Performing politics on India’s streets

August 28, 2018

Namrata Jain is a professor of Marxist and feminist theory at the University of New Delhi and a member of a street theater group Pandies’ Theatre. She spoke to Ryan Powers about the group and the role that theater can play in social change.

TELL ME about the street theater group you’re involved with.

PANDIES’ THEATRE is actually named after Mangal Pandey. He was the first Indian revolutionary in terms of opposing the British regime. This is the revolt of 1857 in India. Pandey was a soldier who refused to use the greased cartridges. The cartridges used to be greased with beef and pork, and this was a British strategy.

I joined Pandies’ Theatre around 2004. We’ve done a lot of workshops and story-building exercises with underprivileged sections of society. That would include minorities, in terms of religion — so let’s say Muslim neighborhoods in colonies in India. And it would include women and children from lower economic backgrounds.

A performance of the play Offtrack in New Delhi
A performance of the play Offtrack in New Delhi (Rahul Karan | Pandies' Theatre)

I joined the group as an actress, but Pandies’ works in a very collaborative manner. If you’re an actor, you’re also thinking; you’re also contributing in terms of discussions, your ideas, your opinions.

WHAT DO you view as the link between Pandies’ Theatre and your wider political goals?

MOSTLY, WE go into these things as facilitators. We listen to the community, and we do workshops so that people start talking to us. They give us the narrative; we build plays out of it.

A lot of times, our scripts come out of the workshops — out of discussions that we’ve had during the workshops. For example, we were working with the railway platform children in Pandies, so our script was actually segments of the stories that children discussed with us.

These are all under-14 children who have somehow ended up on the railway platforms. They’ve either run away from homes or they’ve been kidnapped and put there. So whatever they would like to share, those are the stories we talk about.

WHAT IS the connection between your work in theater and wider social movements?

I THINK theater plays a very important role in addressing social concerns. In India, and I’m sure elsewhere also, street theater is a very strong medium for taking up an issue or addressing a social concern.

The audience, especially with street theater, is in very close proximity to the performer. You get the response immediately. It is not pure entertainment. It is entertaining, but it is definitely there to make you stop, think, go home, rethink and maybe do something about it.

HOW PREVALENT do you think street theater is in India?

I TEACH at a university. We do have street theater competitions, where college students form teams — they perform and they compete. In that space, in an academic space, within the confines of extracurricular activities and competitions, it’s really strong.

The whole process of making a statement, of directing a play and putting it up is doing something to the actor, is doing something to the student. In the process, they undergo a change. They develop a deeper understanding of the social economic conditions of the character, because street theater means that you are going to take up the concerns that are ailing the society today.

On the larger front, there are protests, and there are times within the protests that one of the theater groups goes and gives a performance.

About two years ago, we had a workers’ uprising against the owners of Maruti, an Indian brand of car, in collaboration with the Japanese company Suzuki. It was a strike and a protest. The whole thing was shut down, and within that, we had a lot of street theater performances.

One of the performances was about what the owners are doing, what the negotiations were about, and what was the stand of the workers. Instead of sloganeering, or shouting out, or just being on the streets and protesting, they made a play out of it, and that had far more of an outreach to the workers. And these were collaborations between the activists and the workers. That’s just one that comes to my mind.

IT SEEMS like street theater can do something different than speeches, for example.

EXACTLY. I feel like speeches can be didactic. Speeches can be talking down to you, sometimes, where usually when you see a performance, it is inherent in any theatrical performance that you would want to identify with what is going on. That is where I think it is more powerful than a speech.

CONSIDERING THAT street theater often addresses the economic and social fabric of Indian society, can you talk more about wider economic and social realities in India?

SOMETHING HAS happened in the West in the 1950s and 1960s. It hit here after the globalization of the 1990: the credit economy, the entrance of the multinational corporations to India, education costs going up. It has touched every aspect of life.

A very concrete example: public transportation is not free where I live. There were only public transport buses, and they were pretty affordable — it wouldn’t even amount to a dollar, two rupees ($.03) for a ticket, for a stretch of five kilometers. That’s extremely cheap and affordable for the worker, for the students, for a woman who was on her own.

