The author with Mahasweta Devi (Photo courtesy: Dakxin Bajrange)
The author with Mahasweta Devi (Photo courtesy: Dakxin Bajrange)

‘Amma’ and Budhan Theatre

How Mahasweta Devi became a part of a revolution among the denotified and nomadic tribes of India.

On 21 August 2016, the body of Mahasweta Devi, "Amma" to the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes, was buried at the Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh, Gujarat. During one of her visits to Gujarat (where I come from) a few years ago, she had expressed a wish to be buried there to Ganesh N Devy, noted activist for tribal rights and literary critic. I was witness to the conversation and thankfully my camera was rolling. The transcript of the conversation was published by Matrubhumi newspaper on 28 July 2016 – right around the time when Amma's health took a turn for the worse and she had to be hospitalised. An excerpt:

Amma in disappointment, "What does our country do? Nothing. Nobody got anything after our Independence. Nothing."

 "What do you think about death?" Devy asks Amma out of the blue.

 "What?" she remarks.

 "What do you think about death? Is it tragic, or is it the logical conclusion."

 "No no… it's a logical event," Amma responds.

 "I do also believe so [but] what happens after death?" Devy asks.

 "As far as I am concerned, I want to live forever. I will live through my writings. After my death. That's why I have asked you not to cremate me. I have no belief in being cremated and turned to ashes. I want to be somewhere. I would love to be buried in Purulia, but they are such old-fashioned Hindus [there], that they won't allow it. So, Tejgadh is the best option for me and I feel I should be buried here. What I want is for a Mahua tree to be planted above me. I nurse an affection for the Mahua… the tree will help me survive," says Amma, making her intentions clear.

 "Extraordinary," quips Devy.

 "Is it extraordinary?" Amma counters.

 She expatiates, "No, it's not like that. You can't go into the river; the earth is the ultimate giver and receiver. Let the earth receive us, keep and eat us," says Amma.

 "But I want to flow… I like to flow," responds Devy.

 "Aree… I know, while flowing, fish will eat you but if you are buried, insects will also eat you and you will become nutritious fertiliser. There will be organic farming on us, this is good, na?" Amma jokes.

Amma did not want to die. She wanted to live forever. Even after death, she wanted to dedicate her body to the earth mother. She wanted, on the Mahua tree planted over her grave, birds to rest – to play, and eat its fruits; for the Adivasis to come and take the Mahua flowers to make daru (alcohol), and eat the fruits.

Seeding a revolution

But she will live, not just through the Mahua tree that will hug the sky and the birds, or her writings; she will live in my memory and of others she inspired. When I saw Mahasweta Devi for the first time in 1998, I was around 25 years old – a young man. She was 72 years old and full of energy, working for the invisible people – the most marginalised population of India called the Denotified Tribes. I heard the term "Denotified Tribe" for the first time from her, even though as a member of the Chhara tribe, I fell into this governmental category, which referred to those tribes who were listed as "criminal tribes" by the colonial authorities, and who, after India's independence, were denotified, and their "born criminal" status rescinded. But these tribes continue to be ostracised socially, viewed as people who are prone to criminality, and brutally repressed by the police and other state authorities. By talking to me about Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs) in other states, she planted a seed in my mind – there was work to be done, not only for my own community but for DNTs across India. She was instrumental in changing lives of DNTs across India through something called the Budhan Theatre, which spawned a movement for dignity. The journey of community theatre within the DNT community in India, which parallels Budhan Theatre's history, began in 1998.

Ganesh N Devy and Mahasweta Devi started a small library in Chharanagar,  Ahmedabad, with the help of the Chhara community's youth. Meanwhile, the judgment of the Calcutta High Court about the killing of Budhan Sabar appeared in the inaugural issue of the quarterly magazine called Budhan, which also sought to memoralise the death of this innocent tribal. Belonging to the denotified 'Sabar' tribe of West Bengal, Budhan was brutally beaten up by police officials and then sent to judicial custody, where he died due to severe injuries to the head and chest. The court judgment came, soon after, that Budhan had died because of the brutal torture he had endured in police custody. The officers involved were suspended and compensation was awarded to his widow. This judgment was remarkable because for the first time people from denotified tribes felt they could trust the Indian judiciary.

