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Dakxin Bajrange

A population of some 60 million “denotified tribes” can be found throughout India today. Since 1998, the Ahmedabad-based Budhan Theatre has performed street plays to raise awareness about the condition of such tribes. Their goal is to demonstrate that the tribes are not “born criminals,” they are humans with real emotions, capacities, and aspirations. The man behind Budhan Theatre recalls the early years…  

The 1980s was a time when people in Ahmedabad were literally afraid to come to Chharanagar due to its image as an area of criminals. So it was surprising when a renowned street theatre director Dr. Prem Prakash came here in search of actors. He was planning to stage the play Spartacus written by Badal Sircar and wanted actors who could play the role of slaves. His other actors were fair and therefore they did not look like slaves. He shared this problem with painter Mansing Chhara.

This was the first time a play of Badal Sircar’s was being performed in the state of Gujarat.  Spartacus was based on a slave uprising against the unjust Roman regime. The actors from Chharanagar, in their first appearance, stunned Ahmedabad’s theatre world. The viewers were astonished to see the play and the Chhara actors Sardarbhai, Prahladbhai and others, performing. For the first time, the way of looking at Chharas, commonly seen as thieves, changed. There were many shows of this play, and slowly all the artists evolved into experienced actors.

Theatre activity was catching up within the Chhara community. But as always, financial and social responsibilities kept these actors away from theatre. There was no community leadership which could sustain theatre in Chharanagar. Nevertheless, the play Spartacus laid the foundation of theatre among the Chhara community. It was also the first time ever that people from the mainstream came to know about the acting talents of the Chhara people.

Prem Prakash had planted the seeds of theatre in the community. Spartacus was a political discourse about issues of labour in general but the community actors did not have an in-depth understanding of it all, because during the 1980s Chhara people were not employed even as labour due to the criminal tag attached to the community.

Influenced by Prem Prakash’s theatre work, many youngsters from the community made plays on topics such as Bhantar Matti Khai Raha (No use of education), based on what the community thought about education and unemployment issues. Iske Jawabdar Hamij (We are responsible) was based on women’s issues within the community and exploitation in the police station.

These plays talked about issues facing the community and tried to create awareness among its members about development issues. The language of these plays was the community dialect, Bhantu.  Plays were performed free in a street theatre form at community public spaces where almost 200 to 300 people could gather during late evenings.  By the late 1980s, the community actors could understand the use and power of theatre.

During the 1990s, Prakash again came to Chharanagar and began another play called Julus, also written by Badal Sircar. I was involved in this production as an actor. We began the rehearsals. Those were bitterly cold winter days and the rehearsals were held in the courtyard of the school. The primary school had no electricity. So we would rehearse in the light of two or three lanterns.

None of us had the discipline required for theatre. We would laugh when somebody spoke a dialogue. After a long process, many other community actors were selected for the play. We would all meet in the evening. It was very cold. But when, in the light of the lanterns, he would ask us to do various physical compositions, we would begin to sweat even in the bitter cold.

Prakash would not allow us any rest during the rehearsals. I felt very strange when at the end of every page he would ask us to play a new character and a new composition. We rehearsed for three months in the dim light of those lanterns. Around 75% of the play was ready when suddenly the rehearsals stopped.

The theatre group was developing in a typical community set up, in which community actors who may have had some social or economic problems, occasionally gave less priority to rehearsals – a situation which stopped the rehearsals after a few months. However, the training that we got during the making of the play Julus became the basic platform for actors like us and helped us to carry on theatre activities in the coming years.

The journey of Budhan theatre, in the form and shape it has taken today, began in 1998 – the year Tribal activist and literary critic Ganesh Devy and Bengali writer Mahasveta Devi came to Chharanagar. They started a small community library with the help of Chhara youth.

The same year, the judgment of the Calcutta High Court on the killing of Budhan Sabar appeared in the media. Budhan was a Sabar, a de-notified tribe from West Bengal, and was brutally beaten up by the state police and then sent to judicial custody, where he died due to severe injuries to his head and chest.

The judgment said Budhan Sabar was brutally beaten up in police custody and that this beating was the cause of his death. The police officers involved were suspended and compensation was awarded to the widow of Budhan Sabar.

Prof. Devy suggested the Chhara youth stage a play based on the judgment. I was assigned to write the play. Budhan’s brutal killing and my community’s daily encounter with police and judiciary were similar. To pen the incidents related to Budhan Sabar was as if writing about myself and my parents lives.

We were not financially sound to arrange for the money, props, lights, costumes, make-up and space which were required for the play. We only had our bodies and voices to express Budhan’s killing and our daily encounter with the legal system and the judiciary.

