People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 22

June 03, 2007

Janam’s US Tour


Sudhanva and Moloyashree performing at Haymarket Square on May Day



Sudhanva Deshpande


JANA Natya Manch recently completed its tour of the United States of America. This was the first time Janam was performing outside India. In India, Janam has performed some 7,500 shows of 70-odd street plays and about 20 proscenium plays in about 140 towns and cities. For the US tour, we had taken three plays: Nahi Qubool, on globalisation; Voh Bol Uthi, on patriarchy and women’s assertion; and Yeh Dil Mange More, Guruji, on right-wing Hindu ideology with a focus on the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002.


Janam’s plays tend to be quite word-based, and dense in current allusions and references. We were naturally a little skeptical about their reception abroad, especially if they were going to be performed to essentially non-Indian audiences. We had prepared short, one-page synopses of all the three plays, which were going to be distributed to the spectators. However, in a synopsis, you can only put in so much and no more; in any case, a lot of the humour is word-based, and would be unavailable to foreigners. We were clear, though, that we would not try and translate the plays – in other words, we’d do the plays exactly the way we do them in India.


We were to be pleasantly surprised. On campus after campus, the plays were received exceedingly well. It goes without saying that some of the play on language was lost, but in essence, all the plays communicated very well. Most importantly, the audiences enjoyed them thoroughly. There’s a certain freedom that comes with street theatre as a form, and a part of its appeal lies in the fact that it is not very ‘formal’. This informality of street theatre, its capacity to transform spaces, its ability to portray complex things with minimum use of stage props, its humour and the sharp political comment inherent in it, all these appealed to audiences everywhere we went.


Normally, in India as well, some of our street plays tend to mutate on tour. We tend to pick up local references, and respond to local situations. We found ourselves doing the same there. For instance, in Nahi Qubool, George Bush is being taken around a tour of India by the Minister of Privatisation and the Minister of Globalisation. When we do the play in India, we tend to play Bush as a bit of a caricature (though how do you caricaturise a man who is a living caricature?), as a kind of stock President-figure, rather than as Bush per se. In the US, though, the figure of Bush himself is so ubiquitous, that we found ourselves bringing in some of his mannerisms in our play – to the delight of the audiences. Bush’s costume also worked very well – fake camouflage trousers, T-shirt with camouflage-colour stars and stripes, a ridiculous toy shotgun (bought at the local Wal-Mart, because Bush surely deserved no better), and a brand new cowboy hat (again, bought locally). Our Bush was an arrogant, brainless, spoilt brat, pretending to be macho, bossing people around. People loved it.


Janam also gave talks on street theatre, screened a film on Janam made by Lalit Vachani, and offered workshops. On four occasions, we had the opportunity of visiting primary or high schools and interacting with the children there. Interviews with Janam members were broadcast on radio in three cities, including Washington DC and Chicago. At every place, our audiences were amazed to hear how much street theatre happens in India. When we would mention, for instance, the Praja Natya Mandali with 1,200 units across Andhra Pradesh and a membership of some 25,000, jaws would drop.


We also had one performance in English, titled Which Side Are You On? This is a story of a king and a slave, where the king is relentlessly cruel and exploitative, and the slave forever meek and submissive. As the story is told/enacted by two actors, we keep involving the spectators in thinking about the issues involved – of private property, labour, patriarchy, revolt, submission, and so on. By the time we reach the end of the story, there is usually a feeling of widespread revulsion for the king. Then we ask: if you had the choice, right now, of becoming one of the two, what would you choose to be, the king or the slave?


It is often the case that a majority of the spectators choose to be the king – some because that is simply more convenient, some because they’d rather whip than be whipped, and some because they would be a different king. This raises a question: how autonomous is the king? Does he have ‘free choice’? In the US, we found that for many it was hard to accept that the more ‘powerful’ you are, the more your choices can be constricted, because power derives from structures of exploitation. After all, kings are rulers on behalf of the ruling classes, and therefore seldom have ‘free choice’ to do what they want. In a society brought up on a diet of individualism, this is a notion hard to accept.


Janam’s visit worked out on invitation from the Fisher Centre at the Hobart and William Smith Colleges, which are in a small town called Geneva in New York state. To raise funds for the international airfares and other expenses, the Fisher Centre collaborated with a number of other colleges and universities: Colgate University (Hamilton, NY), Hamilton College (Clinton, NY), Syracuse University (Syracuse, NY), University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Trinity College (Hartford, CT) and Smith College (Northampton, MA). In addition, the group was invited to Purdue University (Indiana), University of Massachusetts (Amherst) and Maryland University (Washington DC). In Washington DC, Janam’s performances were hosted by a number of activist groups as well. In fact, we were there on April 12, Safdar’s birthday and National Street Theatre Day, which became International Street Theatre Day for us! Additionally, Ashok Tiwari of Janam read his poems along with several political poets of Washington DC.


Eight members of the Janam team had traveled to the US, and the tour lasted about a month. After this part of the tour concluded, Moloyashree Hashmi and I went on to a number of additional institutions to give lectures, lead workshops, and perform Which Side Are You On? These institutions were: University of California (Berkeley), University of Southern California (Los Angeles), Pomona College (LA), Tulane University (New Orleans), New York University, Brecht Forum and Columbia University (all in New York city), William Paterson University (New Jersey), and Oakton College and Elgin College (both on the outskirts of Chicago).


We got many invitations to perform or speak after we reached the US, and we were able to accommodate most of them. In Washington DC, where we met many activists working on various issues, we were asked to set aside some time to meet activists in New York. In Los Angeles, we were asked to conduct a short workshop for a bunch of activists and actors on how to prepare political street plays in a short time. Our workshop, which lasted some three hours, ended up producing more than half a play.