“Theatre of Relevance” explores itself as a medium of change/development.  BACK
THEATRE AS A MEDIUM OF CHANGE
Back in the sixties revolutionary theatre activist Augusto Boal coined a slogan that was to shake up the world of theatre. Working on ways to evolve an effective literacy campaign in third world societies using the stage, he came up with a strategy. “ Theatre as a rehearsal for revolution.”
It meant moving theatre out of the cocoon of prosencium on to the streets and involving the audience in social issues. This audience was not the elite on the lookout for an evening out but the poor and underprivileged. The themes were not plush or abstract, the stories were lifted straight out of the lives of those who watched them. And more importantly, the solutions to the issues that were dramatized were not those of a playwright’s but of the audience itself.
“ The object of theatre of the oppressed is to change the people – spectators and passive beings in the theatrical tradition – into subjects, into actors and transformers of the dramatic action. This action has effects beyond the drama as it is used to try out solutions to real problems and discuss plans for change. Theatre becomes rehearsal for revolution – theatre is a weapon and it is the people who should use it.”
Baol’s theory, fleshed out in literacy campaigns across countries of the third world, worked wonders. And it is a piece of this rehearsal of revolution that one gets to see on a smaller scale in the sprawling slums bordering suburban Kandivali that are collectively called Ganesh Nagar. Baol’s theory that theatre can help the poor control their lives.
Here, for a last six years, a small group of stage enthusiasts have been working on a project to use street theatre to pull child workers back to the world of education where they belong. Slowly but surely it is getting the children of the slums back into schools and making a qualitative change in the lives of communities, consisting largely of immigrants.
What marks the efforts of The Experimental Theatre Foundation from what other NGOs are doing is the strategy it has adopted – a mix of theatre and social activism. It devises plays and theatre activities to make its street – corner audience thinks and once they are ready for change supports it with resources. And most importantly Experimental Theatre Foundation does so by living and working in the midst of those who need its help.
Street theatre groups Like Jana Natya Manch, IPTA, Peoples Art Club, Samudaya have all raised relevant social issues relating to society but they have left ground- level activism to others. Similarly, NGOs have worked hard on the issue of child labour for decades but not touched theatre as a tool. Experimental Theatre Foundation has married the two streams to create a strategy that has been effective as is shown by the number of children who have dropped their employment in sweatshops, garages, fake jewelley units, cosmetics and oil producing units that dot the Kandivali area to give education another chance.
Todate Experimental Theatre Foundation has managed to get around 1000 child labourers back into schools. An even bigger task for it has been to keep the children in school in an environment that does not encourage participative education. For an outsider this is an experiment that is hard to comprehend – how does a theatre group surmount the kind of socio- economic factors that have left even government stumped?
I am a journalist who has over the last one decade dealt with feature stories on an array of subjects. I was drawn into Experimental Theatre Foundation ‘s activities about a year ago when the organization decided to have an independent observer assess the impact of the project among the child workers.
What followed was a very rewarding experience of interacting with around 50 children in various spheres: when they were at rehearsal, at play, at acting classes, at group discussion and while touring around the city with skits. Of them I interacted most often with about 10 children: these were the Experimental Theatre Foundation veterans who are now almost ready to the mission further themselves.
Experimental Theatre Foundation is the brainchild of theatre person Manjul Bharadwaj and a team of social activists. Manjul firmly believes in the practice of theatre of relevance; using drama to bring about social change. The little actors he coaches are not doing plays removed from their existence; they are in fact living their real lives in front of their audience. And this process, says Manjul, will help them fight their own circumstances.
It is hard to believe that channelising talents through the medium of drama can bring about such change. In the following sections we will address various sections of those involved in the project, not the least important of whom are the children themselves, to see how Experimental Theatre Foundation has managed to work towards its target effectively.
THE CHILDREN (CHILD LABOURERS)
What is truly remarkable about the children in Experimental Theatre Foundation’s theatre project is the immense confidence they carry with themselves. Many of them come from severely impoverished or uprooted migrant homes and orthodox families. But their contact with theatre has obviously given them that all – important sense of self worth one rarely gets to see in such children elsewhere.