Unknowingly, we were following the Grotowskian  idea of the poor theatre against ‘synthetic theatre’ which includes ‘literature, sculpture, painting, architecture, lighting, and acting.’  So, we had only actors and their bodies to express our historical stigmatization – a situation which had caused Budhan’s death.

The community youth came together in the small library and started rehearsals. They adopted the street theatre form, which they had learned during the making of the play Julus.

Along with the community people and some eminent people, Prof. Devy witnessed the first performance of the play on Budhan on 31 August 1998 when the first International Convention of De-Notified and Nomadic tribes was organised at Chharanagar.

The play had an unexpected ending – the Chhara actors asked the audience thrice in a chorus: “Are we second class citizens?” and then let it be known: “We want respect.”

Since my childhood, I was confused about why people hated us. Why did other children seem distant to me? Why was my sister blamed for stealing the marbles of the other girl and insulted in the classroom by the teacher and fellow classmates? Why do my community people brew illicit liquor? There were lots of ‘WHYs’ in my head and I found an answer when I was writing the play Budhan and the answer was colonial invented identity.

In India, belonging to a certain section of society, such as Brahmin or Baniya, can be a matter of pride, but to belong to any of the de-notified tribes creates a negative identity for the person and it has roots in history.

The issues raised by the Chhara actors were direct political questions to the audiences. Our audiences were government policy makers, police officials, school and college students, academics, artists, writers and common men. When they watched the play, they were stunned.

Budhan was clearly an expression of experiences of being a member of a stigmatized community which I and my colleagues had witnessed since our childhood. People had been tortured and discriminated against by the police and mainstream people and they were facing all the sufferings mutely. It seemed the community was looking to make its voice heard and incidentally had found theatre.

While writing and directing the play Budhan, I neither had the sense to be politically correct nor any particular awareness about politics, aesthetics, grammar and various forms of theatre.
We did not even know that we could bring community development through theatre. The play Budhan was becoming an identity for a group of people who were isolated and discriminated against by the society and the state.  

Budhan was a realistic play and we were invited by many organizations and institutions to perform it in different communities, seminars, cultural gatherings, schools, and colleges. Whenever and wherever we performed, we found enormous emotional reaction from the audience. People who held negative thoughts about the Chhara community and who were afraid of the community people, they cried, shook hands and hugged the actors, and were curious to know more about our lives and issues.

The play Budhan produced catharsis. The lives of denotified tribes are terribly pitiful and they are living constantly under fear of state scrutiny. It was an imitation of their own anguish in dramatic form which aimed to change the consciousness of the spectators. The actors’ own anguish came out as tragic emotions of their life experiences and observations.

Through theatre, many social and political sections are allied with Budhan Theatre and they come into discourse with each other whether emotionally or in a dialogue form. Instead of money, this was our reward after the performance. No award or remuneration was involved, just emotional exchange between actors and spectators. Every emotional exchange and appreciation inspired us to perform more shows in search of the people who could understand us.

We performed in various places, cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bhopal, Chennai, Hyderabad etc. After so many performances, in 2007, the police officials of the state of Gujarat organized a performance of the play Budhan in Karai police training academy.

It was a remarkable day for Chhara actors when they performed the play Budhan which included some of the atrocious incidents carried out by police on the de-notified tribes across the state. It was clearly an anti-police play. We performed with great energy as it was the first time we were performing in front of the oppressors who were key officials in the legal system that oppressed de-notified tribes.

We thought there would be a negative reaction from the audience but surprisingly, we received lots of appreciation from them. After the performance, an IPS officer asked the audience to take an oath that from now on such scenes will not be repeated with the Chharas in real life. The police hugged the Chhara youth, some cried, shook hands and said ‘it was a good play.’ It was the first ever positive dialogue between the Chhara community and police.

Gandhi believed that a dialogue between the oppressor and the oppressed would bring both of them toward the truth and help in resolution of disputes.

There was a lot of suffering but for the Chharas, to see the police as their enemy was not a solution. The oppressors were also human beings who loved their family, children, and friends but there was a need to expand their love which was limited to a few people.

In true sense, the play Budhan initiated the process of emancipation of actors and spectators. I repeat, for us, our spectators were not just an audience; they were like the state and we were expecting respect for us, allowing us to live a life with dignity. They were much more than just passive spectators. 

Dakxin Bajrange uses his experiences as a theatre writer, actor and activist to work with his Chhara community, whose members have historically been labelled as “born criminals.” He is the first person from his community to study abroad, and to come back to serve his community’s cause through theatre activism. Read more on http://budhantheatre.org/

Comments   

#1 Nachiket Kamlekar 2014-10-27 04:22
Hello, Its really great you shared old memories of the intial stages of theater in Chharanagar. As people read more about Budhan, the wrong picture about Chharas will automatically change.Thanks,
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