damage the structure itself. Asked about her feelings two years after the scandal, one young woman turns on the journalist accusing her and her ilk of making their careers out of Nithari but doing nothing for its uplift.
“The camera always points up at the faces of the residents and never down at the faeces on the streets.” She says, “Do you think the lack of sanitation and proper hygiene and education facilities is less important than the corpses found two years ago?”
A young boy who lost his brother in the carnage refers to the Adobe India CEO’s son’s case and declares with a sardonic smile, “Five crores changed hands, my parents do not have so much money, what then is the worth of my life?”
On being questioned about persistent fears, the children tell the journalist that there is no fear in their hearts only rage, rage not only for the alleged killers but for the entire government machinery that sees them as dispensable.
Haq had collected a formidable audience. Activists and developmentalists, bureaucrats and politicos, it included the former Vice President of the country, and members of the national and state (Delhi) parliaments including the son (himself a member of the Delhi parliament) of the Chief Minister of Delhi. The audience was not only powerful but also far more sensitive and importantly, the performers more self-assured. They were asked to sum up their feelings, to assert what they wanted. A keen sharpness had entered the child discourse and any attempt at patronising was ruthlessly snubbed. They talked confidently about state and middle class hypocrisy – how for all the shouting against children working it was people of the same class that employed them and the state did little to catch the real culprits, even when they were caught they were let off after paying bribes; they went on to emphasise that gender discrimination, even the hideous forms of dowry torture and violence against women were actually middle class realities; and they critiqued state policy that had, for all its drum-beating, utterly failed in the battle against poverty. They concluded hoping that their theatre would find its way into influencing policy. The mode of locating the source of trauma in mainstream processes that make policy and generate relief had been taken steps further.
The Third Performance, American Centre, New Delhi
A major occasion presented itself in 2010. The American Centre, which had recently opened its auditorium for staging and screening local plays and cinema (albeit with an American connection) was going “social” and approached pandies’ theatre to do an awareness campaign. We felt it would be a good space to instead of staging a pandies’ production stage a play from Nithari. The performance took place on the 10th of July 2010. Though we did make a small reflexive skit, detailing the experience of some of the facilitators, staged between the two plays of the participants, in this latest exercise pandies’ involvement was less than before. We went there to tell them and start the process, the participants made two large groups and took some suggestions from pandies’ members. They prepared two new plays entirely by themselves and the entire exercise took about one month. Leaving the carnage far behind the participants wanted to work on topical issues that interest them. One group was split, some of them wanted to work on inter-caste issues while others preferred working on the negative role of Khap panchayats13, in the news for killing many young lovers at that point. The other group wanted to look closer on gender issues and say a few harsh things to the rich who have pretensions of being gender sensitive but are actually more jaundiced.
The first group got off the blocks fast and used a central narrative, a filmy story of a lower caste boy falling in love with an upper caste girl. The star-crossed story apart, the play’s canvas was big and included an expose of how deep-rooted are caste biases that even today, after more than sixty years of legal removal of caste privileges, the upper caste continue to spurn the lower castes. It also exposed conniving politicians who think little about murder and riots in fact of nothing except power, money and vote banks. The indictment of the rich powerful was severe and retained the immediacy by being structured around Delhi.
The play started with a cricket match between the upper caste boys and the lower castes. At stake is the right of the lower castes to play cricket in the government run playground (meant for all) and if they win they can play but if they lose they should not be seen even in the area. Despite obvious instances of cheating the lower caste team wins. The match sharpens the hostility of the upper castes.
It is in this background that the lower caste protagonist falls in love with the sister of the boy he had challenged in the cricket match. Love blossoms courtesy Bollywood songs and watching films. They confess their love and decide to make each other life partners.
Counter forces keep building up. First the brother sees his sister eating ice cream with the lower caste and forbids her from meeting him. They catch them again and slap and threaten the boy. Things are getting out of hand for them as the love continues to blossom. An upper caste boy, a friend of the brother, comes up with a devious plan. They will call the Khap panchayat to take up this issue. This would entail a loss of “honour” but that was happening anyway with the sister cavorting with a lower caste and the future could only make it worse. But as the leaders of the Khap panchayats belong to their caste and community they would have the boy and his family thrown out of the village. The panchayat scene brought forth the latent caste hatred of all and the sarpanch14 as per expectation banishes the low caste boy and his family. He relents on the father’s pleas to allow him to have his shop in the village but they must live outside.
The scene shifts to the house of a lady minister, an aspirant for chief ministership (spoofing the Delhi CM). She whiffs the profit to be made out of the caste conflict. Her plan is simple — kill the young couple and put the blame on each other’s families and use lumpens to stoke the caste fire. Use goons to instigate a riot and use the same to political advantage by blaming those in power. A severe campaign in the media would result in power coming to her hands. As she goes ahead, the result is mayhem. As she moves to become CM, her lackeys who had done the dirty work for her and whom now she refuses to reward, expose her before the media before the swearing ceremony. Pelted by shoes by her constituents, she runs away.