In the early phases of my interaction with the children I assumed that they were just the passive participants in Experimental Theatre Foundation’s mission, being coached and trained to create awareness among the people in front of whom they performed. This they did with a lot of success.
But I discovered another starling fact. Some of the older children are so deeply involved in the experiment that they are ready to take the movement ahead of their own. Getting child workers to school is now their mission, not just that of the team of theatre persons who have been dedicatedly working with them.
To get an insight into the change that their lives have gone through it is important to read the stories of some of their lives. An Experimental Theatre Foundation “ veteran” whose story is that of almost every other working child is Madan Atmaram Sable. He has seen Experimental Theatre Foundation evolve over the years. He is part of the effort, which has ensured that not a single child in Ganesh Nagar now goes to do labour. His personal estimate is that he dissuaded 150 children from going to work.
Madan himself was all of seven years old when he started working in a coconut oil producing company in Kandivali. He was part of migrant family that moved from a village in Jalna in Maharashtra to Mumbai in search of livelihood.
Sable worked at painting the oilcans for Rs. 20 a day, from which his employer would often deduct some money for mistake he made at work. “ The worst was having to listen to the abuse, being hit and humiliated” he recalls. There were four other children in the unit with him and each of them got the same deal.
One day on his way home from works Madan happened to watch Mera Bachpan. “ I felt a chord strike somewhere when I saw the character of the employer hit a small child,” he recalls. With help from Experimental Theatre Foundation volunteers Madan restarted school. Then followed the theatre lessons that are the core of the Experimental Theatre Foundation ‘s strategy to rekindle the urge for knowledge in these children.
At the Abhivyakti Manch (platform for expressing oneself) Madan learnt the art of emoting and expressing his emotions: jumping, running free, crying, laughing, conceiving a story line and enacting it. “ What really inspired me was the appreciation I got for what I did. The applause after each performance, appreciation from my peers and admiration of my community, “ he says.
During his travels with the plays, what touched him most was performing for and interacting with other working children. He would, with his Experimental Theatre Foundation friends, try and talk them into rejoining school. At times he succeeded, at others he did not. But education for Madan now is a process that will see him to his ambition of becoming a doctor.
I don’t care how big the person across me is. I talk fearlessly now. I can handle any situation and this is a courage that Experimental Theatre Foundation has given me,” he concludes.
The story of Naresh Kanti Chauhan’s transformation starts at a buckle factory in Kandivali where he started work at the age of seven. He worked for 12 hours for a daily pittance of Rs, 25. It was a life of abuse, hard work and humiliation, which came to a slow end when Experimental Theatre Foundation volunteers met his father. Chauhan joined school and also the Abhivyakti Manch classes.
“I learnt to modulate my voice, learn my lines, scream, laugh. I must have done 700 shows of Mera Bachpan by now,” he says. “ And with each show I have grown confident about dealing with people and situations. I always speak out when I see some injustice being done now.”
For all the children who now form the backbone of Experimental Theatre Foundation’ s efforts the biggest achievement has been the revival of self- confidence and self respect. The kind of labour that paid them once was demeaning because it drained their regard for themselves. Theatre gave them an equal footing with the rest of the world.
“ I can handle any crowd, deal with whoever I have to. I do perform for a large mob now. Earlier, I used to be terrified of interacting with people. I barely knew how to talk before, “ says 16 years old Manjula Lokhande, another child who grew along with ETF.
For others the applause is the biggest booster of morale. “ To see big people applaud when I act is a great feeling. I realise that I am no less then them, “ says 12 year –old Nitesh Kamble.
The Experimental Theatre Foundation is now interacting with about 1000 slum children of whom about 60 are core members. These children who have been part of and observant of Experimental Theatre Foundation ‘s activities feel that life in their slum communities have improved over their mothers keeping tabs on drunkenness in the family.
For another there is a greater sense of collective and civic responsibility. “ It used to be a filthy basti once. Today we are more concerned about our immediate environment,” says Manjula Lokhande. “ For instance, the women now talk increasingly of the need to educate their daughters so they can raise families that are aware”.
The core members of the Experimental Theatre Foundation are now confident of being able to carry forward the movement by themselves. For Experimental Theatre Foundation’s mission is no longer the agenda of a clutch of social activists. It is their mantra for a better life.
