Sujatha Balakrishnan is a teacher/counselor and a theatre practitioner based out of Bengaluru (Bangalore). She is also a facilitator of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. After twenty five years of teaching and counseling in private schools, she decided to give back to the community of children across government schools in Bangalore by teaching, counseling and conducting self defense workshops. As a teacher and counselor, she have been shell shocked the manner in which the differently abled children are treated. Out of this was born her small non profit initiative “Theatre for Change” in 2015 to address social issues which plague society in a theatrical format. Her loved and most successful play on compelling first stories by women across ages, class and gender staged 22 shows in Indian cities and across continents. The debate session after the play is an equally important segment which raises critical questions to society and initiates a conversation on culturally stigmatized topics.
I am happy to start this interview with the founder/director of Theatre for Change:
Sujatha, what is it that you wish to change in your country and the current world with your theatre?
As a theatre practitioner, I firmly believe that any art form must go beyond entertainment and engage the audience in becoming agents of change. It must include political activism and social criticism. And theatre art is one of those art forms that is a powerful tool to address social evils and convey social messages.
Everyone dreams of an ideal world that’s void of “isms” that plague society. Classism, ableism, racism and sexism to name a few. If each one of us make an earnest effort to working towards an egalitarian society, the world would be a better place to live.”Theatre should be for liberation and not domination”, Augusto Boal. Nonetheless, it’s easier said than done.
How play writing and performing theatre can improve our societies, thinking about human rights and poverty?
Ours is a small non-profit community theatre, where we are keen on amplifying the voices of the “lions.” What I mean by this is the following: Chinua Achebe, the postcolonial writer, famously said that “unless the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” All of our societies have dominant narratives which are the narratives of the most powerful groups. Counter-stories are very important so that the voices of the non-dominant groups are not silenced. For example, in our community theatre, we have had very powerful stories narrated by a transgender activist, women cabbie drivers, and the housekeeping staff in large apartment complexes. In India, very often, the dominant narrative belongs to those in the upper classes and upper castes; having these strong path-breaking women narrate their stories has helped to counter the dominant narratives.
Like many other countries all over the world, in India the Covid-19 crisis hit very hard the life’s conditions of migrant workers. What is your perspective about that?
Directly related to the previous question, Indian cities are completely reliant on the labour of migrant workers, but migrant workers have been invisibilized in our cities. It is only during the current lockdown when migrant workers have been unable to cross state boundaries and return to their home villages that the urban middle classes are finally able to “see” these workers. A litmus test for Indian democracy is how we can restore dignity to this essential labour force in our country.
I read about your online event dedicated to playwright Safdar Hashmi, a very committed artist on rights. Would you tell me more about this interesting initiative?
Safdar Hashmi was committed to labour rights. In our online initiative, we paid a tribute to Hashmi through a rehearsed reading of his iconic play, the Machine. When the “Machine” was first staged, one of the theatre critics said it was the best 13-minute adaptation of all of the ideas in Karl Marx’s magnum opus, “Capital”. I would strongly encourage your Italian readers to watch our online play, Machine, devised by theatre actor Shatarupa Bhattacharyya, and enacted by Avantika Gautam, Neha Mohanty, Srinivas Beesetty, Ankita Jain, Arjit Srivatsava, and Maulik Pandey. The play is apt for this current moment, when we are seeing the plight of migrant labourers during the pandemic. Inspired by a worker struggle at a factory in Ghaziabad, called Herig India, where six workers were shot dead for asking a small parking lot for their bicycles and a tiny bhatti or oven to heat their food, the play is poetic, humourous, engaging and inspiring with a strong social message.
Especially during this world lockdown, how theatre could use the world wide web to build bridge among different people?
The internet can be a helpful device to bridge geographical distance. The poems and plays of Safdar Hashmi that our community theatre has released online can be viewed by theatre enthusiasts across the world (including, we hope, in Italy!).The online format was also helpful in reaching out to more actors. For instance, we also have child actors who have beautifully recited Hashmi’s poems. These poems come from his collection called Duniya Sabki, which in Hindi means “the world belongs to all.” Though our community theatre is based in Bengaluru (Bangalore), some children from other Indian cities including Mumbai also participated in our initiative. Again, I would encourage your readers to watch the poems performed by children from Indian cities; the children’s names are Stuthi Rao, Netra Prakash, Satviki Tripathi, Sanchari Bhattacharyya, Agastyaa Dugar, and Atharv Srivastava.
In your opinion, what is the connection between artistic creation and contemporary topics?
Any artistic creation should address a contemporary social issue. This again loops back to my belief that any art form must include political activism and social criticism. When it comes to theatre art, the most powerful format would be street theatre which unlike conventional theatre is all about conveying a social message. And more importantly, it is cost effective unlike conventional theatre and provides an immediate means of reaching the masses. The body language and the voice dynamics used here are assertive and impactful. For instance, Safdar Hashmi’s street plays were all about justice for the powerless and providing a voice for the voiceless. All his plays were performed at industrial townships and labour unions started performing the same as a form of protest for justice.
In difficult times like these, have the artists any duties to deal with them or not?
It is up to each artist to decide whether their art has a social message, and how they want to convey it. Our theatre philosophy is to deal with difficult social issues, and use theatre as a medium to initiate a community dialogue on these issues. We feel our social commitment is even more important at this time of a global health crisis.
Today, all over the world, it is a very hard time to be immigrants, with hate, walls and closed borders. May theatre and art in general help particularly them? If so, how?
In his plays, Hashmi wrote in Hindi, but his theatre group also performed plays by Bertold Brecht and other playwrights from around the world. At this time of a global crisis, we are more and more reminded that our experiences are common, as part of a shared humanity, and we should not allow national boundaries to become hard and brittle walls that create feelings of us versus them. Most importantly, theatre as a form of story-telling is a powerful way of communicating human emotions, and it can be strongly and effectively used to create bridges across cultural divides.
Speaking about Safdar Hashmi, he gives his life for his ideas of justice and human rights. As artists, how can we help and protect women and men that still today face great danger trying to change the world?
I am not sure what I can say in terms of protecting these fearless actors who give up their lives for social justice. But what is clear is how powerful theatre is in challenging power and the status quo. Safdar Hashmi was insightful enough to know that fighting injustice and inequality would bring various forms of opposition, but this did not deter him from actively plunging into these struggles.
Last but not the least, after this Covid-19 phase, what is your dream for the time we will be back to a normal life?
I only hope we don’t return to a new “normal” because the pandemic is exposing all the inequalities that were part of our earlier “normal” lives. My dream is that we use theatre as a forum to educate and reimagine a world that is kinder and more just.