The Chhara community's youth, with the encouragement of Amma and Devy, came together in the small library and started rehearsing a street-play based on Budhan's murder. From among the participants, I was assigned to write the play. The brutal killing had resonances in my community's daily encounter with the legal system and judiciary. To pen the incidents related to Budhan was similar to writing down my daily observations of what I faced, interlaced with stories of discrimination faced by our own parents and elders in their lifetime. We had no money for props, lights, costumes, make-up and even space, really, to stage a play. We only had our bodies and voices to express ourselves.

Jerzy Grotowski, the Polish experimental theatre director and theorist, explained the nature of 'poor theatre', a form where there is receptivity to a state of poverty in theatre, an uncovered all, which is indispensable to the form. The format exposed us not only to the backbone of theatre, but also the deep richness of the art form. Unknowingly, we were following the Grotowskian idea of 'poor theatre' against 'synthetic theatre', which includes "literature, sculpture, painting, architecture, lighting, and acting (under the direction of a metteur-en-scene)," which he calls "nonsense". He suggests avoiding a "bag of tricks" and instead using "trance techniques" during a performance by "ripening" or seasoning the actor. This unfolds when the actor expresses a tension, stretching to the extreme, and experiences a complete "stripping down" and bares one's own intimate self. He asserts:

Can the theatre exist without costumes and sets? Yes, it can.

 Can it exist without music to accompany the plot? Yes.

 Can it exist without lighting effects? Of course.

 And without a text? Yes. The history of the theatre conforms this.

 But without Actor, it doesn't. It can't.

So, as actors, we only had our bodies to express our historical stigmatisation – a situation which had caused Budhan's death. The play therefore became even more significant when at the end, the Chhara actors ask the audience thrice in a chorus; "are we second class citizens?" and then, demand, "We want respect!".

"Are we second class citizen?" – this statement reflects perfectly the tyranny experienced by the DNTs across India that Amma witnessed first-hand. When she spoke about DNTs, she sounded like a mother who was fighting for her children's rights. This is why the people began to call her "Amma" – not just a 'Hajar Churashir Maa' (mother of a 1084) but of 60 million people of the country. She worked tirelessly, travelling to negotiate with government bodies, filing police cases against atrocities committed against DNTs in Maharashtra and West Bengal and speaking at numerous public forums to inspire thousands to work on the DNT issue.

In 1999, I wrote a play based on the fake encounter case of Deepak Pawar, a Pardhi man, who was killed by Maharashtra police in Solapur. Amma was invited by the staff of National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, to deliver a lecture and we were invited to perform in the institution. After watching the play, she called me to her room. When I met her, she kissed my forehead and told me: "use theatre as a weapon; your theatre has the power to disturb the consciousness of spectator. Don't leave. I am sure a day will come when Chharas will lead the DNT movement; they will be the torch bearers for rest of the oppressed communities." Since then, I have never stopped. She had great faith in the revolutionary potential of Budhan Theatre. And just as Amma had wanted, we have performed more than 1000 shows across the country and initiated a dialogue around the question – "Are we second class citizens?".

Kolkata-based filmmaker Joshi Joseph was filming a documentary on Amma's life and he came with her to Baroda. During the interview, he asked her about what she thought about Budhan Theatre. She said: "I have worked, I believe, with Denotified Tribes, for many years, and I [have] never found such [a] strategic fight. Time makes us act [at the] right [time] and Dakxin and all [the rest] are following the [right] time. They have education, exposure and they are city-based dwellers, so they can do what others cannot. Kolkata-based theatre practitioners like Badal Sircar and all, they are city-based theatrewalas but Budhan theatrewalas are doing from their [own] experiences, so it is more powerful and political. What is best is, it is continuous work." Today Budhan Theatre is not a just a small community theatre; it has become a social movement of Denotified Tribes and Nomadic Tribes. Actors from the theatre group have become spokespeople, activists, scholars, writers and social leaders for the cause, leading the movement successfully.