The second play used an episodic form. The form was really interesting. It had two narrators, a boy and a girl. Not only do they narrate and comment but also each of the episodes emerges from their consciousness and their hilarious conflicts formed take off points for an engendered analysis. They narrate anecdotes and stories and then “show” them to us. There were four brief stories, all working with the reversal of usual gender stereotypes to make us laugh at our biases.
In the first episode, the girl narrator gives us a deliberate reversal of male centric marital rituals as a girl and her father go to see a boy for her and select the husband who is good with all housework. Peppered with adaptations of Bollywood songs we see the son-in-law and father-in-law fight in a reversal of the classic mother-in-law vs. daughter-in-law paradigm. The girl narrator continues with the second narrative. Girls challenge boys to a cricket match, the boys cheat and are about to win, the girls cheat better and win. The boy story teller takes over to provide the “real picture” and begins the story of a girl who becomes a night guard and is then plagued by fears, one by one other girls join her but each is scared about her safety, the male narrator’s fantasy then summons a brave young man to save them. The girl narrator ruptures the fantasy to assert that women do not need any male to protect them and are quite self-sufficient. The last skit focussed on a woman traffic cop who does not take bribes (two reversals here, first most traffic cops are men and second all take bribes) and sets aberrant men right. This bit was again filled with many songs of love as the boys who go around without licenses try to woo her to escape a fine and the lock-up. Peppy and energetic, the effort ended with a song exhorting the audience to support girls and stand by their right to education.
The impact of this performance needs more illustration. For audience we had a core of people from the American Centre, activists, powerful people of the middle class (many who had come because it was the American Centre), a number of regular pandies’ viewers and above all, many working-class parents of the participants. The confidence of the children bordered on arrogance, an arrogance that signified the success of the enterprise.
The performance in true Brechtian mode was entertaining, a lot of laughter, a lot of fun and a lot of critique. The audience appreciated them but any attempt at patronising was put down harshly by the participants. One middle class audience bastion that was being attacked was: “I know better, this is really for the other person.” Questioned repeatedly about the truth of their assertions about gender disparity, the children frankly took a pedestal to talk at their audience. They asserted that their efforts at improving social conditions should not go waste; that their educated middle class audience should stop suppressing their daughters; not be biased against those whom their children loved regardless of class, caste and religion; that the message of social reform can succeed only if it is passed on and they hoped their message would not be forgotten by all once they reached home.
The growth continues. In 2009, the first two students sat for the 12th board examinations and cleared them. Many students at Saksham go to the morning administration school and come here in the evening, the unique experiment succeeds as the older ones go out looking for careers the younger ones take on the task of teaching the new children. Sachin and Soni, our two mascots, the first is good with computers, has cleared the 12th standard and has got a job with a foreign company to operate a complex games machine with computers. Soni is appearing for the 12th and has trained as a nurse/ maid and works in a hospital. They want to be cricketers and lawyers, one bought a motorcycle recently on instalments asserting that he had been seeing the similar bike with one of the facilitators and always wanted one.
Are we taking away their radical marginality and pushing them into bourgeois centrism?
Notions of success are formed by the hegemonic class. The danger is there that as the target group evolves, the desire of moving on, of ceasing to be victims gets tied with mimicking and looking up to the oppressive class other. This was one of the themes of the small pandies’ skit presented between their episodes. It was culling together by 4 facilitators of their feelings and of the discussions that they had had around the impact of Nithari. The core issues were the anomalies of middle class activism and whether the development of a marginalised collectivity (including our “radical” intervention) can avoid the pitfalls of mainstreaming? Is the middle class, the class that hegemonises all the static discourses and value structures, capable of radicalism? Is it a consciousness capable of a self-reflexive critique? The stories of the facilitators were also stories of individual reckoning. For one girl facilitator, an experimenting bisexual who lives her life on her own terms steering clear of any commitments and in a hostile relationship with the concept family, Nithari was a running away, running away to reality, away from the inanities of a meaningless middle class existence. Another confessed that her relationship with her family had been non-existent and these kids with whom she has grown up with over four and half years constitute the only family she has. For both the girls Nithari and its children constitute a created space to learn to express and more importantly to say no to what one finds reprehensible. A boy, an exhibitionist bisexual with kohl-stained eyes and painted nails, who boasts having random sex everywhere confessed to how scared he was when a young adolescent propositioned him. He needs this relationship to be outside the ambit of the sexual and he does not want to take anything from here. A younger facilitator confessed to how concepts of gender sensitivity, child rights and respect for the disabled came alive in Nithari. On stage he shared his experience of “learning” child rights in school and discovering it to be cruel joke when applied to his experience in Nithari.
The facilitators find themselves in threshold politics, first, between the participating protagonists and specta(c)tor villains, and then, being connected to their middle class selves, between the grossness of their class and their sensitivity to these impoverished youth.