PARENTS / EMPLOYER & TEACHER
Change has come not just in the lives of the children who are a part of the Experimental Theatre Foundation family. It has also filtered down to their parents and the larger community to which they belong. So much so that to most of them now education is an integral part of their lives and not just the mission of an Theatre organization (NGO) they interact with.
While Experimental Theatre Foundation’s activities concentrate largely on the children, the parents are a very important decision making group for them. It is mostly at their instance that the children walk out of schools and start working. And the decision to send the children back to school again rests in a big way with the parents. Getting a child back to school invariably means long persuasive sessions to convince the parents.
“ My mother would tell me that girls in our community do not go to acquire education or go out to earn a living, “ says Pratima Gupta. Getting the 10-year –old –girl back to school therefore meant convincing her mother that the views she has held for so long are not valid or true anymore.
To this end, Experimental Theatre Foundation holds regular camps, classes and workshops with the parents. At one such camp at Aksa beach I had the opportunity to interact with Hirabai Lokhande, whose children are now leading and vocal members of the Experimental Theatre Foundation today. What she has to say now is a revelation. “
Education was not a part of our habits. But today even if Experimental Theatre Foundation stops paying for my child’s uniform and books I will not stop educating them. Because I realise the importance of education in their lives and the changes it has brought in their lives.”
Education was the least of the Lokhande family’s priorities a few years ago. Of the four children in the house two worked and life at home for them was equally miserable and difficult. “ After they started attending the theatre sessions I found that my children have started thinking and acting for themselves. They once never left home; today they travel around town. Now I realize what education means to a child. SO I work harder to make up for whatever money I lose by not letting them work.”
The difference that education has brought to the children’s life is so remarkable that it has reversed a cardinal principal – parents now want to be like their children. “ I want to educate my children. I want to be like them – strong and confident,” says Mangal Chauhan of Gautam Nagar.
The impact of the education on the community has meant less alcoholism and better civic sense among the adults. “ We are more aware of our rights and responsibilities as citizens,” admits Dharamdev Vishwakarma of Islam compound.
He is one of the many parents from the slums who are participating in the camp discussion on the importance of empowerment of communities. Most of the parents agree that Experimental Theatre Foundation’s strategy has brought home to them the fact that education is not something that can be sacrificed to bring a few hundred rupees every month. To the parents it is a matter of great pride that their children now tour around the state with their plays, boldly interacting with people and learning to tackle unfamiliar situations.
Another important fact is that Experimental Theatre Foundation’s intervention has gradually changed the social attitudes of the children’s families. This applies in a large way to the women, the mothers of the children Experimental Theatre Foundation deals with.
“Our priorities have changed. Education is top on our list now. We may have lost some income but we try and make that money some other way,” say Asha Gupta. She is one among the many women of the conservative immigrant communities of UP living in Ganesh Nagar (Islam compound). Speaking in front of men without the ghunghat of hide her face itself means coming a long way from her conditioning.
“It is good to go around, see the city and not sit confined to home. I never used to let my daughter leave home except to go to school. I realise now what she has been missing out and I will think more about the education and future of my girls than I did before,” she recalls.
Her daughter Reena is a smart child, a veteran in fact with Experimental Theatre Foundation. She has traveled around Mumbai umpteen times with the play and broken the barriers of a conservative upbringing. But it was not an easy transformation. In fact, when she was to be sent to Singapore on a Qantas sponsored trip for Experimental Theatre Foundation children; her mother had put her foot down. In her community, girls rarely stepped out of home, leave aside travelling to unknown shores, such a move was unheard.
It took a lot of assurance and persuasion of the part of Experimental Theatre Foundation to make her relent. But today it is with a great deal of pride that she recalls her daughter’s journey abroad. Change however is still a painful process. With Reena now stepping into late teens the subject of marriage crops up often. “ With conservative rural communities, marriage becomes propriety once the girl reaches a certain age. WE have had to step in and explain to them the disadvantages of early marriage for girls. But it is a difficult job persuading them to a different point of view, “ says Babita Rawat.
