Drama therapy

Print edition : May 19, 2006

A new theatre group of blind women holds out the promise to be a milestone in Indian theatre history.

Anyadesh actors give a street performance in Kolkata.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

FROM the darkness of their lives they bring to light stories and characters for an audience they cannot see. They explore the anguish and isolation of the perpetual night surrounding them to convey emotions whose expressions they cannot see in the faces of others. They are the artists of Anyadesh (literal translation: Another Country), a theatre group for underprivileged blind women. This group is not just the first of its kind in the country, perhaps even in the world; it is also a rehabilitation centre for women alienated by blindness and poverty, women who are coming to terms with their affliction and moving forward through art.

The concept for this theatre group originated in a project begun in April 2005, called Drishtihiner Barnaprichay (Alphabets for the Blind), an awareness programme conducted through theatre for blind mothers. Blind Opera, the famous Kolkata-based group theatre organisation for the blind, undertook the project. "Those who came for this project told us that they wanted to pursue theatre in a more permanent manner, as it gave them a sense of identity, pride and livelihood," director of Blind Opera and Anyadesh, Subhasis Gangopadhyay, told Frontline. From these women, Anyadesh came into being in January. At present there are 12 blind artists in the group.

For these women, theatre is a therapy. It has brought them out of their shells and given them confidence to face the world. Deep-seated complexes often accompany blindness, especially among the less-educated. "Most of the girls, when they first joined us, were very insecure, shy, scared, suspicious and depressed. Our first work is always to help rid them of their fears and win their trust," said Gangopadhyay. Speech therapy and physical exercises come before acting classes. Mandira Bera, 25, was blind from the age of one. She joined Anyadesh after attending a workshop organised by Blind Opera in September last year. By her own admission, theatre has changed her life. "Even less than a year ago, I was unable to mix with others, let alone speak my mind. But now, as you can see, I am talking to you, whom I have never met before," she said.

Mandira is fatherless. Her mother was understandably worried about her going out into the world to perform theatre, but her blind colleagues reassured the mother. Though she has learnt music, acting is still a little intimidating to Mandira. "Initially I was terrified that I would make a mess of things. But slowly I am getting the hang of it. It feels wonderful to be told after a performance that I have done a good job," she said.

For the blind, assessment of space is the main physical challenge. The action of the drama takes place within a roped boundary - a stage within a stage - through carefully choreographed movements involving touch and sound. Music and songs are essential in this form of theatre.

Subhash Dey, vice-president of Blind Opera, who also trains the women of Anyadesh, has been blind since the age of two. He explained how training in expressing emotions on stage is done.

"We delve deep into our own emotions - the sadness, frustrations, anger in our lives, and try to project them on our faces and in our body language during rehearsals. But since we can't see, trainers who have eyesight guide us. Similarly, our movements too are guided, and repeated practice gives us the fluency on stage," he said.

The flawless public performances result from the enormous time and energy spent behind them. In fact, in one particular performance of a short play, "Behula Vasan," some of the people in the audience found out that lead actress Rinku Barman was blind only after being told at the end of the play.

Blind musicians perform for the theatre group.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Nonetheless, the aim of the organisers of Anyadesh is not just to present perfect performances by the blind. Their aim is to bridge that gap between the blind and the rest of society, for there are different kinds of blindness, and the psychology of the afflicted is different in each case. For example, one who is born blind has problems different from one who became blind later in life.

"To help them overcome their blindness, it is essential for us to have their case history," said Gangopadhyay. One of the earliest parts of the training includes improvising using their own life stories. Most of the women in the group bear terrible emotional scars from their traumatic pasts. For many of them it is still an uphill struggle against family and social bias.

Rinku Barman, 22, is an example of courage. She went blind at the age of nine. Her story is a sordid tale of alcohol-induced abuse by her father. After the violent death of her mother, it was she who, in spite of her handicap, looked after her four younger siblings. Even now she faces fierce opposition to her artistic pursuits from her family. "They create a lot of problems for me, even beat me up, but I am not going to give this up. Drama gives me my only freedom. It's the only space where I can be happy. All I knew in the past was how to cry," she said.

The confidence and conviction with which she speaks today shows a complete contrast to the person she was before she joined Blind Opera. "Earlier I used to accept everything quietly, now I voice my protest and question what I feel is wrong. I stayed inside my house for years, too scared to go out. Today you can place me anywhere in the city, and I'll find my way back home," she said.

Rinku has realised that she is not alone in her pain, and the time she spends with her friends every day renews her courage to go back to her family. "This is certainly better than sitting at home and getting depressed. I am glad that I've been able to come so far," she said. Marjina Khatun, Rinku's friend and colleague, put it succinctly: "From the strength of this theatre (the collective strength of everyone in it) each of us derives strength."

The inspiration for Anyadesh came only after the success of Blind Opera, which was formed in 1996. Though Anyadesh is a separate entity, Blind Opera is closely associated with its productions and activities. The same person directed both organisations. But unlike Blind Opera, Anyadesh is more than a theatre group. It has intentionally adopted the street drama form to take its productions straight to the masses.

In a country that is supposed to have the highest rate of blindness in the world, a handful of women in a tiny, unknown, impoverished theatre group is setting an example that should prove to be a milestone in the history of Indian theatre.

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