Liminality truly characterises the consciousness of the participants as they lie at the hub of four evolving zones: collectively, an awareness of their marginality – their poverty and their migrant situation that keeps them looking up the tunnel and makes them vulnerable, keeping alive the possibility of another “Nithari”; at the same time, a sharp articulate critique of the mainstream, specially of the government, the police, the media and middle class value structures in general; most satisfyingly, the desire to be “activists,” to pursue further the paradigms set by being teachers of younger children at Saksham and facilitators of new participants in their theatre workshops and also, at a more individualistic level to “show them” which includes success in mainstream terms, with the accompanying spectre of co-option into the value structures of the oppressive class other.
Nithari continues to be the site of workshop theatre based ameliorative interaction. In the immediate context of the carnage this interaction worked as trauma relief but in the very actualisation of that therapeutic process, it revealed that such relief was also a safe outlet for accumulated anger of marginality and located the source of trauma in the mainstream discourses that are taking on the task of providing the relief by way of compensation and valorisation. It repeatedly unveils development ideals as mainstreaming processes that have little to do with targets for which they are intended. As the multi-layered liminality above reflects, the process is not linear or evenly paced and problems of the interaction between the margins and the mainstream, from extreme subversion to possible co-option, have surfaced from time to time. The confrontationist theatre that evolves questions established social structures and gives a lie to many “universal” truths of the hegemones of the dominant class.
The process continues. . . .
1. pandies’ theatre is a Delhi (India) based group. It was registered (under the societies act 1860) in Sept. 1993. The plays, often projects, are directed/ chief facilitated by Sanjay Kumar, and essentially multi-lingual scripts evolve in workshops with major contributions from actors/ activists. Thoroughly researched, they are collated, at times written, by the director in conjunction with Dr. Anand Prakash and Ms. Anuradha Marwah – creative writers and members of the group. The group performs in the proscenium, does performance based awareness programs in communities, villages, slums, colleges, schools and marketplaces and creates theatre with the marginalised young to enable them to express their views and influence policy.
Womanscape, 1993 (inspired by short stories of Doris Lessing)
Brecht – The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, 1994
Ibsen – Ghosts, 1994-96
Beautiful Images, 1995-96 (from Simone de Beauvoir – Les Belle Images)
Odet – Waiting For Lefty, 2004
Presentation of original scripts
The Story of Meera – 1995
Call her a Witch – 1996
Mannequins – 1997
She’s MAD – 1997
Veils – 1998
(K)nots – 2000
Cleansing – 2002, presented in July at the CTW – Manchester, 2002
Not Inside Us – 2004
Margins – 2006
Danger Zones – 2007 – 2008
The Curse Conquered – 2008 – 2009
Jab We Elect –Feb 2009
Wed-Lock – June 2009
Sarkari Feminism – September 2010
These provide fora for discussion on many issues and include capsules directed at legal and social reform.
HIV and sex workers
Rape: social and legal reform
Rights of incarcerated men and women in Tihar Jail
Workshops – Creating theatre with the young to make space for marginalized voices
From its very incipience, pandies has placed primary focus on empowering young people. We conduct workshops – that commence with a play from us and proceed to inspire the target group to create and present a play before their community. These plays focus on issues important for them: gender biases, child rights, communalism, race/caste, HIV, and all kinds of local/ topical matters and also include the sociolegal ambit within which social discrimination takes place and possible modes of rectification.
Areas of work
Delhi and surrounding villages
Haryana and Punjab
Jammu and Kashmir
As the Indian polity swung right in the 90s, pandies’ added to its original focus on gender by prioritising an aggressive anti-communal position. Toward the end of 2002, in the hitherto largely peaceful state of Gujarat, thousands of people were killed (official estimate put it at 2,000 but this has been contested by independent reports) in unprecedented acts of violence. The bulk of those who died were Muslims and a large number were women and children. The reports of arson, looting, murder, and rape that came from Gujarat were more horrifying than any such reports since the partition of the country in 1947. Official reports described them as Hindu-Muslim “riots.” Many media reports and the National Human Rights Commission report have contested this, rather seeing the violence as genocide, a kind of “ethnic cleansing” carried out by people of the majority religion with support if not actual sponsoring by the right-wing Gujarat state government. The pogrom broke the hearts of many thinking people in the country. What really roused us was the fact that the same government that had been seen as responsible for this pogrom in the state came back to power with an overwhelming majority, fuelling its campaigns with the “glory” of this violence. It needs to be stated here that, however, in the subsequent national election, the right wing parties were ousted from power.
2. Nithari case: The case proceeds in courts. On the 13th February, 2009 both accused, the master Moninder Pandher and the servant Surender Koli were given the death sentence by the Ghaziabad special Sessions Court (Uttar Pradesh). In September, the Uttar Pradesh High Court acquitted Moninder and upheld the death sentence on Surender. This is with reference to two cases of murder, 12 more are pending against them. The residents of Nithari feel that the master will be let off and more money will change hands. The workshop participants, while seeking punishment for the two, want a different resolution like the house should be donated to the young in Nithari to be converted into a play field for them or held as trust for a school for the young here.
