A forum for the voiceless

Print edition : December 17, 2004

A performance at the International Forum Theatre Festival. - PICTURES: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

A Forum Theatre festival in Kolkata provides an opportunity to the downtrodden to express themselves.

FOR the first time in India a Forum Theatre festival, Muktadhara, took place in Kolkata between November 17 and 21. Groups from different parts of India and various other countries including Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and Canada participated in the event, which was organised by Jana Sanskriti, the first forum theatre group in the country.

"Forum Theatre" or the "Theatre of the Oppressed" was conceptualised by Augusto Boal, a Brazilian, in the early 1970s as a social and political platform for the downtrodden to express themselves - to give vent to their frustrations and address their problems. The primary aim of this form of theatre is to build up a socio-cultural movement to combat oppression.

Forum theatre is unique in that the action is not confined to the stage but taken to the audience, and it ends in a brainstorming exercise between the actors on stage and the spectators. Sanjoy Ganguly, founder and director of Jana Sanskriti, told Frontline: "This kind of theatre is not for the oppressed, but about them and by them. The actors here have been victims of oppression, and through this medium they are presenting their reality. Common people want political space, which they are continuously denied. Forum theatre gives them precisely that". The audience is as integral a part of the action as the actors. According to Boal's term, the spectators become "spect-actors".

For example, in the play "Danga", by the Gujarat team, which deals with the aftermath of riots, the action is paused at a point where a rape victim asks her father if he will go and protest against the crime perpetrated against his daughter. At this point the play and the stage is thrown open to the audience, who of their own free will come to the centre of the stage to voice their opinions:

"Girl: Will you come with me, father, to protest?

"Spectator (in the role of the father): Yes. Not just me. All the fathers of Bengal will go with you."

Another instance in the same play -

"Girl: Will you come with me to protest father?

"Another spectator (in the role of the father): I know I should. But what will be the use? There is no justice in this country. We will only end up putting ourselves more at risk."

Members of the audience gave vent to their pent-up frustrations by coming on stage and taking on a role to voice their opinions. Judging by the number of volunteers, they seemed to be enjoying this opportunity. They came on stage, argued with the actors, got carried away in the heat of a dialogue, screamed and shouted, and went back to their seats amidst loud applause. It was almost as though they were undergoing some kind of social catharsis.

To re-enforce the direct connection with the audience, the plays were performed in the open air and not on an elevated platform. "The reason why we did away with the elevated stage is that the moment we place ourselves on an elevation, the whole relationship between the audience and the actors becomes hierarchical. That is a deterrent for people to come up and participate," said Ganguly.

THE action that takes place in the form of drama is essentially a reality for the actors, who represent their own communities with all its social problems and restrictions. The actors of "Danga" themselves were victims of the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat. One of the actors, Rehana, told Frontline: "Where we lived, the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] repeatedly attacked us while the police stood by and supported them." Another actor, Imtiaz, had to take shelter in a relief camp with his family. "Even there we were not safe," he said.

Most of the people participating in the plays are not professional actors. Members of the Orissa team of Jana Sanskriti belong to the Ho tribe, which lives in the border areas of Dhenkanal and Angul districts. They are all daily-wage labourers and their play "Phulmonir Bichar" (Phulmoni's Trial) is about Phulmoni, a tribal girl from their community who goes to the city in search of work. After being sexually exploited by the labour contractor, she seeks justice in vain. Her own community turns its back on her. The questions that the forum puts forward to the audience are: "Who is the actual culprit here?" and "Who will punish him?"

The various teams from Jana Sanskriti highlighted different problems specific to their regions. The Tripura team, in its play "Aatanker Golpo" (Story of Terror), addressed aspects of the insurgency problem in the State. The Maharashtra team's play "Chorancha Rajya Re Hai" dealt with issues such as the illegal occupation of land belonging to the tribal people, untouchability, and the deplorable condition of the public health system.

TWO performances by the Interactive Resource Theatre from Lahore were among the main attractions of the festival. The first play, "Aman Hamare Liye", was on the political relationship between India and Pakistan. The performance, which was in the form of a dance drama, highlighted the issues of the underprivileged people of both countries, whose basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are habitually ignored.

The second play was about the lives of bonded labourers at a brick kiln. The debate that was raised was on finding a solution to end this evil practice. Actor Ishtiaq Hussein Shah told Frontline: "Participating in this festival was a wonderful experience. It also gave us the opportunity to come to India, which in itself is a huge thrill. We hope soon we shall be able to work together."

The Orissa team of Jana Sanskriti performing at the festival.-

The performances were interspersed with cultural programmes like folk songs and dance recitals from West Bengal and other States. In addition, there were seminars, theatre workshops and panel discussions conducted by theatre personalities, teachers and research scholars from Europe and the United States.

AUGUSTO BOAL, who was supposed to be present at the festival, could not make it on account of illness. He sent a video message regretting his inability to be present for the occasion. "This festival will undoubtedly give greater impetus to this theatre form all around the world," he said.

The practitioners of this form of theatre primarily see themselves as social activists. This art form, without being didactic, endeavours to bring about an awareness among the people by involving them in dramatic dialogue. Because of this, unlike traditional theatre, the Forum Theatre's structure is loose and the duration of the play is elastic, depending as it does on the response of the audience.

Augusto Boal's son Julian Boal, who is a practitioner of Forum Theatre in Paris, told Frontline: "The idea is not to push people but to ask them questions that they would otherwise not be asking themselves. Our work is not over with the end of a performance. When we open up a political space, we can't just shut it down."

According to Ganguly, Jana Sanskriti's work all over rural Bengal has made a palpable difference in the attitude of the people. "Most of our actors are people from the villages. They willingly take part in our plays as it gives them the opportunity to talk about their own lives and problems. In small ways they feel they can change their small worlds," he said.

Jana Sanskriti is the first theatre group in the country to practice Forum Theatre. It first started off in 1986 in a small village in the Sunderbans. Today it has 25 theatre teams in West Bengal and four in Tripura. Moreover, teams trained by the organisation are doing Forum Theatre in New Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Orissa, Bihar and Jharkhand. It has eight all-women theatre teams, which perform across the country. "We called this festival `Muktadhara' (free-flowing) because it is all about equality, freedom and progress. Through this festival we hope to acquaint people with Forum Theatre and the work we have done in Bengal and other parts of the country," said Ganguly.

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