Theatre and liberation

Amma wanted us to liberate people through theatre; bring out the anguish, the insults, the anger but non-violently. Create the space in our heart to feel another's pain and in doing so develop social leadership that was nurturing rather than aggressive. When I analyse Budhan Theatre performances from this perspective, I feel theatre is an event, a process, a challenge, and an attempt to conjure change, be it social, political, economic or personal. No matter whether it is commercial or experimental theatre or proscenium or any other theatre form, this holds true.

Psychologically, it is a soul-searching process for actors and spectators. Rustom Bharucha, the academic and cultural critic, insists, "If theatre changes the world, nothing could be better, but let us also admit that this has not happened so far. It would be wiser (and less euphoric) if we accepted that it is possible to change our own lives through theatre". In theatre, analysing social and political change is a complex process but to analyse one's own lived experience can be a less complex exercise and as effective a weapon. We can see the evolution in three ways – liberating actors, spaces and spectators.

To analyse the actor's liberation is simplest. Budhan Theatre actors were committed to social change but were not aware of how exactly they could achieve that through theatre. When we began, most of us were illiterate and we had no formal theatre training. But we enjoyed performing our suffering – it was the first time we had a platform to express our pain and we found people had begun to listen to us. When the actors confronted the audience asking for acceptance, simultaneously they were also confronting the self as a way of initiating a process of change within themselves. It's difficult to say how exactly theatre helped them to bring about change within themselves but while practising theatre they kept away from all illegal activities that were undermining the community, such as brewing illicit liquor, consuming alcohol, and stealing. Despite negative responses from within the community, we also raised our voices against the internal issues that were crippling the community like child marriage, harmful superstitions, the community council's exploitative practices and domestic violence, among other things. Theatre empowered us to change attitudes about the community but also within the community. Theatre fulfilled our inner emptiness. We ripped off the colonial mask of historically-imposed criminality and discovered that we were the nomad entertainers of the nineteenth century, who had only their bodies and voices to entertain the people on the streets, jungles, mountains and villages in India.

'Poor theatre' also liberates space. The place where the Chharas lived was an infamous place stigmatised as a known hub of criminal activity. When Amma visited Chharanagar for the first time in 1998, the local police were scared that she would be robbed if she entered our locality. Her celebrity meant that she was detained for nearly an hour to convince her to turn back. But she came to see us despite it all; we didn't even know who she was at the time! After she came, it seemed that the world slowly 'discovered' Chharanagar. Our theatrical experiments brought people from various classes and various places to visit this infamous, isolated and unnoticed place. People came to learn from the actors and help them by donating books and sharing their experiences. Police atrocities have also reduced and policemen have become members of the community library, occasionally visiting for discussions and events. Many of the community spaces that functioned as liquor and gambling dens were transformed into theatre spaces. Now people from schools, colleges, institutes and nearby communities watch plays at these former spaces of crime or delinquency.

Lastly, through performances, Budhan Theatre created a movement built on creating awareness among spectators about the atrocities DNTs faced. While performing real-life suffering has become a form of social movement, we see it going even further and becoming a revolutionary fight for the implementation of the DNTs' constitutional rights. In this way, Budhan Theatre, clear about its aims to bring about a cultural revolution for DNTs, is quite in line with what Amma and Devy had envisioned. Amma's planted seeds have now become trees, which are able to produce more seeds to empower the DNTs of India.

Dakxin Bajrange is the honorary director of Budhan Theatre and the managing director of Nomad Movies, a film company.

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