Aalo Amar Aalo (Light, My Light) a song by Tagore, has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty from Bengali. Click hereto read.
Songs of Freedom: Moh-Reenis an autobiographical story by Amreen, translated from Hindustani by Janees. These stories highlight the ongoing struggle against debilitating rigid boundaries drawn by societal norms, with the support from organisations like Shaktishalini and Pandies. Click hereto read.
Suzanne Kamata writes of herA Ramble on Bizan, focussing on a writer, also by the surname of Moraes, who lived on Mount Bizan more than century ago, moving to Japan from Portugal having fallen violently in love. Click hereto read.
It stretches without borders, without interruptions, without contentions, unifying all under its life-giving ambience. We live nurtured by the sky, the water and the Earth. If we think back to times before humans made constructs and built walls to guard their own, to times when their ancestors roamed the Earth and moved to meet their needs, the population was not huge, and resources were abundant. Our species lived in consonance with nature. People revered natural forces and found trends that evolved into traditions and constructs which eventually made their progeny forget that the sky, water and Earth did not belong to them. These belong or perhaps exist for some reason that we do not comprehend despite the explanations given by science and religions. Being merely transient passers-by through these, humanity, unlike dinosaurs, has an urge to survive and be like the sky — with a past, present and future and a sense of the eternal. Though we all have short lives compared to the sky, Earth or universe, we continue to find ourselves in a homo centric world that considers all else to be made to meet their aspirations. But there was a time, when humans lacked this arrogance. They just tried to survive. And move with shifting rivers in an unbordered world.
Evoking humour is not easy, but we do have a few such writers who manage it very well. Hughes has given us a tongue-in-cheek piece on the dateline, which has more than humour. And Devraj Singh Kalsi has shared his discovery that laughter is the best medicine to shrug off a dentist’s drill. He has also visited the colours of Durga Puja which, with its spirit of inclusivity, transported visitors in one marquee near Kolkata to the iconic Malaysian Twin Towers. Thus, bringing festivals in October into our purview. Candice Lousia Daquin has actually explored why we celebrate festivals and the God gene… Did you know we have a biological need for spirituality?
Suzanne Kamata has introduced us to Mount Bizan, which houses a writer by the surname of Moraes – Wenceslau José de Souza de Moraes, an expat writer who lived in Japan at the turn of the twentieth century. Wonder if he could have been related to the Anglo Indian writer, Dom Moraes? Aditi Yadav has also given us an essay on the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi with its world view centred on imperfections and transience. Ravi Shankar has suggested walks for all of us, sharing his experiences in the Himalayas, the Caribbean island of Aruba and in many more places. Meredith Stephens has written of sailing to Tasmania.
The essay that brought back a flavour of home for me is one by Asad Latif, now a journalist in Singapore but long ago, he was an icon in India. We are very privileged to have his writing on what borders do for us… a piece exploring the idea on which we base our journal, also perhaps with a touch of Anthony Sattin’ s asabiyya. ‘Pandies’ Corner‘ starts another run, showcasing women’s tryst for freedom. Amreen’s ‘Moh-Reen’, her own story, translated from Hindustani by Janees, is a brave start to the series. The voices ring out asking for a change, to heal social norms to accommodate love and kindness with the backing of Shaktishalini and Pandies as does the unsupported solo voice of an older woman from Balochistan, Ganji Baloch, brought to our notice by Ali Jaan Maqsood.
We have fiction from Sohana Manzoor – again bringing to fore strange stories of women rebelling against social norms. Paul Mirabile explores death and the sea in a horrific story. Sunil Sharma’s fiction explores madness and ideators, making a social comment on recent happenings. As the sky stretches out to accommodate all kinds of writings, all creatures great and small, we try our best to give voice to a fair cross section from around the world as we have done thistime too.
