Theatre Relevance workshop for Katkari tribal girls by one of Famous playwrights Manjul Bhardwaj
A three day theatre workshop for Katkari tribal girls was organised at Mangaon which is a small town in Raigad district of Maharashtra. This was done with the help of the famous actor, director, writer, facilitator and initiator in theatre , Manjul Bhardwaj, Father Richard of Sarva Vikas Deep Trust and Sister Rita and Sister Lavena of Amar Deep Trust. In totality there are four areas in Maharashtra where the Kathkaris are settled extensively. These include Mangaon, Roha, Karjat, Mahad. Out of the total population of Raigad district which is around 22 lakhs, almost 22 thousand tribals ( Kathkaris ) are settled in Mangaon. The district has 15 talukas, 126 villages, 98 Gram Panchayats and 37 Group Gram Panchayats. Out of all the tribals almost 98 % do not have any land of their own. Hence livelihood generation is a major challenge. Both the agencies Sarva Vikas Deep and Amar Deep work consistently towards ensuring the facilitation of basic rights of the Katkari people.
The Katkaris in general are very shy people. This may be attributed to the fact that they are very simple too. They live for each single day as it comes and do not plan their lives as such. Not that planning is an alternative for them, still they make the best out of the situations by working hard and celebrating it in their communities. However the Katkaris are coming out of their shells now and are exposed to outside issues and the world in order to fight for their long foregone rights . During my several experiences on the field I worked closely with the Katkaris. After talking to the Katkari women I felt that they were even more oppressed considering alcoholism was prevalent in these socities. Human rights violations are rampant at each level. Whether it is the case of domestic violence where a husband assaults his wife or the case of the child marriages where, by their thirties the women become grandmothers and give birth to extremely weak or malnourished children. All this in the comparatively developed state of Maharashtra, in its Raigad district, which has now been declared as malnutrition free. On each of my visits, inspite of my struggles with Marathi langauge , I instantly felt a pull towards these women. I saw a hope in them that someday someone was going to change their destiny. As I would walk into the village I would be greeted with embraces and wide smiles and children would run to their houses shouting “ tai ali”
The women would share several stories and would feel amused that I was coming from Mumbai to be with them . They would tell me, in their broken language that “ Tai, humare yahan to aise nahi hota, hum apni ladkiyon ko itni duur nahi bhejte “. I could literally feel the sense of struggle within these women's hard life where there is absolutely no security, no education. Their men could leave them at any point in time and they would be rendered homeless and struggling for trying to make a living for their families . Many such experiences had started to churn me from within and triggered a thought process where I would constantly think about how to make an intervention in this complex cultural and social maze of problems.
It is true when someone says that you do not choose the path, the path chooses you. The sense of direction came when in one of my other initiatives a theatre group from Mumbai from an NGO named Stree Mukti Sangathana came and performed in Mangaon and tribals were completely in awe of the play and absorbed the message through a very dynamic lyrical play which depicted the problems of the oppression of the women which started from her very birth. The district Tehshildar of Mangaon, who is a lady came on the stage and inspired the people to use this powerful medium of expression, theatre, for communicating the problems in a town like Mangaon and especially to the Katkari people who believe in living and celebrating life. I thought to myself, why not this.
The idea was born. The problem was the execution as days of my field work were getting over in Mangaon. I thought to myself I have to make it happen. Then Father Richard, who is the head of the organisation Sarva Vikas Deep discussed with me about the idea of having a street play workshop for the tribal girl children. The idea instantly clicked. He said he would appreciate it if the costs were negligible or low. Here came the real challenge. First was to find someone who is proficient in this task and still very much grounded to the realities of these people. Someone who could instantly connect with the children without carrying the baggage of being a celebrity. Post discussions with my friends I realized that it would be an uphill task to find such a person, who knows Marathi, and possesses all the above qualities that I wanted in them. However, here one of my friends Tabish helped me. He told me about Mr. Manjul Bhardwaj and did not give me many details about him but just that he may be able to help me.
My first conversation with him was funny. He had several demands and wanted things in a specific way. Only after hearing what he was going to charge for the workshop I thought to myself ' Okay, so it is not going to happen' I requested him to reduce the charges as they were charging a lot. His response was too inspiring for a first conversation. He said that ' Never think you can not do something, set your targets and go on achieving them '. I thought to myself, may be it was possible, though being aware that time was short and resources Nil. I accepted it as a challenge for myself and decided to do it, this time for the womankind.