3. Saksham is a charity school in Nithari started in 2002 by Nadira Razak, a bank officer who was upset by the sight of so many children without education in this village/ slum. The school does not charge any fees, it does not get funds from government or foreign donors and keeping a minimal budget survives of the money collected by the trust. Its mode of teaching can simply be called non-formal as it functions in morning and evening shifts and employs older children to teach the younger. It has a count of over 4oo students today.
4. pandies’ has been working in the war-torn state of Jammu and Kashmir for nearly a decade, bringing the young of the conflicting groups – Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims together to have a dialogue through workshop theatre. Among other groups we are also working intensively with jailed juveniles in Delhi’s reformatories and with platform children from all over India in NGO run camps.
5. Both classical and popular India traditions influence our exercises. A depiction of the eight principal rasas: love, pity, anger, disgust, heroism, awe, terror and comedy, for instance takes place along with image making and with the same methodology. The narrativising stage includes the convention of sutradhar (who introduces the story) and also devices used by the bibek of the jatra tradition where it is not so much a narrator as a voice of conscience. Many of these exercises resonate in the performances created by the participants later.
6. Having discussions and eliciting the opinions of the participants is of utmost importance to the process. The facilitators perform, narrate stories, share anecdotes (real or created at the moment) to get the participants to speak. Hesitant to speak about themselves, the participants are encouraged to share their extended experience – what happened to their uncles, cousins or neighbours. Narratives of the self begin in the guise of another till the participant gains confidence to talk about her/ himself in her/ his own voice.
7. Gujarat: Toward the end 2002, in the hitherto largely peaceful state of Gujarat, thousands of people were killed (official estimate put it at 2000 but this has been contested by independent reports) in unprecedented acts of violence. The bulk of those who died were Muslims and a large number were women and children. The reports of arson, looting, murder, and rape that came from Gujarat were more horrifying than any such reports since the partition of the country in 1947. Official reports described them as Hindu-Muslim “riots.” Many media reports and the National Human Rights Commission report have contested this, rather seeing the violence as genocide, a kind of “ethnic cleansing” carried out by people of the majority religion with support if not actual sponsoring by the right-wing Gujarat state government. The pogrom broke the hearts of many thinking people in the country. What really roused us was the fact that the same government that had been seen as responsible for this pogrom came back to power with an overwhelming majority, fuelling its campaigns with the “glory” of this violence.
8. India Habitat Centre: Located in central Delhi, the Centre has emerged as a hub of cultural activity. However, unlike the older auditoriums in the Mandi house area, the Centre remains an almost exclusive abode of the middle class. This suited our purpose, as we wanted the first performance to be before this class.
9. Bombay, now Mumbai, the centre for making Hindi cinema is often referred to as Bollywood. Hindi films and their songs are hugely popular in India and penetrate every aspect of Indian life.
10. It equals about 700,000 GBP. It’s a sum that for the poor child belongs to the world of fantasy but is actually not unreal as ransom for a child of the super rich in India.
11. Child Labour: The government of India has virtually stopped people from employing children under 14 (and those under 16 from hazardous occupation) through three crucial acts:
The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986
The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) of Children Act, 2000
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009
Child right activists have really worked for these Acts. But a lot of people that we work with are not happy with these laws and the way they are used by the police. Child Labour Laws is one area where the gap between policy formation and the opinions of those for whom it is intended is huge and workshop theatre repeatedly shows the disjunct between the agenda and its successful implementation.
12. M. K. Gandhi’s notions, flouted by most and critiqued by many, still form an idealistic reference point for many in India. The reference here is to his use of a statuette of three monkeys – one with eyes shut, one with ears shut and the third with mouth shut – to connote that one should not see, hear or speak evil. A very popular symbol, the three monkeys are often used within and outside the conventional meaning framework. Nithari’s children used it to evoke the apathy of the police.
13.Empowered by the government, as part of the decentralising endeavour, the elected panchayat is the basic unit of self-government in rural India. The Khap panchayat traces its power from tradition and comprises village elders and often members of the upper caste. Popular and extremely powerful in the state of Haryana, Khap panchayats exist also in western Uttar Pradesh and eastern Rajasthan. Their origin goes back to ancient India and they were once extremely powerful, losing power before emergence of modern structures of the legislature and the judiciary. Khap refers to a gotra (sub-caste) or clan. These are community groups — usually comprising elderly men from the community — that set the rules in an area comprising one or more villages.
In parts of northern India, particularly among the Jats of Haryana they have re-emerged very powerful seeking an amendment in Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, to ban marriages within the same gotra (sub-caste). They seek to cover not only the parents’ sub-castes but also marriages of those who reside in the same village. They claim that valorised local customs dictate that a boy and a girl belonging to the same gotra or to the same village are brother and sister. Panchayats are traditionally against inter-caste marriages but this movement has been aimed at sub-caste marriages. Khap panchayats were in news in from late 2008 onwards because the deaths of a number of young lovers (often called “honour killings”) of the same caste were attributed to their dictat.