In Experimental Theatre Foundation’s working various issues get intermingled: so a play on child labour will also talk of corruption, violence against woman, alcoholism, right to protest injustice, and the need for civic sense. To that extent, Experimental Theatre Foundation’s activities touch adults in areas other than child labour.
Another important decision making group for Experimental Theatre Foundation is the employers. Several of them who once employed children are now participating in Experimental Theatre Foundation’s mission by joining workshops or lending space for its activities. These include garage owners, and owners of other such small units which survive on child labour. It was through a mix of cajoling and threatening that they agreed to stop employing children and in turn they are spreading the message among others.
Experimental Theatre Foundation’s strategy and other NGOs
The strategy used by Experimental Theatre Foundation is rather unique in that it combines social Activism with theatre. On the one hand there are NGOs that use theatre as a Means to make a point. On the other, there are many theatre activists who use the stage to spread their message, but then stop short of actually working in an affected community.
Experimental Theatre Foundation therefore has cut a new but effective path. So, while it uses theatre to spread the message that working children should go back to school it is also there for the children and parents when they decide to resume education. A Big chunk of its efforts is directed towards ensuring that the children Region schools adjust to its ways and most importantly that they stay there.
What makes Experimental Theatre Foundation’s work effective is that it is always there to ensure that the children who it has sent back to school do not return to employment. The sessions run for parents in the slums are of different kinds.
First there are meetings and discussions for parents whose children have returned to work. Then there is a platform for the youth between the ages of 18and 24 to discuss their problems. Many of them may or may not have had the benefit of education but they are an integral part of Experimental Theatre Foundation’s efforts to Seek out working children. There is a women’s group for mostly the mothers of the children Experimental Theatre Foundation is working with. These women meet to acquire some basic knowledge of reading and writing so that they can help their children with their struggle.
A follow-up group tries to ensure a smooth transition for the children who have gone back to school. There are around 400 of them todate. The group Keeps tabs on the school attendance of these children and also works out their academic problems. This is perhaps one of the toughest jobs for the Activists because schools are not really attuned to the needs of these Children. Most of them are mature beyond their years and find it difficult Settling into the discipline and routine of school in classes lower than they would normally be in.
“ But we do find a change happening among the teachers in the municipal schools. Many of them are now willing to experiment with unusual and more Interesting methods of teaching with these children. The teachers say that Experimental Theatre Foundation children are among the more confident and talkative in the classes,” Says Babita Rawat.
At the core of Experimental Theatre Foundation ‘s project is the Abhivyakti Manch where the children learn to express themselves openly. Each day in the evening they gather at the school and practice dancing, singing, mime, and even scripting. So Popular is this session that children quarrel at home to be allowed out at Time usually reserved for play or helping with household chores.
Activities at the manch are full of fun because it gives the children time Away from the struggle for existence. It provides them a few hours away form the environment they all grew up in and most children love it. It cannot Really be called an escape because even at the manch they are constantly Talking about themselves and their problems and rehearsing plays about their Own lives. But it does give them an outsider’s perspective about what their lives.
The method used by Experimental Theatre Foundation has been appreciated both by others NGOs in the field And various theatre activists. They agree that it is a method tried never before and reveals how potent theatre can awaken the very actors who are the subjects of the plays.
“ Whether at Cuffe Parade or Dharavi, the performance have always evoked Very spontaneous reactions. It always makes the audience want to be a part of a change, to be a part of the follow-up And on other working children The impact of the play has been tremendous,” says Varsha, an activist with CRY who has been following Experimental Theatre Foundation’s activities for four years now.
According to her, Experimental Theatre Foundation’s strategy work because it makes theatre an everyday Event in the life of the children it works for. “There is continuous Follow-up of the messages that Experimental Theatre Foundation’s conveys though its plays,” she adds.
Suresh Rao of YUVA, an NGO that has interacted closely with Experimental Theatre Foundation on many Events says that the organization has done a commendable job of combining Theatre with social activism. “ Experimental Theatre Foundation has clearly shown that theatre is an Agency of change. Social activism and theatre are somehow seen as two very different sectors though theatre has played a very important role in Revolutions. The child- centric theme of Experimental Theatre Foundation’s plays go straight to the heart of the problem. They are a very good interventionist strategy to consentise Children parents and teachers.”