After about a month of follow ups and arrangements, including travel, bookings, dates, food, co-ordination etc. the big day finally arrived. I was apprehensive about how it would unfold as I had not met this person and still placed my trust on what I heard and read about him and his founation Experimental Theatre Foundation (ETF) and Theatre Of Relevance . I was also skeptical about the kind of connection he would be able to make with the tribal girls considering they were really shy. On my previous interactions I had noticed how introvert the girls were. In adverse family situations they had never known how to express or accept love. They had a great fear of what the society was thinking and it was quite internalised in their entire body language wherin they would not make eye contacts, would hide behind each other, would feel a sense of discomfort when embraced. I was unsure how such delicate fragile creatures would be treated especially since I had heard Manjul Sir's teaching methods were quite different from the conventional ones.
On their first interaction, the girls did not want to meet him, they were feeling extremely shy. One of the girls, Manisha was sweating so much while shaking hands that a glass could be filled with the sweat. The rest had somewhat similar experiences. After the first day's training , four of the girls were found crying and complaining that strict trainers had come to teach them. I felt disappointed and started thinking whether this was the right step I had taken.
However, little did I know that the following two days were going to be transformational. As the students went up ahead the ladder with the objectives of the programme,the methodology, the techniques, the many breathing, humming and yoga exercises, there was a tarnscendental change in the very way they walked, they talked and saw each other. Ashwini described the whole process starting from introduction. She said “We do not talk about our identity but want to know about others which indicates that we are not comfortable with our own identities” Ashwini was made to stand and the children were asked to identify with her. This process revealed what the children were looking for , in themselves. Some said she looked confident, while others said she was joyful. This helped the children in recognising what their own needs for building their identities was.
Then was the time to introduce the concept of street play or 'Pathnatya' to the girls. About this Manjul Ji has to say that any kind of learning can not be forced onto people, it has to come from within, from the kind of persons we are. Following this, girls were asked to volunteer for the street play and eight of them stood up. They formed a circle and started with the play while others acted as observers, while observing, the girls outside the circle could feel the change that was undergoing in the circle, slowly they started getting involved and the circle became larger as the girls followed the rhythm and caught up with it. The children hence learnt both through observation and participation. As the training progressed the girls were asked to say out aloud ' Hee Jagah Mazi Aahe' ( this place is mine ) and 'Mee Swatah Chi Odhak Swatah Karun Denal' ( I will make my own identity ) inside the training hall and then out of the campus after which they formed a circle on the road and did the same theatrical process and held the space for fifteen minutes and then started to listen to their voice These two progressive slogans were made use of to cut right through the patriarchal mindset where women are denied all kinds of rights , property rights being one of them . At any place they do not get a sense of belongingness. They were made to realize that they belonged there and they were capable of creating their own destiny.
What followed next was an analysis of the vision of the future that the girls had . Two of them, Kamal and Maya were called and asked about their visions. While kamal had a lot of clarity about her thoughts, Maya, though being very talented was not able to focus her energies in one direction. The observers, the rest of the girls in this case were able to see how having a clear vision helped Kamal in focussing all her energies in one direction. Manjul Ji furthered this thought by saying ' Swatah Swatah chi Pareeksha gyaha, Aapi tumhala zagay ch asel kar, Swatah Swatah chi Pareeksha depah atat shuruat kara' ( A person who walks a difficult path should not be afraid of exams that life takes and should always do a self examination to keep walking on the difficult path ). He said those who really live their lives completely do not run away from exams.
While doing the morning exercises the girls were very tired but since it was infused with entertainment and songs they immediately forgot their fatigue and completely gave themselves to it. Later when he asked that what was the purpose of the street play, many girls came up with the thought that it was the medium for the society to break free from its structures.
By the evening they were all set to perform at the ST bus stand of Mangaon. This came as a surprise to me as I did not know this was part of the plan considering the starting point of the workshop. Since this was a last minute plan, we had to run around a little for the permissions for the street play but in the end that part was taken care of. As the girls started the street play on child marriage the crowd slowly started gathering and people were intrigued as to what was happening. This was something completely novel to them. Their eyes were spread in wide amazement.