There are as usual pieces that we have not mentioned in this note but they are all worth a read. Do drop in to check out our contents in this October issue. We are truly grateful to our contributors who continue to connect with words and thoughts that waft along with clouds. We would like to thank Sohana Manzoor especially for her wonderful artwork. The journal would not be a possibility without the support of the whole team and our valuable readers who make writing worth the effort. It is lovely to be read and remembered for the words we write.
Story by Amreen, translated from Hindustani by Janees
Songs of Freedom bring stories from women — certainly not victims, not even survivors but fighters against the patriarchal status quo with support from the organisation Shaktishalini.
–Sanjay Kumar, founder, pandies
Amreen hails from Khadoli village in Uttar Pradesh. She is 22 and currently pursuing distance education to complete her high school. She courageously braves writing down a peek of her life’s challenges as a survivor/fighter of gender and religion-based abuse with the intention of providing support and solidarity to underprivileged and disadvantaged women around the world.
How am I at fault Ammi? Abbu?
Are you upset that I am alive? (Does my being alive upset you to the core?)
You never tried to reach me, even for once!
You have never asked me how I was doing, never enquired whether Amreen was even alive….
I want to ask who gets to decide my worth?
Why have I been rendered helpless to make my own decisions?
Why is the conflict between humanity and religion forced upon us time and again? Are you telling me they cannot go hand-in-hand in harmony?
There always had been huge sermons on the unity of religions…of how all paths lead to the same God (Ishwar)…then why wasn’t my marriage with Mohit acceptable? Were we not in sync with our God who is the same, just called by different names?
Amreen hails from a small village, ‘Khadoli’ in the Meerut district of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh (UP). She is currently living in Delhi…but in fear…She has fled home.
Amreen, lovingly called ‘Lalli’, had a pleasant childhood…She would even go on describing it as happy and beautiful. Getting dressed for school early morning, then school, followed by a wave of excitement as the clock struck 3 and she was home. At home, she would have lunch in a rush only to catch up with her friends. Lalli loved her friends, what she loved more was spending time with them. After a long day of play and fun, Lalli would go back home and refuse to help with chores. After all, she had worked so hard at playing.
She loved wandering in the alleys of her village and wouldn’t trade anything in this world for that freedom.
Lalli’s life suddenly took a turn. Her elder sister got married as a virtue of which Lalli dropped out of school. Now her days were mostly marked with helping her Ammi with never-ending household chores. She lost touch with friends. Lalli had to grow up at a tender age.
Amreen would get lost in her desperation and sing to herself: “The darkness has set foot on our path for a long time, come what may the sun must rise now…”
This is the year Mohit took their companionship and love a step ahead and proposed to Amreen.
“Put your hand in mine, with a promise of a love lifelong, I shall stand by your side.”
“I yearn to walk all my life with you. Let’s embark on this journey hand in hand, faith in souls.”
Amreen mustered the courage and disclosed her decision of marrying Mohit. She put in everything to convince her family. But is there a bigger sin in this world than loving/marrying someone from a different faith or caste? It turns out it’s a sin bigger than murdering entire humankind.
The moment Amreen disclosed her yearning to be with Mohit to her family, she understood what she had signed up for. All the mental and physical abuse on one side and now, her marriage was fixed with a man from her community. Yet she braved the decision to keep on trying to convince them, only to be met with pain and despair. Where else does one go with expectations and burdens other than to a family?
There seemed no other way, but the one Amreen dreaded the most. She never wanted to elope. In fact, she was hopeful that as parents, her Ammi and Abbu would understand her, or at least prioritise her happiness over all else. But alas, to fit into a society!
March 16, 2020
Amreen and Mohit left their respective homes. They embarked on a journey to make a home to be called theirs. They reached Delhi where a new hardship was awaiting their arrival. Due to the outbreak of Covid-19, a nation-wide lockdown was announced. As a result, all the courts were suspended indefinitely. Amreen needed a place to stay in the new city. She couldn’t live with Mohit. They feared the reactions of their families. What if the police were after them and Mohit would be framed falsely in the case? What if the patriarchs of both the families were on their way to kill them? What if their village was being torn apart by communal violence because of what they had done?