14. The leader of the panchayat (and the Khap panchayat) is called sarpanch.
(First published in Consciousness, Theatre, Literatures and the Arts 2011, edited by Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Cambridge Scholars Publishing)
Sanjay Kumar has been part of the International Residency Programme at the Rockefeller Centre, Bellagio, Italy and an alum of the prestigious, US Government’s IVLP (International Visitors Leadership Program) and is the recipient of Delhi University’s (Vice Chancellor’s) Distinguished Teacher Award in 2009.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
In Conversation with Sanjay Kumar, the founder of Pandies, a socially responsible theatre group
Festivals often involve pageantry where people connect, reach out and have fun through performances. These can range from high class shows in halls to entertaining performances in street corners, individual buskers or theatricals at home. Brecht (1898-1956), often taught in universities, popularised socially responsible epic theatre. Epic theatre connects the players, imbued with welfarism and a sense of social responsibility, to educate the audience, subsequently encouraged to question and move towards altering their present reality to a more egalitarian one. Add to this students who look for more than just academic growth in universities and a young dynamic professor in the 1980s, and the end result is a volunteered ‘institution’ that has blossomed over three decades into a strangely named group – Pandies.
Founded in 1987 by Sanjay Kumar, an academic from Delhi University with residencies in Italy and the United States for the welfare of exploited children, the group evolved into a major voice trying to reach out to all strata of society. Kumar evolved a form of theatre to channelise the energy of students towards creating an awareness for the need to grow by helping the less fortunate. He tells us by the way of introduction: “We have been working with twenty slums or bastis in Delhi, have had interactions with a hundred schools and about twenty-five colleges. A minimum of hundred presentations are held each year. The major issue till 2000 was gender-sensitisation. Each year, pandies’ latches on to a different theme. After performing in the proscenium theatre, it takes adaptations of the same to diverse places. The group also works on issues related to environment. The adaptable, flexible, bilingual (at times multi-lingual) scripts are totally ours. The group is constantly exploring, searching for better modes to get its meaning across. Songs, dances, choreographed sequences are all a part of its repertoire. One of the most successful modes is an extremely interactive discussion at the end where the activist even narrates relevant anecdotes to get its audience to talk. The group has evolved a mega network in and around Delhi consisting of women, HIV activists, environmentalists, school and college teachers and students, progressive women from various communities including slums, victims of rape, attempted murder.” His work has reached across to multiple countries, universities (including Harvard) and has found credence among number of hearts across the East and the West.
The most impressive performance I saw was online with young refugees from Afghanistan and migrant workers in slums. They have worked with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) that work with children, sex workers and women, thus educating and learning from them and exposing them to our, more secure world where the maximum need a young student has, is to score well to get into the right university and for their family and friends to travel, to have freedom of speech and better lives. Perhaps, the best way to comprehend this kind of drama is to let Sanjay Kumar take over and introduce the work they are doing, bridging gaps at multiple levels.
Tell us about the inception of pandies’. How old is the group?
The incipience of the group goes back to college really to the year 1987 when we did the first play from Hansraj (a college under Delhi University), though we registered later in 1993, as we broke away. As I got free from MPhil, I decided to start theatre in the college in a way that steers it clear of the festival circuit of doing 25-30 minutes plays and winning small cash awards at various college fests. The College Drama Society was revived in 1987 and under that banner we did six plays, one each a year on the trot: Lorca’s Blood Wedding (1933), Ngugi’s The Trial of DedanKimathi (1974), Strindberg’s The Dream Play (1901), Vicente Lenero’s The Bricklayers(1976), Genet’s The Balcony (1957)and Brecht’s TheCaucasian Chalk Circle (1944). Each was a full-length play of at least 100 minutes.
We were doing plays at a semiprofessional level, all having a run of five to seven days in Delhi’s leading theatre halls. The bookings were being done in the name of the college but from the beginning no money was put forth by the college. The funding was collected by the students from small donations. The group was getting too big for the college. There was a constant targeting from many in the administration and the faculty, accusations of the openly sexual content of the plays, of the insubordinate behaviour of the students, of classes being bunked. And then as the group evolved, there were many students who had graduated but still wanted to be there and as the reputation grew with the choice of plays and quality of production (contemporary reviews read us at par with professional groups), many students from other colleges wanted to join us. Things came to a head with the college administration in 1993. We had already booked at the auditorium in the name of the college and were rehearsing for Macbeth. We decided to launch our own group (the work normally took about six months) and in two months we registered and collected money enough to go under the new banner — Pandies’ theatre. The relationship with structures of the university remains tricky, there are those among the younger teachers and of course students who love us but the old and orthodox are still a bit wary.
Was this theatre started for the needs of the students/ teachers or to create an interest in academic curriculum?