While on the way back after the street play there was a cerain fierceness that had suddenly dawned onto these girls. Their enthusiasm was the highest in all the years of the lives they had lived. They shouted slogans that said that 'Katkari Mulgi Zindabad', 'We exist ', 'Accept us' , 'We are not ready to be oppressed'. Some of them were laughing while some were crying. After they settled and changed it was observed that they were wearing shiny and starry dresses, when asked the reason for it, they simply said that they felt happy. Each thought, each feeling was taken cognizance of. That was the night when some of them made Manjul Sir their father, while some of them openly said how much they loved him. Ashwini, Manjul Sir's companion in the workshop, wrote a song from their experiences which the children enacted later through the means of socngs and action.
They also learnt dances from Ashwini and learnt why it was so beautiful to dance. They were able to compose the song and dance by themselves, sometimes they would get disappointed that they were not as good as their trainers. At such times they would put even more energy and see the task through its impeccable completion.
Last day during experience sharing I was not able to believe that the girls had written their experiences themselves as they were such elaborate descriptions of what changed in them. I had mistaken them to be in a state of unawareness and was reminded of my own prejudices. On so many occassions we create such knowledge hierarchies when we do not know others' culture. This point was illustrated beautifully by Manjul Sir when he said that indigenous culture is something to be proud of and just because one does not know a certain language does not have to imply that one is not knowledgable. Knowledge and litearcy are two completely different concepts and aspects of life which we still need to understand and differentiate. As he made the children realize that they were nowehere lesser than the people from urban areas and that they had a lot of indigenous knowledge, the children applauded ferociously. As one by one they came they said how this workshop had changed their lives. One of them said ' You have made me realize what it is to be human '. Another one said ' Manjul Sir, you are like my father ', some said ' Ashwini Tai , your heart is as beautiful as your face and that is what makes you so beautiful '
As the Sister from Amar Deep came, the girls who had never known how to embrace people ran towards them and just threw themselves on to her. She was completely taken aback and said that they never expressed their love like this. As I watched through all of it , they came and hung around me and started kissing me . Sister Lavena said that this workshop had taken away their fear , the fear of their comapnions, the fear of standing erect and speaking up in public. It made them confident. She said that the children learnt to write scripts by themselves. The workshop brought a lot of meaning to their life. A few days past the workshop she said that the girls were still beaming and it was something that they had received and learnt for life. She said the children did much better because of the freedom of expression that existed during the entire workshop.
On the train journey I started thinking about how the world would be a beautiful place if it was not driven so much by logic and a lot more with the life experiences, the emotions. I also pondered on how in the development discourse we use the word poor and disempowered so frequently without realising the relevance of it for the people for whom such words are used, Do they see, what the so called elites see? How do they perceive themselves? What does having a successful and meaningful life means for them ? Was it about accumulating wealth or living life in its entirety ?
I also reflected on the power of art to transform lives especially experiential art forms like theatre. I thought to myself if a universal literacy mission was really the way forward or we needed something more, something that intrigues people, something that connects ? Something that teaches more about life than the books?
Theatre of Relevance is one such platform which has taught many people not just to make an earning for the survival but to really live. It's a strong tool in the hands of human kind which can lead towards its empowerment and betterment. They say that Theatre of Relevance has a social touch to its work, its performances, but then what kind of work does not have a social touch? . So where really is the difference ? In seeing theatre as a product or a process ? In this age of economic thoughts and actions, Theatre of Releavance is a step towards the awakening of the cultural conscience of the humankind and the society overall, a glue that can hold the society together, a medium for the revolution in progress.
Doctor Rama Ratan, in Manjul Ji's book says that a person who wants to learn the art of living, a person who wants to experience the formation of internal turbulences and processes, a person who wants to experience love, God and innocence, who wants to experience nature and wants to talk in its language, the one who wants to see the subtle meanings in the evident facts, should spend his or her time with children, should see their openness to life because children teach us that life is so beautiful.
This was the beauty of the workshop and in Manjul Ji's words,' There are very few workshops when our ( the trainers' ) eyes are moist, this was one of them '.Manjul Ji is a person who not only has the sense of concept , time and space but also has an experience of all three . The highlight of the workshop was that the children became so proficient and engaged in the methods that later on they designed their own concepts and gave a creative touch to them . This was the magic of Manjul Bhardwaj's work and I wish there were more such artistes who did not just work for survival or earning a living but making the process of change so subtle and beautiful.
Student of Masters in Social Work,
Tata Institute of Social Sciences,