Amidst this, the lockdown!
During this time, Dhanka Sanstha (an organisation for interfaith couples) and Shakti Shalini (an NGO that supports victims of gender and sexual violence) came to Amreen’s rescue. For the first time in her life, Amreen felt cared for, supported for her decision-making ability, and came to know what solidarity feels like.
July 29, 2020
After all the hardships and agony that Moh-Reen went through, the day they had been desperately seeking finally arrived. Amreen and Mohit tied the knot.
Moh-Reen were blessed with a little angel, whom they named, ‘Tamanna’ — a wish. It was their wish to have a daughter, a wish fulfilled. But it seemed Mohit’s family were upset with the sex of the child. They wanted a son – a son they would call theirs, not Muslim woman’s daughter.
It had only been five days after Tamanna was born and Amreen was brought home, that Mohit’s family started mistreating her. She was denied food. For days Amreen was only able to have tea and biscuits, which was also the time Tamanna was being breast fed by her famished mother. Amreen patched up with her elder sister, the only family member who was considerate enough to stay in contact. Her elder sister couldn’t bear to look at Amreen’s plight and took her home along with Tamanna, where they looked after the mother and child for almost two months.
The mistreatment continued even after Amreen moved back with Mohit’s family. She was verbally abused by her mother-in-law and sister-in-law for giving birth to a girl.
February 10, 2022
The previous year’s series of agonising events finally made Moh-Reen move out and rent a place of their own. Mohit, Amreen, and Tamanna live here peacefully. Amreen hopes her story is not confined within the frame of a short story but goes beyond touching lives of many people…even if it means changing a single woman’s life for good.
Mohit wants to fulfil Amreen’s dreams. Amreen is currently enrolled in tenth standard [grade] to catch up on her studies. She is on her to become someone – somebody known for her own self, where she will be known by her name and not just as someone’s wife, daughter, or mother.
Are we going to end this story with the same questions as asked in the beginning? Or are there questions that need to be asked from your side as well? There’s one definite question for sure – whom will you hold accountable?
Janees is an independent researcher and theatre-practitioner who has been associated with Pandies for the past five years.
 “Establishing itself as a premier women’s organisation in India from 1987, Shaktishalini has spread out and deals with all kinds of gender based violence. A shelter home, a helpline and more than that a stunning activist passion are the hallmarks of this organisation.
“pandies and Shaktishalini – different in terms of the work they do but firmly aligned in terms of ideological beliefs and where they stand and speak from. It goes back to 1996 when members of the theatre group went to the Shaktishalini office to research on (Dayan Hatya) witch burning for a production and got the chance to learn from the iconic leaders of Shaktishalini, Apa Shahjahan and Satya Rani Chadha. And collaborative theatre and theatre therapy goes back there. It is a mutual learning space that has survived over 25 years. Collaborative and interactive, this space creates anti-patriarchal and anti-communal street and proscenium performances and provides engaging workshop theatre with survivors of domestic and societal patriarchal violence. Many times we have sat together till late night, in small or large groups debating what constitutes violence? Or what would be gender equality in practical, real terms? These and many such questions will be raised in the stories that follow.” — Sanjay Kumar
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Only when the cries of the wretched of the earth will stop renting the skies,
Only when the oppressor’s bloody sword will cease smearing battlefields,
A rebel, weary of war,
Only then I won’t stir.
I’m the ever-rebellious hero--
Soaring over the world, all alone, head forever held high!