Rao points out that traditionally street theatre groups do not stay on in The midst of the subjects it addresses and NGOs also use theatre casually. But sustained use of theatre in the midst of the people it is aimed at, Followed by activism is a rare combination.
Kalidas Rote, who works for saathi, a project sponsored by Tata Institute of Social Sciences, says that Experimental Theatre Foundation’s plays on child labour have hit their target very effectively. In fact, when Experimental Theatre Foundation had staged its plays in conjunction with Saathi at New Mumbai, about 100 working children had walked up to Rote and Asked him to help them rejoin school. “ We were using theatre once in a way but we found that it was an extremely effective means of getting a message Home.”
Experimental Theatre Foundation’s strategy and Theatre activists.
Those involved with the world of theatre agree that Experimental Theatre Foundation is doing a unique Job of mingling social activism with the stage. A show of Experimental Theatre Foundation’s plays at the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai drew full houses of appreciative audience who reacted spontaneously to plays like Vidya Dadati Vinayam. The play about the Travails of poor, young boy who is struggling to seek education drew Applause for the acting skills of the children as well as the pithy scripts.
An active theatre person who has been witness to a performance of Mera Bachpan is Arundhati Subramanian. The critic-poet who is also associated with the National Center for Performing Arts recalls; “It was some time ago that I saw the play in the sunken garden at the NCPA. I also saw it Performed at an alternate space like Horniman Circle where there was a mix of Viewers – both affluent and ordinary. There was a definite response to what the play said.”
Sudha Arora a theatre critic points out that theatre cannot be meaningful at the ground level unless it can help implement the points it makes. She has watched the play being performed in the slums of Kandivali and also watched the changes it has brought in the lives of poor there. “ Mera Bachpan is so Realistic that it shakes you to the very core so that you are left thinking that at whatever level, I must do something about the problem, “ she says. “ To that extent I find that the play is extremely effective.”
This is the view shared by Philip Padachira of CAMERA, an organization that works on media initiatives to back the work of various NGOs. He recalls that He has seen the Mera Bachpan more than once at Horniman Circle and found that both with the upper classes and the others, the message goes home directly. The play clearly changes one’s concept of child labour,” he says. “There were these viewers – living in this world of their own- and Suddenly you see that they are taking a new look at the problem that is so close to them.”
At children’s mela organized by Comet Media at Marine Lines watching the play is Gayatri oke who is deeply involved in the world of theatre for Change. She has organized several shows of the revolutionary Marathi play Mulgi Zali Ho on the theme of gender discrimination. “ I have not seen this kind of theatre technique is being used for social change before. Any sensitive Person would be motivated at the end of good play. Mulgi Zali Ho had impacted audience in a big way with audience taking an oath to treat both the sexes equally. I see the same kind of impact with Mera Bachpan,” says Gayatri.
Theatre person who has a close insight into the working of Experimental Theatre Foundation is Raj Kumar Kamble who has put in a long stint with Rang Bhavan in Bhopal. He has interacted with the children involved in ETF projects at various theatres Workshops. These include sessions in which the children learnt the tough Theatre art of miming and scripting story ideas into plays.
“Tackling the problem of child labour with theatre is a delicate and serious Process. You cannot moralize or give sermons to the children – they will just not accept being talked down to. The best option is to explain to Children as you would to an equal. I would listen to them and take down their ideas and then help them work around those ideas to create scripts.”
The children along with Kamble created an interesting play called Choron ki Chatutayi. The seed of the story came from the children themselves and in Sessions spread over 20 days he interacted with them to create the play. Kamble says he was stunned at the imaginative powers of the children.
“ What really surprised me was the ease with which they caught on to the Intricacies of miming. It is a difficult art to learn but the children imbibed it easily,” he recalls. Some of these elements of mime go into Experimental Theatre Foundation’s Repertory of plays.
“We in society recite the potential of Theatre, but very rarely experience a theatrical performance through direct participation. By being spectators of a play, we are impressed by a performance, but by directly participating in it, the experience & impression leads to a change in our personality attitude & value”.
---- Manjul Bhardwaj