What is the relationship between art and politics?
Art, through creative impulse, builds bridges of expression and resonance of our shared truths. Politics provides the will to fight for these truths. The two share their roots and goals, striving toward them in their own ways. In its excess, however, art gets reduced to creation for fame, entertainment and commerce, and politics is limited to resistance, conflict or a fight for popularity and power. These excesses threaten the balance that art and politics bring each other.
The work of exploring, understanding and strengthening this relationship is crucial, now more than ever. In this article, we explore this question by zooming in on the links between theatre and anti-caste activism in India.
Histories of Theatre and Activism
Historically, theatre has been a medium for social change, world over. Athens witnessed the simultaneous birth of Democracy and Greek Tragedies. Closer home, Savarna reformers used theatre, based on mythology and classical literature, for nationalist consciousness building during the anti-colonial struggle.
Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), the cultural wing of the then undivided Communist Party of India, spearheaded people’s theatre movement, and travelled the subcontinent with anti-fascist, anti-communal and anti-imperialist performances. Groups such as Jana Natya Manch followed in these traditions post-Emergency, with street-plays on communalism, economic policy, trade union rights, globalisation, women’s rights, and education system. The communists viewed theatre as a vehicle for propaganda and raising class-consciousness.
Chronicling the history of Anti-Caste performances, Yogesh Maitreya, the founder of Panther’s Paw Publication, writes: “The first turning point came in 1873 with the advent of Jyotirao Phule’s Satyashodhak Jalsas, which added a reformist edge to the traditional form of street theatre, featuring poet-composer Shahirs. The next watershed was the inception of Ambedkar’s anti-caste movement in 1927. It was at this time that Ambedkari jalsa was born, and shahiri… acquired a truly rebellious form in which the world otherwise hidden from society was made visible.” Annabhau Sathe, a powerful figure in Marathi theatre, was a Lok-Shahir who started out as a Marxist-Communist, a member of Lal Bawta Kalapathak (Red Flag Cultural Squad) and IPTA, but later became an Ambedkarite and became known as the founding father of Dalit Literature.
The Need For A Cultural Revolution
When communist leaders such as Annabhau Sathe and KG Satyamurthy began leaving the Marxist-Communist traditions for an Amberkarite assertion of caste consciousness, it was symbolic of a deeper rift within communist parties, whose Savarna leaders refused to acknowledge and address questions of caste as separate and more complex than the class struggle.
These Dalit leaders argued that caste was not just a question of material inequalities but of deep rooted social and cultural prejudices that could not be subsumed within class conflict. In the book My Life Is A Song, revolutionary Telugu poet Gaddar says, “The idea is that our lives are entrenched in culture. Cultural revolution is therefore imperative and urgent. The work that our songs do, the task our poets try to accomplish, is to challenge cultural norms.”
Reorganising the socio-cultural landscape of society and establishing Ambedkar, not just as an individual but as a school of thought, philosophy and ideology, is the impetus behind Ambedkarite Dalit Theatre. Starting as get-togethers, and evolving through folk and street forms, Ambedkarite Theatre gives expression to the ideology by challenging traditional Sanskrit style and craft of theatre, replacing traditional heroes with its own, as in Gurram Jashuva’s Gabbilam, a reinterpretation of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta where the Untouchable Hero sends his message to Lord Shiva through a bat.
Not just literature, music, theatre or cultural and artistic practices but also social practices that are created within the ghetto resist the established norms of caste order. A powerful example is Premanand Gajvi’s Ghotbhar Pani which portrays the absurdity of the workings of caste in middle class households and its dehumanizing effect on Dalits. Through processes of creating Ambedkarite work, theatre groups have made their voices heard and become weapons for the pro-change, counterculture movement that challenges hegemonic cultures of domination.
Much like Black Theatre in the US, Anti-Caste theatre emphasizes on thinking beyond the nation state and building wider solidarities against discrimination and exploitation, insisting on locating itself in the present and building a vision for a more equal future. It is a voice of humanity, self-respect, a fight for emancipation and an Ambedkarite consciousness. Well-known Dalit dramatist B.S. Shinde explains that the main objective of the Dalit Theatre is to unite everyone who has been oppressed and exploited under the umbrella of humanity and dignity. A prolific Dalit Marathi poet, Yashwant Manohar writes that Dalit Theatre takes the thoughts of the great Ambedkar and Jyotiba Phule to society, relieves the sufferers of their sufferings, and helps Dalits discover their identity, their self-esteem and even their existence.
Knowledge and Consciousness Building
Brazilian Theatre Practitioner Augusto Boal, creator of The ‘Theatre of the Oppressed‘, said that, “Theatre is a form of knowledge…and can also be a means of transforming society. Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.”
Knowledge creation and dissemination through theatre take various forms, such as informing the oppressed of their rights under the Indian Constitution. The work of Irular Cultural Troupe in Tamil Nadu who travel to remote villages with plays on the Bonded Labour Abolition Act or the work of Dalit Women run organisations like Vanangana in Bundelkhand, who perform street plays on domestic violence laws, are potent examples.
Building social consciousness, however, extends beyond an awareness of laws. The work of Satya Shodhaka Yuvajana Sangam (SSYS) in Sangareddy district of Telangana helps change people’s mindsets about Ambedkar, and educates other marginalised communities – particularly Bahujan, Adivasi and Muslim communities – that Ambedkar did not just speak for Dalits but represented ideas of equality and liberation for all, thus building wider solidarities.
Speaking at an online webinar, members of SSYS shared that their rehearsals become a space to actualize theory. Going to each other’s homes, having meals together, and working together are practical ways of breaking notions of untouchability and informing political praxis in an embodied sense. Renuka, one of the members who spoke at the webinar, feels that for young women like herself, experiencing freedom and liberation through theatre and being able to use the stage to change minds of communities, even her own family, is a deeply empowering experience. “I didn’t know I had so much within me to say. Now, imagine if all young women were provided this opportunity,” she wonders.
While Anil, a member of Kudali Learning Centre and a SSYS collaborator, appeals to urban intellectuals to return to rural roots to disseminate anti-caste ideas at the webinar, others argue that urban intellectual spaces, including proscenium theatre, are itself in need of revolution.
Jyotsna Siddharth, a Dalit Queer theatre maker based in Delhi, argues that the space of theatre needs to be changed rather than simply placing marginalised communities into it. She says, “While there are several playwrights who have actively addressed caste-based issues like Vijay Tendulkar, the representation has always been very one sided and linear. Who is representing whom? When I do theatre, I feel like there are still very few people who are open and vocal about their caste identity in the theatre space. It’s not like there are no Dalit women or Dalit trans folks in the space, but not everyone is open and ready to talk about this because the space itself is so exclusionary. The idea is to break that.” Her performance piece Janeu Prompts, developed in response to caste-based and sexual violence, addresses the apathy of the state towards marginalized communities.
If theatre is to continue playing its historic role as “the rehearsal for the revolution”, as Boal called it, the community needs to strengthen its relationship to politics, particularly anti-caste politics, and ask how it can inform our art, and evolve our practices in form, content, space and every other aspect of theatre-making.