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How Delhi’s Teens Are Leading The Way To Social Change With Theatre

By Tasawwur:

Meet the teenagers who are exploring social justice through theatre.

In New Delhi, there is a deep sense of isolation and disempowerment among many teenagers which often manifests as violence, self-harm, and an inability to build supportive relationships with others.

There is a lack of safe spaces where they can receive support on the social issues that most affect them and build meaningful relationships with other teenagers, especially across lines of diversity and inequality.

Tasawwur, a collective of artists and educators in New Delhi, is working to change this. For the last two years, we have run an arts-for-social-change program that empowers diverse groups of teenagers to lead positive change. Every Sunday for five months, teenagers across lines of caste, class, gender, religion, refugee status and disability come together to share their stories and concerns about the world, learn from each other, and work together towards building a more just and joyful world.

Together, these teenagers script and direct a theatrical production based on the stories of their lives and their vision for change, pouring their hearts into telling each other’s stories to the world, into working to challenge and transform the injustices that affect their friends.

Meet Shrikant

The boy with “swagger.” The one who harassed girls in his school with his friends. The one who listened to the girls in Tasawwur talk of their pain and fear at being teased by boys and men. “I decided to stop right away,” he says, “I even stop other boys in my class from behaving this way.” He tells us that before Tasawwur he never thought he would form friendships with girls.

The boy who softened when he was confronted with the reality of discrimination. In his municipal school, he participated in the teasing and exclusion of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. In the program, he listened to other participants share their stories of being victimised by upper caste classmates. He realised how much his actions hurt them.

In our production, “Silence, Please!” he played a character from the scheduled castes.

Meet Ziya

The girl from Nizamuddin basti who wouldn’t dance in a Tasawwur group activity because in her community girls didn’t dance when boys were watching. The one who slowly began to question the fact that boys were never asked not to dance.

The one who was afraid of the more affluent girls would make her feel less than them, but who found to her surprise that she was actually grateful for a mixed group because her peers not only surprised her in their friendliness but also helped open her eyes to people from different worlds.

When her group enacted a short scene about street sexual harassment, she eagerly took on the role of a male harasser because she had been on the other side of that scene too many times.

Over two years of taking part in the program, not only has Zia’s confidence grown but also her resolve to change the world around her. She says she used to take domestic violence for granted before but now believes she needs to speak up against it in her neighbourhood, believes that change is possible when people come together.

The Power of Stories And Cross-Cultural Friendships

In our second cycle, we asked the teenagers, “What sounds come to mind when you think of home?” Akbar, an Afghan refugee, said “bomb blasts.” The room erupted in laughter. The word “blasts” meant Diwali for most of the teenagers. But as they slowly processed what he had said, something shifted in them as they came face to face with how different one home can be from another.

We watch these young people learn as much from their shared stories as they do from their divergent stories. In an exercise about stories of violence, the group was astonished to find that every teenager in the room had witnessed an adult in their immediate family hitting or intimidating another adult in the family.

The sharing of these intimate stories and their collective sense of disappointment in adults who were supposed to be role models forged a different kind of community in the group – a community committed to change.

Hearing And Amplifying Youth Voices

The arts are a powerful medium to support these young people as they navigate complex social issues, helping them discover their unique voices and stories while creating an atmosphere of care and respect for the voices and stories of others. Tasawwur creates safe spaces where these teenagers feel comfortable enough to share their stories.

The program is co-facilitated with a youth leadership team comprising participants from previous years who have returned to the program in a new capacity. The curriculum we follow at Tasawwur is constantly adapted and modified in conversation with these teenagers, and we seek to include youth voices in all our decisions, right from hiring a new facilitator, brainstorming support for a participant who is struggling or fleshing out details of the curriculum.

In May 2015, the first ever cast put up a play titled “Walk!” at Studio Safdar, and in February 2016, the second cast performed “Silence, Please!” for three packed nights at the Akshara Theatre.

As we move towards our third cycle this year, we are strengthening our curriculum towards our larger goal of sharing a thoroughly grounded arts-for-social-change curriculum with schools and organisations.

For the first time, we will also take our production to schools and organisations to reach a wider audience of youth and educators and eventually begin to train teachers in creating similar safe spaces in their school.

How To Get Involved

If you are an artist, school or organisation who would like to get involved with our work, we would love to hear from you and explore ways of working together.

If you would like to donate from India, you can support our crowdfunding campaign.

If you would like to donate from outside India, you can support our crowdfunding campaign here.

If you have other ideas, would like to get involved in some way, or simply want to say hello, do get in touch at aditi@tasawwur.org or +91 9871014971.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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