Small efforts matter
I wondered – where is Mangalore? Where is Heggodu? These thoughts brought back some memories of my father. There are many things associated with Mangalore, with South India. My father said, ‘This city kept your grandfather and me in a jail for six months and your mother and your grandmother had to fall at the lawyer’s feet to get us out. They could not follow each other’s language but somehow they just let us go after six months.’ Actually I come from a denotified tribal community. Right now close to eight per cent of the Indian population is of denotified tribals. We are detained as born criminal by birth. I belong to one such community.
Before proceeding further, I think it would be useful to understand our identity. In 1951 the British decided to classify a group of individuals who were performers, as criminals by birth. It later became a legal act. These ‘criminals’ were kept in a confined area. This first happened in the North East, then in the South and in Bombay Presidency and later Ahmedabad. Such confinements were called ‘settlements’ and there were around 10-15 such settlements. There is one near Hubli, Dharwar. Lakhs of people who earned a living from the performing arts were detained in such settlements and their movement restricted. Even the new born were separated from their parents at birth. The British feared that young children would also become criminals if they stayed with their parents.
Then India got independence. No one was aware that so many people were still living in confinement. Even five years after independence it did not occur to anyone that such settlements existed and that these people also had an equal right to freedom. Sholapur especially, had many such settlements. On 31 July 1952 Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru promised that he would free us from this confinement. Though the Constitution was by then ready, there was no constitutional guarantee for us in it. In 1957 a new act was passed – The Habitual Offenders Act. This act, very similar to the Criminal Tribes Act, continues to be on the statute book in many states, including Karnataka. This act has brought great miser and inconvenience to traditional performers; many have been thrown out of their native places.
A short while ago someone in this seminar said, ‘Does theatre matter?’ Let me tell you where I do my theatre for even the minutest effort matters. In the last ten years that we have been performing, theatre has changed our identity. Earlier we were considered petty thieves. Sanjay Upadhyay [a theatreperson from Patna] mentioned about Bihar, I am not sure which community he was talking about but where I live, if you ask at the station to be dropped at Cheranagar, no rickshaw or taxi will be willing to take you there. That area is considered a criminal ghetto; only criminals reside there.
In 1991 Mahasweta Devi started working there. She came to meet us. We had been trying for a while to organize a library. Strangely enough this ‘criminal ghetto’ has full attendance in primary education. Everyone is getting an education but there is no employment because of the stigma attached to our community. When Mahasweta Devi said she wanted to visit our community, she was warned by the police, but she insisted and pushed her way through. She wanted to talk to us, and she did. She came and spoke to us, asked us what it was that we needed most. We told her that we wanted books, we craved to read. She immediately withdrew money from her provident fund and made available many books for us. I think this was the first time in history that someone had made an effort to make the denotified tribals politically and socially aware.
It was then that we also enacted the play ‘Budhan’. Budhan was a man from the Purulia district of Bengal who had been killed by the police. There are many such denotified tribals who are killed by the local police. The play talked about Budhan and the judgments of Roma Pal. There was hardly anything new in this – we are quite familiar with police atrocities on our people. Working on the play and feeling for Budhan was not difficult, in fact, expressing his feelings and playing the character was rather easy. Once the play was ready we did some 400 or 500 shows. We performed in schools and colleges as well. There were no professional actors in the play; it was a play evolved from personal experience.
Our parents often told us about their modus operandi for stealing; it followed a fixed pattern. My father was a thief you see. I realized after doing the play that stealing is also an art. It has a method and needs a fair amount of creativity! Today when I do theatre, I can interpret many things through my experience. So stealing is an art; it’s like theatre. It’s true! the pattern of stealing we follow is just like a preforming art – there is an actor, a director and our modus operandi is such that you will not be able to tell how we will distract you and pick up your belongings. And let me tell you there is so much drama in this. We have tried to revive this art form, of course in a positive way, and we have been doing theatre for the past 15 years.
