Dramatic turn

Print edition : October 10, 2008

Dakxin Bajrange Chhara: "I am often told `your performance is so realistic'. I say `yes, it's because it comes from personal experience'."-TUSHAR PATEL

The Budhan Theatre of Chharanagar, near Ahmedabad, is responsible for changing the face of a community.

THERE is a big difference between a thief and a robber, explains Dakxin Bajrange Chhara. A thief is one who skilfully distracts a victim and then pinches something of value. No physical harm is ever done. A robber could do anything to a victim including murder. Chharas, he says, are seen as specialising in thieving.

The Chhara community was branded born criminals by the British and is one of 150 denotified and nomadic tribes (DNTs) in India. Its members live in Chharanagar, a poor urban settlement on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. The area has narrow lanes lined with open gutters and litter. There are small heaps of garbage at street corners. Badly constructed houses stand cheek by jowl, with telephone, electric and television cables hanging above or around them in a chaotic manner yet in working order. Men and women sit in groups; some do domestic chores, children play on the streets, and street vendors attempt to sell questionable-looking eatables.

Because of its criminal reputation, only Chharas normally entered Chharanagar until a few years ago. People came to buy arrack and left as soon as it was purchased, says Bajrange. Chharas produce home-brewed alcohol, which is bought in large quantities in the dry State of Gujarat. Most adult Chharas have seen the inside of jail. The police visit their area almost every day. Chharas are constantly harassed and picked up for questioning even if the crime concerned is committed at the other end of the city.

From this inhuman pit emerged a fantastic experiment that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year: the Budhan Theatre. A decade ago, a group of youngsters from Chharanagar, which included Bajrange, decided they were not born criminals but were instead born actors. Performing and acting comes naturally to the Chharas, says Roxy Gagdekar, a Chhara who is a journalist with a leading newspaper and a pioneer of the Budhan Theatre. We trace our lineage to nomadic tribes which sang, danced and performed acrobatics to earn a living. Therefore, since we have an inborn talent to perform, why not make use of it positively?

Named after Budhan of the Kheria Sabar community in West Bengals Purulia district, a tribal man who died in police custody, the theatre began with the focussed agenda of removing the criminal stigma attached to the community. Plays and street performances through the year held in different parts of the city helped create awareness about the Chharas plight. Ten years later, those connected with the Budhan Theatre believe it has not only met its goal but done much more.

Practising for a production called Choli Ke Pichhe Kya Hai? based on Mahashweta Devis short story Breast-Giver.-PRAVEEN INDREKAR

The Budhan Theatre is much more than just a theatre troupe. They are also a conduit for social development within their community, says P. Kerim Friedman, an academic and film-maker who made the documentary Hooch and Hamlet in Chharanagar. In the process of creating awareness about Chharas in the outside world, the theatre brought the outside world to Chharanagar. Young people inspired by performances have taken to acting professionally or have gained confidence while acting and later sought employment in professions other than thieving and brewing illicit alcohol. This confidence building has been the best reward for the theatre group, say Bajrange and Gagdekar.

Such has been the interest in theatre that two of Chharanagars boys have graduated from the National School of Drama, an incredible achievement for boys from criminal backgrounds. One of the few professions that many Chharas have taken to is law. There are close to 120 advocates in Chharanagar. Many others aspire to get regular jobs in company offices, retail or manufacturing. Theatre gives them the courage and confidence to approach these areas, say Bajrange and Gagdekar, whose ambitions for the community is boundless. The Budhan Theatre takes performances to other parts of Gujarat and has been invited to Mumbai and Delhi. Travel and exposure to other DNTs have been especially enlightening for the troupe. It has performed over 15 plays since it began and numerous skits performed by adults and children. Additionally, Bajrange, assisted by theatre members, has made six films on DNTs.

Apart from raising awareness about DNT issues, I can confidently say the Budhan Theatre has become a theatre for community development. It is singularly responsible for removing the shackles of discrimination and allowing the community to integrate itself into mainstream society, says Bajrange. I am often told your performance is so realistic. I say yes, its because it comes from personal experience.