Yes, at that time the syllabus had a totally first world bias (the bias is still there but less), to get in plays that speak to us. They may be first world, but they critique our oppressor — Brecht, Rame, Genet.
What was the gel that bound the group together ? Was it used to satisfy the needs of the students, teachers or society. Can you elaborate?
The first thing was the love of theatre. It’s like a bug, and the heady thing about a collectivism trying its own thing, charting paths not done in college before. And then the activism took over and went way beyond the love. We started pandies’ with a view that our world is not the way we want it. We wanted to make it better for more people. Even the plays from 1987 to 1993 were exploring non-canonical theatre.
The first point of attack was the huge gender bias. We felt we were living in a misogynist, rape friendly society. Series of proscenium plays attacked that. We tied up with the feminist NGO, Shakti Shalini. Our ties go back to 1996, with LGBT movements and women’s movements. Veils had more than hundred shows, theatres, colleges, schools and markets and slums and villages. We were asking for change in rape laws in the country. She’s MAD took stories from women’s organisations about laws of mental illness being consistently used against women to label them mad to take away their property rights, custody of children and provide a veneer over patriarchal violence. Again a play that sought legislative reform was Danger Zones. It explores what happens when you are lesbian and do not have a big wallet or parents to save you — forced marriages, sale into prostitution.
Equally important, in fact more so in later years has been the attack on religious bigotry. Gujarat was a breaking point. We had years of series workshops with impoverished youth in slums exposing the rhetoric of bigotry. We start with the Sikh pogrom of ’85 and go on to dissent against what our society has evolved to under a right wing dispensation, the religious supremacism of our world.
When you work with young boys, drug peddlers and sex workers, aged eight to fourteen, you return home a wreck and in need of therapy. But if you keep that fire alive inside you, you know how to take on the oppressors.
It is about a naked politics. We seek to rouse people from slumber, awaken a critical understanding of the world we live, of the forces that govern us — patriarchy, capitalism and, the tying factor of all oppression — religion.
The need was and remains the need of our times and our ethos.
How did the name evolve? And your group evolve?
It goes back to 1993 and is fully in keeping the with ‘play’ aspect of the group which likes to play with politics with its audience. It emerged from collective decisioning that has been the hallmark of pandies’ functioning. The name is a take ‘off’, ‘away’ from Mangal Pandey and the revolt of 1857. Actually, from the inability of the British to get Indian pronunciations correct. Pandey became Pandy, a hated expletive for the British commanders and continued in their letters even 50 years after the suppression of the revolt. ‘Pandy’ was one who was a part of the British structure, in their employ (Jhansi’s soldiers were not Pandies for instance), earned from them and rose against them. The hatred conveyed by the word was many times higher than in the simple expletives of traitor or the Hindustani ‘gaddaar.’ While it has a historical solidity, it also has a playful aspect just beneath, for many of the young in the group it was also deliciously close to panties and pondies (slang for pornographic literature), the sexual aspects for which the group was falsely castigated while in college, and what we loved to grin and laugh at.
We broke away in 1993, four teachers and about thirty students. Starting as a proscenium English group with an activist leaning in 1993, by 1996 we had turned totally activist. Starting with about thirty-five members (still the core for each project), the group soon acquired more than hundred members (today it has more than that, people go away and many return, even after a decade or fifteen years, to do that “better thing”). A strong presence of young, motivated women gave the group a feminist essence. And seeking overtly to make our ethos better, the group stressed a Left Feminist Atheist core as the law of its work from the very beginning. Activism, simply the overt statement that we are not okay with our world the way it is and seek a systemic change and are willing to do our bit as theatre enthusiasts for it.
Our three primary areas of work are : a. Proscenium: The plays are always activist and many of our own scripts and many adapted, some activist plays (Brecht, Rame and other activist scripts including agit prop) in the original; b. Theatre outside proscenium: What is usually called street theatre, nukkad natak, guerrilla theatre, the group has done actually thousands of performances and c. Workshop theatre: Where activist facilitators create plays with communities, staying with them or visiting them regularly — razor’s edge work has been done with young boy sex workers picked from platforms and housed in shelters, in the cannibalised village of Nithari, in women’s shelters, with refugees and in Kashmir. The process consists of getting ‘stories’ from the margins and creating theatre from them, performed usually by the community members, and at times along with Pandies.
Were you influenced by any theatre/art forms/writers or any external events to evolve your own form?
From the international activist tradition Brecht has been the most solid influence, his mode of showing what is obvious but we refuse to see it. Boal, Franca Rame, Dario Fo. The entire traditions of left swinging realism and alienation. In our own traditions the influence is more subtle, Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) itself and Janam (a more contemporary people’s theatre group). We also borrow from the political and popular traditions of the subcontinent — Dastaan Goi, Jatra, Tamasha and Nautanki to name a few.