But we never really knew why we did theatre. One thing is for sure, when we do theatre people treat us differently. It is different from the way we have always been treated. As young children we were discriminated against in the class and made to sit with other cheras on the last bench. But we now feel that people have begun talking to us, even moving closer to us; they come to our ’criminal ghetto’. People have started writing about the library that Mahasweta Devi helped set up, started writing about our actors. Gradually there has been a social acceptance of our community. And let me tell you this has changed our identity.
I am not a theoretician, my theatre is experiential, but theatre not only gave us a changed identity, it also provided dignity. Even other artists from Gujarat have started looking up to us as one of them. In fact our children could not get into college for higher education earlier, but today they do because they are considered good actors! And often, even if they do not score more than 50 per cent grades, they are admitted as their acting skills are seen as an asset.
But let me tell you it is not easy to do theatre in Cheranagar. We have only one place to rehearse and it is bang opposite the police station. We have no other option you see. But in spite of all this the ghetto has given two excellent actors to the National School of Drama, Alok being one of them. Our theatre is not of any concrete kind; it’s like street theatre. We perform in gullies and on the streets, but if you ever come to our ghetto and ask anyone to sing, dance or act, they will do so unabashedly. That’s because it is an inborn tradition.
Alok’s father was once caught by the police simply because he was doing theatre and that too ‘anti-police theatre’. They were not ready to accept that a boy from the ghetto could get admission to a respectable college in Delhi. They arrested his father under PASA, and tortured him so brutally that he could hardly walk when he was released. He was dying, his body lay at home, but Alok was still doing theatre!
It’s the same for Jeetu, an actor who works with us, his father has been in the lock up for the past six months. The dates keep on being extended and yet Jeetu continues to perform. Then there is Kalpana, who has been working with us for 10 years. She is seven months pregnant but is running around Satpura for an opportunity to speak to the President about denotified tribals. They put me in jail for 15 days. Sandeep is another actor with us; he acts in the play called ‘Biwi’ and has been in jail for the past six months. So you see, it’s very difficult to do theatre everywhere, the background is different everywhere. Theatre is different in every village, in every city, in every nook and corner of the street. The situation people live in keeps changing and so does their theatre.
But today there are 20 to 25 young adults who are doing theatre in Cheranagar with some 40 children. The parents of these children are petty liquor thieves. About 30 to 50 per cent people in the area are in this business. But these men and women do not want their children to do the same, they want them to become actors. When the kids come back from school they are sent to the library and encouraged to learn theatre, as they know we are working in the library.
Before I came to Heggodu, everyone in the criminal ghetto was busy discussing my trip here – where I was going, what I would talk about, and all that. For a long time we have believed that we must change the identity of the entire ghetto through theatre. We must make it a hub for cultural activity and not one of criminal activity. I think we are making some headway in that direction too! Lots of theatre people come here now, take workshops with us, and the library is growing. In fact theatre has not only brought us dignity, but also helped us earn our livelihood which was very difficult earlier. You see, because we are considered to be criminals, no one would give us jobs, but we are trying to change that with our theatre. Some of us have become journalists, others have become TV reporters, while some have tried their hand at Bollywood – theatre has been made possible without spending a penny.
Finally, there is one further problem: doing theatre in Gujarat is not easy. I have noticed that whenever one talks about theatre in Gujarat, there is fear among people. They say theatre should not be done in Gujarat! But for how long? Someone has to start some day. But it appears that there is no security for the actor in Gujarat. So, obviously people fear doing theatre. It’s easy to do social plays, but political plays are the need of the hour in Gujarat today. So here is an open invitation to all – if you do not find a place to perform in Gujarat then come straight to our ghetto. You will certainly find space there!
* A talk delivered at the Not-the-Drama Seminar, organized by the Indian Theatre Forum at Ninasam, Heggodu, March 2008. Translated by Joyoti Roy.