-- Rebel or 'Bidrohi' (1922) by Nazrul, translated by Fakrul Alam
These lines reiterate values we would do well to live by in a war-torn, dissension-worn world where the need for a rebel to recreate a humane society that lives with values such as peace, generosity, acceptance, tolerance, compassion and restraint — is a felt need. The two great poems made history by remaining as popular a hundred years after they were written — ‘The Rebel’ by Nazrul and TS Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’. Nazrul defined a rebel as an iconoclast who breaks norms to find peace, justice and love for all, to move towards the creation of an ideal world. TS Eliot quoted from the Upanishads and ended with redemption coming with giving (giver perhaps denoted generosity), compassion and restraint. Despite the wisdom of these great poets and seers, war still continues a reality. The values remain neglected not just in as we see in conflicts, like the one in Ukraine that destroys lives, property and nature with intolerance towards differences, but also in our personal lives. Tagore also reiterated the same need for stepping out of personal, social, economic and political insularity. We carry a translation of a song that echoed this need while inviting participation in his ecstasy. He wrote:
Why do you sit in isolation,
Dwelling on self-centred issues?
Tagore had not only written of the negative impact of isolation from the world but he led by example, building institutions that could lead the world towards pacifism with acceptance of diversity and inclusiveness. Sriniketan and Santiniketan were created to move towards these ideals. Many of the people he influenced or who studied in Santiniketan made history, like Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Satyajit Ray; many added to the sense of inclusiveness, like Mahasweta Devi, who other than her enormous work to integrate different cultures, also wrote a memoir about Santiniketan in Bengali. Radha Chakravarty, nominated for the Crossword Translation Award (2004) for In the Name of the Mother by Mahasweta Devi, has translated this memoir, a narrative which brings us close to Tagore’s ideals of the whole world being a family. How wonderful it would be if the world were open to such ideals and would behave like a global family and not go to war! Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan, which has been reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra, reiterates Tagore’s vision of a planet living in harmony with the flora and fauna.
We are privileged to carry another excerpt from Ruskin Bond’s Friends in Wild Places: Birds, Beasts and Other Companions, a hilarious story about a pet tiger adopted by the legendary writer’s grandfather. What is amazing about Ruskin Bond’s writing is the love and compassions for all creatures great and small that colours the tongue-in-cheek humour he rolls out to his readers. If only we could think like Bond, there would be no wars. His writing, I feel, transcends political borders or ‘isms’, and laces with love and compassion tales of menageries of monkeys, snakes, mongoose, humans of different denominations. This excerpt is a treat we are giving Borderless Journal as the journal completes two years of its existence. We are truly grateful to Speaking Tiger for sharing this excerpt with us. But our celebrations this time are sombre as the war rages with incoherence accompanied by heart-breaking ravages.
The refrain from Ukraine has been taken up by Ratnottama Sengupta as she takes us through the past and present experiences of the devastated country, bringing in the views of the legendary folk singer and pacifist, Pete Seeger (1919-2014), who she had interviewed over a span of four days. The writer of ‘Where have all the Flowers Gone?’, a song based on an Ukrainian folk song, Seeger said, “The point is not to ask for yourself alone — one has to ask for everybody: Either we all are going to make it over the rainbow or nobody is going to make it.” Candice Louisa Daquin has also pondered on the justification of war, contextualising it with the current one along with her essay on the paradox of modern linguistic communication.
We have an exhaustive essay on the legendary Satyajit Ray’s creations by Anasuya Bhar. Malhotra has pondered at exclusivity reinforcing divisions, margins and borders to plague humankind, against the backdrop of the Women’s Month, March. Highlighting women in writing, we have interviewed two female writers, one from Nepal and another from Bangladesh. Sangita Swechcha lives in UK but her writing, till now largely in Nepali, often pines for her home embedded in the Himalayas whereas, an expat, Neeman Sobhan, shuttles between Bangladesh and Italy with the affluence and assurance of a privileged background.