What impacts us most is the politics. Theatre is about critique, it’s about my ability to say ‘no’ and my desire to ask ‘why.’ We look back through history, history that tells us nothing can be permanent, that is record of those who stood and fought tyranny and authoritarianism. Gujarat 2002 was difficult and so was Babri Masjid but so was the emergency of 70s and never forget the anti-Sikh pogrom of the mid 80s at the heart of the country where I live.
Yes, and what is happening today, here and all over the globe cries for activist intervention.
What were the kind of content you started with? I heard you even adopted out of Aruna Chakravarti’s novel (Alo’s World?) to make a play. So, what was the content of your plays? Were you scripting your own lines?
We started with adaptations of plays with explicitly activist content which could be made more activist and imposed on our reality. Ibsen’s Ghosts, inspirations from Simon de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing. And post-1996, we were creating more and more from our own scripts, often containing multiple plays tied with thematic thrusts. And again, in times of repression one reverts to adaptations, of those who stood up to the challenge of their times, specially at the doors of gender, religion and class (the three themes of Pandies).
What we did for Aruna was akin to what we have done for other friends of Pandies, fiction writers, create small dramatic enactments based on parts their novels/short stories to go along with the launch and publicity of their works.
Have you moved away from your earlier models? What is your new model?
From proscenium to (while retaining proscenium) community theatre to (while retaining proscenium and community) workshop theatre that was the trajectory of Pandies before the pandemic struck our world.
The pandemic thrust us into a new model of cyber theatre. The group meets every Sunday but with Covid and the lockdown, we all went hibernating for a few months, awestruck by what struck us.
And then we started meeting online. It was amazing, we were able to connect with members in US, in Philippines, in UK and in different parts of India. There was the frigidity of the online mode but the ability to converse with so many people in their respective bubbles was just great. We met every Sunday. And started with storytelling for each other. With around thirty people that process took some Sundays. And then we started thinking of doing online plays using zoom. These were live online, no recording and each ending with a question-and-answer session with our audiences.
What was happening around us, the pandemic, and the equally deadly forays of our right-wing rulers made us look for avante garde activist plays from the past. We turned deliberately to the American tradition (important to let it be known that even the most decadent capitalist center has a solid activist theatre tradition) and did one agit prop and one proto-feminist play. Subterfuge was important and it was also important to say that even in the darkest of hours people have stood up to tyranny and fascism. Clifford Odets’ Till the Day I Die (1935), an anti-Nazi play of the agit prop tradition is aimed as much at Hitler as at McCarthy and relevant against all fascist governments. Broadcast simultaneously on Zoom and Facebook, the play got over 7000 hits. Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (1928) was the second, a proto feminist play it raised issues of mainstream violence and suppression of ‘other’ voices. We were making quite an impact. Our audience was not confined to people from one city but spread internationally as friends all over the world who had wanted to see our plays (we have travelled and performed abroad twice, once in Manchester with an anti-fascist play — Cleansing in 2002 and in New York in 2012 with Offtrack, based on the lives of young boys ‘rescued’ from platforms in India).
We decided to connect with communities that we work with at least in and around Delhi through zoom. And we discovered the horrors for ourselves. While the rich had actually been ‘worried’ over the lockdown, the poor had taken an unfathomable hit. The incidence of domestic violence was at a peak (lockdown, problems getting ‘booze’, little help from cops and NGOs). Our young friends — now in late 20s, with whom we had been performing since 2006 since the Nithari (slum outside Delhi) pogrom had been thrown out of their meagre jobs, belonging to families of migrant labour — had seen it all and refugees from Afghanistan — in a bad state anyways — were really hit. And they were all artists, performers and storytellers par excellence. So, we decided on a storytelling festival where people from these sectors would narrate their stories in the same cyber format. And we asked our audience to put in some money and that was entirely distributed among the participants. The stories that emerged, personal and fiction derived from personal, were simple exhilarating.
What and how many languages do you use and how do you bridge linguistic gaps?
Language is highly political. We set out as an English group but with Macbeth itself some crucial scenes were being rendered in Hindustani (the opening scene and the porter scene). By 1996, as the group was going totally activist, a multi-language form had evolved. We were still keeping a section of English in the proscenium (had to be translated or made easier in the slums and villages shows) but sections of Hindustani and diverse languages of North India are being introduced. A recent example is an adaptation of Manto’s(1912-1955) stories and writings (Saadat Hasan Manto: Pagaleyan da Sardar), about 60 percent in Punjabi and 40 in English with no other language used (Punglish). We do a lot of translation work, including at times on the spot.
Who does your scripting? How do your scripts evolve?
The original scripts are a collective, collated exercise and emerge after months of workshopping on an issue within the group. Most of the Scripts are written by me or my colleagues from Delhi University, Anuradha Marwah and Anand Prakash.
Who are your crew members and how many team members do you have? How many did you start with?
The total number is above 100. Many leave for a while and return from careers and families. It is strictly volunteer group. The group has tried variously models and the one that works and keeps it activist intent intact is the one where we do not pay ourselves for our time. A project involves a total of about thirty people.
