1937 records one of humanity’s first military strikes on a defenseless civilian town by a modern aerial force. The perpetrators were the Nazi Luftwaffe and the place was the Spanish town of Guernica. Chances are that if that name seems familiar, it’s either because you are a World War II buff or you’ve heard of Picasso’s 25 ft X 12 ft masterpiece of protest art – Guernica.
Guernica, Pablo Picasso on display at the Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain
Displayed for the first time later that very year, Picasso’s Guernica was single-handedly responsible for bringing the world’s attention to Spain and the ongoing civil war. The painting managed to raise funds for Guernica’s eventual restoration and serves till this day as a disturbing reminder of both our capacity for violence and peace.
Art has always been integral to nonviolent resistance. In India, the Progressive Writers’ Movement started as a way of using literature to raise awareness in society. It attacked not only the injustices of the British rule, but also openly critiqued the caste system, communalism and patriarchal mores. And hand in hand went the burgeoning use of theatre as a tool for resistance, protest and change in society. The idea of using this momentum to create a unified people’s theatre movement is credited to a woman named Anil de Silva, a journalist from Bangalore. And thus the Indian People’s Theatre Association was born.
Bhookha hai Bengal chorus song in Dharti ke Lal, an IPTA Production, 1946 and Promotion still from Gandhi - the Musical, a Silly Point/NCPA Production, 2016
In her memoirs, Zohra Sehgal states that ‘every artist who lived in Bombay between 1940 and 1950 was connected with IPTA in one capacity or the other’. And by that of course, she meant everyone from Mulk Raj Anand to Ismat Chugtai to Prithviraj Kapoor to S. D. Burman, all were a part of IPTA. From Bombay this idea spread to Calcutta and almost every other town in India more than 50 years before the invention of social media. One of IPTA’s biggest touring shows of the time was a ballet based on Nehru’s ‘Discovery of India’. And if you’ve been looking at Mumbai’s playbill recently, the fact that a musical based on the life of Gandhi was drawing audiences a few weeks ago, seems apropos in a coming-full circle kind of way.
The history of theatre in resistance is often told against the backdrop of oppression and violent reprisals. Safdar Hashmi was murdered in a mob-lynching during a performance of ‘Halla Bol’ a streetplay that spoke about wage laws for industrial workers. His company Jan Natya Manch has gone on since under the leadership of Janam president Moloyashree Hashmi to become one of India’s foremost practitioners of activist theatre. Janam has trained more than 8000 people in ways of using theatre to speak truth otherwise ignored.
Or take the example of Sheetal Sathe and Sachin Mali of the Kabir Kala Manch – two people arrested for essentially singing songs and staging street plays about Dalit rights. And while Mali still languishes at Arthur Road – an artist-activist in the company of mobsters and terrorists, Sheetal Sathe is back on the streets. She sings about women, caste oppression, Godmen and the Government. A recent article in Youth ki Awaaz rightly calls her the Government’s Worst Nightmare. Sheetal is part of Maharashtra’s tradition of Lokshahirs – people’s poets whose verse is intended to start conversations in local communities and empower them with a voice.
Activist theatre, of course, isn’t simply a compendium of left-leaning individuals and groups who form the core of citizen critiques of policy and tradition. In the past decade, HIV infections have fallen by over 50%. This has been largely due to concentrated efforts to spread awareness at the grassroots levels. A sum of those efforts have been street plays, immersive theatre experiences and invisible theatre designed to specifically tackle the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS. And performance can go beyond being simply creatives ways of disseminating information about the 4 ways HIV spreads or how to use a condom properly. Anurupa Roy founded the Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust in the year 1998. Since 2006, they have worked extensively on community health, reproductive rights and of HIV-AIDS Awareness.
Anurupa Roy, manipulating a puppet in About Ram, 2014 (Image: www.titeresante.es)
Katkatha used puppetry to work with children living with HIV/AIDS. These children went on to create stories about stigma and discrimination that were combined together in a puppetry performance – Virus ka Tamashah. The show has been performed over 200 hundred times – building empathy in a society that has misunderstood sexual health for a long, long time.
The values of the Feminist Movement are increasingly making their presence felt in the work of contemporary artists. We can talk about the significant work that many across the country are doing with community theatre – using drama processes to collect and share stories of abuse, assault and agency. Or we can talk about individuals – boldly going where no man has gone before. Mallika Taneja whose seminal piece Thoda Dhyaan se uses nudity to tackle the patriarchal gaze. Kalyanee Mulay who responds to historical sexism through her performance UnSeen. Or feminist theatremaker Mangai’s collection of essays on staging gender in India, which released just last month.
Kalyanee Mulay, A. Mangai and Mallika Taneja
Theatre is becoming many things in today’s world. But at the end of the day, one thing it will always remain is a people’s art-form – one that innately and inherently draws from the society it subsists in. Our understanding of India’s theatre, art and literature gives us an intimate look at what culture struggles with. But more than that, it tells us how we can go about addressing the imbalances that have sustained through India’s history.
Acting Up: Gender and Theatre in India, 1979 Onwards by A. Mangai (LeftWord Books, 2016)
Stages: The Art and Adventures of Zohra Segal by Joan L. Erdman and Zohra Segal (Kali for Women, 1996)
The Playful Revolution: Theatre & Liberation in Asia Jul by E. Van Erven (John Wiley & Sons, 1995)
– Written by Hina Siddiqui
Hina is a writer and theatremaker. She manages communication and branding for the Theatre Professionals, Mumbai