Finding a way to override lack of privileges, deprivation and violence, are the youngsters of Nithari on the outskirts of Delhi where less than two decades ago other than poverty, savage criminality devastated the local populace. These youngsters transcended the suffering over time with help from volunteering NGOs to create narratives that amaze with their inventiveness and confidence. Tanveer Hussain from Nithari, self-motivated and self-made from a young age, asks questions that would be relevant for all humankind in a letter to God. It has been translated from Hindustani by Vritika Thareja of pandies’. This edition’s translations include Professor Fakrul Alam’s mellifluous rendition of Jibanananda Das’s poetry from Bengali to English, Ihlwha Choi’s Korean poetry and a Balochi poem by Munir Momin rendered in English by Fazal Baloch. Baloch had earlier translated poems by Akbar Barakzai, a great poet who departed on 7th March, depriving the world of yet another powerful writer who imbibed hope of a better future in his poetry. We are privileged to have hosted the translations of some of his poems and his last interview.
Suzanne Kamata continues writing on Japan as she introduces us to an Australian film maker who is making films in Japan and in Japanese, called Felicity Tillack. Cultures are perhaps truly crossing borders as we can see Kenny Peavy, an environmentalist who moved from US to Indonesia start a new column with us called ‘Mission Earth’. We hope, like Tagore or Rousseau, he will help to revive our felt need to live with nature, acknowledge the nurture that we get from the planet to live in harmony with it and on it.
At the end of twenty-four months of existence – that sounds better than a mere two years— we are happy to host a melange of writers from across the borders and be the meeting grounds of writers and readers from across continents. I am truly thankful to all of you for helping concretise an ideal. Huge thanks to all the writers, artists, photographers and the readers for the contribution of their time, effort and love. And thanks to our fabulous team who continue to support the journal unwaveringly. I would also like to thank Sohana for the lovely visuals she generously shares with us. A special thanks also to young Ayaan Ghoshal for his digital art where hands reach out to support a truly borderless world.
As usual, all the content has not been covered here, I invite you all to enjoy our March edition of Borderless Journal.
At the start of the third year of our existence, let us march onwards towards renewed hope – maybe the Ukraine experience will take us closer to a war-free world with an awakening of a felt need for peace and compassion in a planet without borders.
In quest of a peaceful, humane world, I invite you all to continue being part of this journey.
What will the New Year bring? Will it connect us all like a tree that has its roots deep in the Earth but reaches out to the sky with its branches rearing high? Its blooms seem like stars on the planet, connecting all life and non-living in its embrace. We hope as global consciousness grows for living in harmony with nature and science, love and kindness, may we all move towards a better more connected world. We, at Borderless Journal, wish you all a happy start to a wonderful New Year!
Our oeuvre this time brings to you a selection from the year 2021 that showcases the change makers we met, and writing that with their values connect us or ring with goodwill and look forward to a better future.
Meet & Greet
These are people you can meet on our pages — people who impact the world in a way that touches lives.
Goutam Ghose, who finds colouring the world with syncretic lore as the best alternative to sectarian violence. Click here to read.
Anvita Abbi, an empathetic linguist who builds bridges to create a seamless world, accepting and co-existing with different ways of life as colours of a rainbow. Click here to read.
Nazes Afroz translated a book on Afghanistan by Tagore’s disciple, Syed Mujtaba Ali, a memoir that shows the roots of the current crises go deep. Also, a senior BBC editor of South Asia, Afroz takes us through the situation with compassion. Click here to read.
Jessica Mudditt travelled to Myanmar and wrote a book, which is an eye-opener about the current situation. She was brought to focus by Keith Lyons who interviewed her for us. Click hereto read.
Sanjay Kumar founded Pandies, an activist theatre group that educates, bridging gaps between the divides of University educated and the less fortunate who people slums or terror zones. Click here to read.
Sybil Pretious, a teacher who has taught in six countries to impact children, starting her career in Africa and living through and beyond Apartheid. Click here to read.
InBridge over Troubled Waters, academic Sanjay Kumar tells us about Pandies, an activist theatre group founded by him that educates, bridging gaps between the divides of University educated and the less fortunate who people slums or terror zones. Click here to read.
In Lessons Old and New from a Stray Japanese Cat, Keith Lyons talks with the author of The Cat with Three Passports, CJ Fentiman who likes the anonymity loaned by resettling in new places & enjoys creating a space for herself away from her birthplace. Click hereto read.
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