Of course, there is still plenty of negativism against Chharas. For instance, for those like Gagdekar, who in many ways have joined the ranks of the Indian middle class and mainstream society, access to loans and other such privileges should not be a problem. But if you say you live in Chharanagar, you are immediately denied things like a loan, says Gagdekar.

Chharas were classified Criminal Tribes in 1933 under the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA). Constituted in 1871, the CTA allowed the colonial government to place entire communities under strict surveillance. Most of the communities were nomadic tribes whom the British feared as they believed they were thieves. Protected by the CTA, the local police could harass the community at will.

In 1911, the emphasis switched from surveillance to reform, and criminal tribes were confined to settlements where they were expected to learn the value of hard work. Says Friedman: Although the official reason given for confining the Chharas in 1933 was that they were a menace to the city, labour unrest in Ahmedabads textile mills created a demand for docile workers. The Chharas filled this requirement.

The entire Budhan troupe. Ganesh Devy, one of the founders of the present-day Budhan Theatre, addresses the audience.-TUSHAR PATEL

In spite of Indias independence, criminal tribes were not freed from these settlements until 1952. This is when they were called DNTs. In fact, many DNT communities celebrate August 30, 1952, as their day of independence. The CTA was eventually repealed, but the State-level Habitual Offenders Act, 1952, replaced it and proved to be the CTA in another garb.

In 1998, the writer and activist Mahashweta Devi won a case in the Supreme Court on behalf of Shyamoli Sabar, Budhans wife. This is when the emancipation of the DNTs truly began. Led by Mahashweta Devi, Lakshman Gaekwad and Ganesh Devy, a movement was born. The Budhan Theatre is a part of the liberation plan.

The theatre group encourages children and adults to write and perform in plays. Children are also motivated to hone their musical skills. In a short video on this, a group of children are sitting on the street rhythmically playing a sound piece with bottles, tins, barrels and plastic cans. While the entire shot is captivating, what is even more interesting is that each of those instruments is used in alcohol making.

Titled Budhanotsav, the Budhan Theatres 10th anniversary celebrations opened on August 31 with the play Ek aur Balcony, a loose adaptation of Le Balcon, a French play written by Jean Genet. An apt selection perhaps, given that Genet in his early life was a vagabond and petty criminal. He later became a political activist and playwright.

It was the first time the Budhan Theatre was performing on such a large scale in a public hall in Ahmedabad. It was superbly received. Several prominent members from the city attended the show. We are absolutely elated as this means that Ahmedabad and perhaps the rest of the country accept us as a technically sound theatre group, says Bajrange. One segment of the play was lifted out of a story Mahashweta Devi wrote. Titled Mahado, after the protagonist, the scene has an emaciated man entering and walking towards a woman standing on a balcony. The balcony is a place where people run to from the realities of their lives to live their fantasies. The woman asks Mahado why he has come. He tells her he is an Adivasi who has been hungry for 200 years. He says some doctors forcibly brought him to the city. Here they gave him an injection that has made him very hungry. If she cannot help him, he will start eating up big cities. In an electrifying moment, the frail man begins gobbling up big structures such as the Gateway of India, a temple and a dam.

The Budhan Theatre group performing Ek aur Balcony on August 31 in Ahmedabad, starting off the groups 10th anniversary celebrations.-TUSHAR PATEL

Through Mahado, one can talk about the different levels of problems. First, he represents Adivasis, who have been dying of hunger for 200 years. The injection part refers to the way his tribe is constantly experimented on. There is never a comprehensive policy for its progress.

And lastly, the marginalised must not be tested much longer, for if they are, a revolt will occur hence, the eating of buildings in cities. While, this may be a somewhat simplistic interpretation, the theatre manages to get its point across .

I was reminded of Samuel Becketts play Waiting for Godot. All the prisoners in the audience understood exactly what Beckett was trying to say. Similarly, without doubt the message in Ek aur Balcony was loud and clear, says Ganesh Devy, one of the founders of the present-day Budhan Theatre and an activist who has been working on DNT issues. Devy says that after a decade of existence, it is gratifying to see the theatre reaching this standard in production.

It is a technically and dramatically sound drama troupe, he says. This particular play shows that it has opened its wings and is trying to fly high.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor