I write this at the end of an intense week, heavy with conflict and questions for our future.
The consecration of the Ram Mandir has been telecast to the world. If one looks purposefully at it, the ceremony was a carefully crafted performance – there was ritual and song, a chorus of fawning media, not one but two monologues in the backdrop of a grand edifice that paid homage to national nostalgia – all of which came together in a grand spectacle that was meant to inspire awe, of course, but also provide the scenographic template for all such future events. The sight of a prime minister and his cabinet embracing religious duty while in democratically elected office of a constitutionally secular republic is, after all, only a few events old and this has been the most confident performance of the regime yet. Whether you see all this as a cause for celebration or concern is irrelevant for now. But we probably can agree on one irrefutable fact – that this event finally heralded the death of the Indian Republic as we know it. The core narratives of secularism and equal citizenship that held the nation for 75 years have been upended. We are now stepping into Part Two – a markedly different narrative of militarised masculinities, hyper nationalism, and unabashed religious fervour enabled by the State.
These events at home are, of course, backgrounded by the continuing genocide of the Palestinian people in Gaza by Israel and its funders, led primarily by US, UK and Germany. The vast majority of global governments and citizens, including artists, who are organising and protesting around demands for an immediate and permanent ceasefire as well as the end of occupation, remain helpless extras in the theatre of war.
Put both these landmark events together and we must accept an unfortunate plot twist for artists everywhere. The dramaturgy of a ‘community in chaos’ is markedly different from the dramaturgy of a ‘community in care’. We live in times where key roles have been abdicated. Courts have ignored laws, journalists have ignored truths, governments have ignored citizens. Stirred into this mix of abandoned purposes and new paradigms is the present day artist, yet again asking: What is my role here?
To answer this, let’s go to a core dramatic truth – tension.
With the crafting of unequal and unsecular citizenship, the new republic has legally and socially codified tension into our relationship with each other as citizens. This tension manifests in different ways in different spaces in different bodies. It manifests mainly as anxieties about safety, access, and opportunity.
Those of us who face the least tension with the structures of government (let’s call them the ‘equalised’ citizen holding gender, caste, class, language privileges among others) and those of us who face the most tensions with the same structures (let’s call them ‘unequalised’ citizen with little or none of the above privileges) have markedly different realities staring back at us.
Bodies of unequalised citizens are under constant threat on account of the markers of identity they hold (be it gender, caste, faith, class etc.), threats that equalised citizens rarely have to face – the threat of physical violence from organised mobs who police ways of living, and of mob-like behaviour from individuals who feel entitled to respond to difference with aggression instead of tolerance; the threat of emotional violence in the form of microaggressions, erasures, and everyday cultural discriminatory practices; and the threat to the psyche from living under a state of near constant fear of the next looming politically charged misinformation and propaganda campaign.
As citizens, this tension sits in our bodies and words until it bleeds in some form or another, into every personal space and public sphere that we have access to. But what happens to the unequalised artist in the meantime? Can this unequalised artist find community with which to make art?
To answer this we have to go back to another core dramatic truth – structure. How do we engage with each other as artists in a community steeped in deep and unending conflict? Do we continue to engage in a system of chaos that only allows the equalised body the opportunity and the safety to create? Or do we radically transform our ways of engagement with each other into a system of care that allows the unequalised body a fairer playing field as a matter of right?
I have been unpacking these questions over the last few years as I develop an anti-oppressive approach to creative practice and theatre-making. I find it a necessary and joyous part of my practice to imagine different ways of doing and being that are more nurturing to self and collaborators. Here, I articulate some of these imaginations and inquiries. Perhaps you have as well? I would love to hear from you about questions that are alive in your care practice.
I believe a community steeped in care practice would actively create the conditions possible for all artists to act on every creative impulse and make art unabashedly. This will require actively searching for emerging artists from these unequalised realities and supporting their work unconditionally. This will require supporting radical dissenting narratives to emerge from the very bodies that feel the most tension with the structures of power that seek to silence them. This will require building social and legal structures that protect these voices at threat.
This might seem like a stretch for those who do not face the tension of structural violence, but it is the need of the hour for unequalised artists. In the current politically fraught context, this might mean quiet subversion in the form of policies and practices involving the collective until we are in a space that allows for louder championing of these approaches by one and all. After all, a corollary to the question ‘what is my role’ is also ‘what is my responsibility’ to this specific moment in history.
A community steeped in care practice would shift their ways of seeing dissent from only in the narrow confines of electoral politics and instead learn to view it as a core principle of democratic conduct. Especially the democracy that underpins our interactions with each other in cultural institutions, in the rehearsal room, and in creative collaborations. Is our championing of dissent limited to the confines of our role as citizens of a nation state? What about safety, access, and opportunity in our engagement with our art practice and community? For the unequalised artist, dissent is a demand to make work on their own terms. When art festivals shut down questions about curation and funding practices, when they wash their hands off artists who risk their safety to question power, when cultural institutions or peers do not engage with the sexually predatory ways of powerful men, when directors continue to practice toxic ways of working without accountability from the larger community – dissent as a care practice dies yet another death.
A community steeped in care would question the collaborative process and the hierarchies that guide it. It would question the power vested in the ‘great’ Indian upper caste artist/director and move towards processes that demand greater accountability from these persons on their ways of working. It would question who has the necessary structural support to be present in the room as collaborators, why that is so, and the safety practices in the room.
A community steeped in care practice would be more transparent in their practice of power. The hierarchy that is inherent in the flow of money would be navigated with more honesty. Money that is, often from generational wealth accumulated in a context of caste oppression in India, of colonial oppression globally, and is equivalent to power in capitalist frameworks. Acknowledging this openly between funders and artists could lead us to checks and balances on how this power is practiced, for instance, in the choice of ideas, forms, and artists who receive these funds. There would be greater emphasis on needs of the unequalised bodies that make art and, hence, a relaxation of conditions imposed on the use of these funds. For instance, when offering scholarships for institutional training, it is equally important to ensure stipends that will allow these artists to continue to support their families financially.
A community that prioritises the needs of unequalised bodies would jump in more urgently to act upon and operationalise care practices, as opposed to merely talk about them. It would actively work towards divesting power from equalised bodies and sharing that power with unequalised bodies. For instance, ensuring curation and selection processes are more grounded in the reality of resource access – to actively make space for experiments from artists from historically under-resourced backgrounds, create and break boundaries of space and opportunity that divide the historically resourced artist from the historically under-resourced artist.
As arts practitioners and enablers of art practices, our methods of ownership, our cultural emphasis on competition, our metrics for success, our notions of who belongs and who doesn’t belong, the language that frames our ideas and our actions, are still largely shaped by the scarcity mindset that underpins relationships in capitalist structures. What if we were to shift to an abundance mindset? What if we were to intentionally navigate the abundance that is possibly present in shared ownership and shared power, in more nurturing metrics of success? A community steeped in care practice would embrace such interdependence on each other while actively dismantling structures that isolate artists from each other.
Moreover, a community steeped in care practice would also find ways to support other communities to step into these care practices. An individual artist in such a community would recognise their responsibility towards other unequalised bodies who are dissenting against art spaces or pursuing their own liberation from oppressive power structures. From this recognition could possibly come their own terms of engagement with these dissenters.
What is inherent in all of the above is the third core dramatic truth – repetition. These needs and articulations are hardly all new, they are not all unexpressed, and yet need constant reframing since they are as yet unheard. A community steeped in care practice which wants to authentically meet this specific moment with all its fraught political and social realities would listen deeply to unequalised bodies and ask the critical question of what is being centered in their art making – as process, as structure, as narrative, as imagination. And true to the dramaturgies of a community in care, this repeated questioning of one’s evolving practice would not be rooted in the guilt that comes from being an equalised body or the shame that comes from being an unequalised body, but rather be rooted in the curiosity to imagine that which is truly transformative.
Nisha Abdulla is a theatre practitioner based in Bangalore. She is Artistic Director of Qabila and co-founder of OffStream. More of her work can be found at linktr.ee/nishaabdulla