Suddenly, in the ‘90s, we had these big companies that introduced private buses. The competition was such that the tickets were more expensive, but they were faster, and there was more of them on the road. And people were forced to switch from the public transport to the private because their frequency on the roads was greater.

The public buses were slow, they weren’t on time, because the funds were being allocated elsewhere. If your drivers are not being paid well, they won’t do good work, and that hit them really badly. There were instances where the private bus companies would tip the public bus drivers — they would give them 100 rupees ($1.43) — to drive slower. They were slowing down their buses, so the private buses could reach stops before them and take all the passengers.

That’s how you break the system. Exactly like the privatization of electricity. We have a lot of media channels that have been privatized. There used to be two national channels — now we have more of them. The moment the media becomes private, we know that what is presented as reality can be manipulated and negotiated.

The companies in the West have outsourced customer service, and India became one of the centers of that. And it really broke our back.

For instance, if I just finished school, I can start earning, say, 12,000 rupees ($172) a month, which is a very good amount if you’re just out of school. But after 10 years, when that company shuts down, and I’ve only worked with that company, my prospects are gone, because that job is very specific, and I don’t have experience with other kinds of service.

CAN YOU talk about the role of India’s political system?

EVEN THOUGH India is a multiparty democracy, we have the Congress Party, which became the first ruling party after independence. It’s almost — it would be incorrect to say “dynastic” — but it has been operating like that. The effect is such that over three generations now, the Congress Party has been in power, alternating between Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is the other main party.

The BJP is a very right-wing party. The Congress Party calls itself secular, but communal riots have happened under them. The BJP has also triggered a lot of communal riots.

We were a colony. We moved from a very feudal empire-based regime to self-rule, a democratic form. But our constitution says we are a socialist republic. The aim was that we would be heading toward socialism.

We have diverged from that path — we haven’t been able to achieve socialism at all. There are a lot of left parties in India. We have the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). But they’ve not really come to power. They have formed state governments.

That has been a big hit to understanding our democracy. The fact that the government is just tossed between the two big political parties. It becomes very difficult to say, “I don’t want this and I want that.” We know that Congress has been as scandalous as the BJP has been. This is the reality.

We currently have a very right-wing party ruling India — the BJP. In a way, this is a good time for India, because for once, people are in solidarity. We can identify the right wing and the communal aspect of politics. When Congress was in power, it kept hiding behind its secular plan.

In India, a lot of politics is vote-bank politics. What I mean by “vot -bank” is, for example, if I decide to contest elections today, I will say I am from this particular religion, or this particular caste, so everyone from that religion or caste should vote for me — rather than addressing the concerns.

A lot of vote-bank politics is on the basis of caste and religion, not as much on the basis of class. That’s one area that a lot of ruling parties will not let go of. They will continue to keep that alive, because they would lose their votes.

BRINGING IT back to street theater, what direction should this form go in now?

I THINK somewhere down the line, we’ve also forgotten the power and potential of street theater. When India was going through its struggle for independence from British rule, street theater was one of the most significant and very, very powerful mediums, where people were brought together as a nation.

There was a street theater group called the Indian People’s Theatre Association. They went on an all-Indian tour, just talking about how the British regime was controlling the Indian masses. They were instrumental in generating a mass movement for India in the 1940s. (They started work in the 1930s.)

I would say we are forgetting the potential of street theater. That is what we need to go back to — bringing more people to the understanding of how getting into the streets and performing has that ability to maybe raise important questions.

There are certain debates that need to be taken to the people, where people probably don’t have the means or the time. For example, a factory worker doesn’t have the time to come to a conference and listen to your ideas. You need to take your ideas to the person out there — to the factory worker, in the language that that person understands. I may use a certain vocabulary at a conference, but I may need to change my vocabulary when going on the streets.

The college students, the youth, are aware of the potential of street theater. Unfortunately, it remains limited to college students. I wish it would go out to all of India.

There are, for example, at the college that I taught in, students who were part of the street theater group. They would perform anywhere in Delhi outside of the competitions. They did a lot of gender-sensitization campaigns, a lot of campaigns around workers’ rights and so on. I would say that is the direction that street theater needs to go in.

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