What was the reaction of your colleagues when you started Pandies? Did it find acceptance/ support did you receive from among your colleagues, the academics, and the media?
I would like to add that the reactions from colleagues and academia have been interesting and mixed. Pandies is the first and possibly the only story, of a group tracing its origins in college society theatre and move on without a break to establish not just a national but an international reputation. Even as the model evolved from proscenium alone to in-your-face activism, from seeking and getting funding to putting in your own money and/or collecting it from the audience but never compromising on the political content of what you do. It makes people uncomfortable, especially in the early years, say the first decade — “is this theatre at all?” Today it is seen a story, as an experiment that worked — the sheer survival of the group from 1987 to 2021 and beyond creates a space for admiration. Students spread across this university, over other universities in India and abroad have been the most ardent support system.
The media has been supportive, quite a bit actually. Over the years, the Pandies’ fan club has extended there too. We got some adverse reviews to begin with but more from those from the academia, who were writing in papers and journals, who had problems of simply — I cannot see activist success stories from the university itself.
What has been the impact on the people who are part of the Pandies? What has been the impact on the audience?
When you do political theatre the impact is on all sides of the spectrum. And the best place to measure the success is your own side. The empathy, the killing guilt and the desire to do more manifest in the group members, especially after series of tough workshop theatre evidences the impact.
I saw your play in an on online forum. What exactly made you move towards what you called cyber theatre?
Basically, the pandemic. But it has been a good experience, sheerly in terms of reach and numbers (the first play had 7000+ hits though we never got near that again, also we were ticketing plays after the first). We always crib about the reach of market theatre and how activist theatre falls by the side. The cyber medium actually gives an international access to live theatre. Think the potential is huge.
How would others access these plays?
Amazingly the reach of the smart phone is huge. When we worked with communities, we did send out signals to make available smart phones for our performers and their local audience but discovered that not much was required. The internet does at times pose problems, even for us, there are technical glitches at times but then we have glitches everywhere. And technology, as young techie at Pandies told me, is to be used and not feared. If the audience can suspend disbelief in theatre, what’s a glitch or two on screen.
The potential far outweighs the hurdles.
You had interesting pieces (or rather pieces) evolving out of slums and migrant workers. You had an interesting take on why slums develop. Can you tell us?
The ignored margins of our world. Metropolitan cities, and I speak of Delhi — my abode specifically, attract people from all over. The prospects are great, and it is not untrue, as we have seen in our experiences of performing in so many slums and more importantly creating theatre with those who live there, that life is actually better for most. They earn more, eat better and find better school and health facilities. The trajectory is both simple and awful, many villages around Delhi become abodes for migrants, first on rent and then ownership. These margins are also the blot for the rich and famous who live around there in big bungalows and condominiums. They berate the residents for being thieves and drug peddlers and use them for a supply of menial help, maids, drivers, and the same kind of drugs. Working with them and creating theatre one realises that the grievances from the other side are worse — of exploitations, profiling and being treated worse than animals.
What was the impact of this piece on migrant workers and the theatre you had with Afghan refugees among your audience? Who are the people that constitute your audience? How do they respond to these plays? Do you have collaborations with more universities or theatre groups?
In the preceding decades Pandies has performed in practical every college in Delhi University besides performing in universities all over including IITs (Indian Institute of Technology), TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), Jammu, Bangalore and colleges of Rajasthan and Jharkhand. The tie-ups and collaborations are specific project related. Pandies has over the years been very zealous of guarding its artistic and political independence and anything that seeks to compromise that even slightly is not welcome. We have long lasting collaborations with organisations that work in areas we are in — Shakti Shalini (NGO Women’s group), or Saksham in Nithari (NGO running schools for children).
Can you tell us its reach — universities, theatre halls, small screen? How far have you been able to stretch out in thirty years? Tell us about the growth.
Bourgeois theatre rules the world. It’s connected and money generates more money. pandies’ endeavour has been to connect not just at the university levels, not just at national levels but at international levels, evolve collectives that deal with exploitation and oppression at diverse levels.
We perform and do workshops. The group’s reach has been wide. Going on a narrower, sharper course over the last decade to be able to work with the severely marginalised, those who don’t even come on the space of development of the downtrodden.
The nature of our theatre enables us to connect with the underserved and more than 80 percent of the work does not come on the page of the dominant middle class. Performances and presentations all over the country and many abroad use the pandies’ template, Syrian refugees in Greece (2018), Gypsy communities of Ireland (2013), communities in NYC (2012) and nooks and corners of our own country including the Muslim valley of Kashmir where angels fear to tread.
What are your future plans?
As the world opens up, all varieties of work have started again. Workshops with our underserved margins and a full-length proscenium production are both long overdue.
At the same time the cyber experience has taught us the importance of reach, that those who go physically away don’t have to opt out of working for the group.
So yes, we seek a malleable form, a hybrid that combines stage theatre with all its power and is available online live, and the online form too will merge together to the performance which will be more far reaching and accessible. Given the group’s depth we will get there and soon.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL