This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Mohammed Asif Khan. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Is Delhi University’s Theater Circuit A Closed And Elitist Space?

More from Mohammed Asif Khan

Disclaimer: Just a few days ago, I came across a post by Raqs – the dramatics society of Kalindi College, who had won an accolade for their contribution in the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, and proudly proclaimed their motto for the street play: “system nahi, soch badlenge.”

As a consequence, I began writing this piece about the enclosed elitist space that is now, ironically the biggest street play circuit in India which is bent on changing our ‘soch’ but has remained aloof from good criticism.

My dear, fellow thespians, your mottos are impossible, and by your aloofness towards your own form, you do the crime of undermining its history, and its relevance.

This article might sound like a rant to my fellow friends in the Delhi University Theater Circuit, who get selected in Hindu’s annual theater fest ‘Medina’ every year. They are the ones who have accomplished so much while being a part of this ‘elite street’ – as Anubhuti, the drama society of SVC reminded me lately. They are the ones who accumulate a bundle of certificates by the end of the year and consider that as being a yardstick of their success.

This article is for all my friends who have come to feel that they are activists, without knowing what it means to be one. Many of my friends after reading this, might think that this was a rant because I wasn’t a part of one of theirs or any of the privileged societies in DU, well – your judgement would itself make the point of my article, true.

I had always thought of writing this article, of accumulating all the empiricist theories and epistemic arguments to convince my friends of the sorry state of affairs in Delhi University’s theater circuit. But my fellow comrades at DUTC, have been lately busy finding ‘hits’ for their plays and had evaded the much-needed reading of their form – therefore, my own experience of getting disillusioned with the pomp and show in my three years, would do.

I joined this circuit by becoming a part of Hasratein – the dramatics society of Ram Lal Anand College in 2014 and ended my tenure as its vice president in 2017.

That was the time when any sound of drums would send my heart racing, the sonorous clinks of the manjeera and the xylophone would send a shiver down my spine, and my legs would automatically move to the beats of the dholki. When students in kurtas, with daflis in their hands and conviction in their eyes, would quite enamour me.

Our seniors taught us in quite simple manners, the logistics of doing street theater necessitates simple costumes and props, and in the open, there’s little or no amplification of sound, with actors depending on their natural vocal and physical abilities.

The performances needed to be highly visible, loud and simple to follow in order to attract a crowd. Since street theater gives an experience of a theater to those people, who might not have ever been to or been able to afford to go to a traditional theater. The audience is made up of anyone and everyone who wants to watch, and for most, it’s free entertainment.

The idea is never to garner attention but to wake the erstwhile population from a deep slumber that makes them passive citizens, so that the performance makes them question, and hence see the workings of the larger socio-political sphere that ensure their peaceful sleep. We were taught, that even if one person came and questioned us about our play after the performance – our work was done, for we had set motion to their thoughts.

Since, street play as a form had emerged from left-wing movements in the Soviet, and the tradition was kept alive through IPTA (Indian People’s Theater Association) and then JANAM (Jana Natya Manch) in India, it was by nature – anti-establishment.

When we went to watch the street plays in DU for the first time at the annual cultural fest of AIIMS, we had something different and quite attractive to see. Actors, rather than resorting to spontaneous and quick improvisations had well-rounded characters with perfect dialogue timings to engage with the audience, around 5-6 instruments were being played at once in the fashion of an orchestra, and huge glittery props.

The effect of all the street plays, working itself with sheer perfection, was huge. I was shattered. I was in love. I wanted to do what they were doing. I wanted to make people cry, as the protagonist of one of the plays had made me, that being the yardstick of good acting for me, back then, until my seniors woke me up from my fantasy with their questions. Did I take anything back with me? I had just wanted to be the protagonist of a similar play. So, I said, ‘no’, and that was the problem. The violence on workers, lower castes and women in DUTC is shaped to arouse a cathartic release. Therefore, the result is trivialising and normalising the act of violence itself. Never for once making any space for thought that this violence results from unequal power relations in our economic system.

My seniors told me that street plays were in a way, a revolt against the bourgeois form of proscenium theater and that it should remind people that what they’re watching is only a play. The actors break out into a song, or they look through the fourth wall to address the audience directly. Instead of emotional identification, it seeks social distancing.

In the words of Sudhanva Deshpande of the Jana Natya Manch, “we mustn’t exit the theater having vicariously enjoyed the protagonist’s story, and thereby absolving ourselves of any responsibility to take action in the real world. For theater did only half the work – the rest had to be finished by the audience, outside the theater.”

By the end of my second year did I come to know that they were talking about the German theater practitioner Bertolt Brecht. We started making a play in my first year on how ideology functions in the socio-political realm of India, and how our state itself creates extremist sects through the violence it commits, and how it evades any responsibility of the crime it commits by selectively othering these groups.

As it was an experiment with theater and a bit weaker in form than in content, it did not perform well in the DUTC. Different teams cheered us only to vanish after the play started, and some judges beat their desks in the midst of the play to make us aware that they were getting bored, for the play wasn’t entertaining enough. Though street theater has a rich history of plays that had been eminently shaped by the material reality of its time, the whole focus of street plays in the Delhi University Theater Circuit remains on the ‘form’.

Experimentation and improvisation become a necessity only when there’s a “katta” or a glitch in the performance. All the plays generally follow the same pattern, with a little bit of difference in formations and songs, and the social issue they address. Songs with catchy tunes, angry expressions to show protest, a victim shouting for mercy in the chaos of the sounds of drums with a narrator passing ironic comments, molesters and villains prancing about, all of this culminating into a magnificent show.

A show which, street theater, never was. Through strict repetition of these theatrics in our circuit, the word ‘street theater’ has only come to mean this extravaganza. I came to realise this in my third year when one of the judges actually thought that something would come out from the black box used in our play, that there was some hit behind using that box.

Actually, there was a well-thought-out use of this box named ‘Kalkosh’ in our narrative, through which the upper-caste characters immortalised themselves by burying their ornaments in every period and engraving their name throughout the history of the Indian society. But our judges googled the word ‘ kalkosh’ rather than paying attention to the play, and of course, didn’t select us for the finals. The problem lies with the fact that Delhi University’s theater circuit practices a highly commercialised form of street theater. And we should not ignore the irony of these two words being clubbed together.

Plays are mostly made as per the demands of the audience, not through any ideological commitment towards art and its subversive role in the society. Therefore, political rhetoric is infused with minor Santa Banta Jokes to showcase their awareness, tools of popular culture are used heavily to ensure that the audiences have a good laugh, thereby compromising on the art and the idea of street plays in the process. To add on to this, the whole focus is to win fests organized in universities, and the yardstick of success is the list of competitions a society has won. This creates a hierarchy around the teams, where there are teams who win, get selected in every fest, and those who don’t. There are teams that don’t even get a chance to showcase what they have created with all the hard work put in through the year. Only 10 to 11 plays come to dominate every fest season in Delhi University. It should also not evade our notice – that as much as there is hierarchy outside in the competitive realm, there’s also much ‘ individualism’ and competition inside the teams.

Every society is more or less structured in hierarchies. Juniors fight to get the role of the protagonist in the annual production. I saw, and felt everything because my society was on the margins of this hierarchical order that the theater circuit in DU is proud of.

Our team and many other teams who shared similar experiences were looked at as outsiders. We were looked at as not being at par with them. We were the ‘other’ in DUTC.

We are a theater circuit that boasts of advocating for social justice but allows hierarchies to prevail inside the teams as well as within and beyond the circuit. We are a theater circuit which functions on its own logic. We do not read much and do even less research. We have become a closed and elitist space where new thoughts aren’t welcome. The fact that one director (who supposedly graduated from another society a few years ago) is making plays of three to four societies and getting duly paid for it in one year says a lot about what’s wrong with us.

We have hit a stagnant note, where there’s no thought governing our future, and no going back because of our stubbornness, and that’s because we are not critical of our art. The debate of ‘art for arts’ sake’ vs art for political Justice has had a long history. The question, as to whether art only gives pleasure or teaches us something. But these classifications cannot be understood exclusively, for there are critical junctures where they meet.

Aristotle was of the opinion that the purpose of poetry is pleasure but, on the other hand, he also divided pleasures for those higher and lower, and how one man’s higher pleasure is another man’s edification. He also said that the most pleasurable thing of all was the learning process.

I have heard people evading questions that categorize them, and generally reply that they do not belong to any sect of the politics, but to themselves. And yet, despite the aloofness, their stand remains political because going by the statement mentioned above, I can only conclude that they are committed to liberalism.

Oscar Wilde said that art was perfectly useless. By that, he meant that he didn’t want art to be reduced to a role of moralistic mottos on someone’s mantlepiece. He was attacking the exploitation of art by narrow and philistine utilitarianism. He actually considered art, the most useful thing that existed, so far as the good life and the making of a good world was concerned. He wanted the world to learn to be useful and not the other way around.

I am just trying to make a point about how all artists are committed. By commitment, I don’t mean that an artist has political views but that his political views seep into his art.

In a letter to Camus, Sartre writes, “…. To deserve the right to influence men who struggle it is first of all necessary to take part in their struggle; it is first of all necessary to accept many things if one wishes to try to change several of them.”

Theater of commitment by definition has to be on one political side or the other. Relative to the general social situation, the street theater of commitment is radical. It is a theater of protest, not approval, of outrage not tribute.

Street theater in DU must go back to its roots, find its own voice and culture in the current narrative and consciously examine its position in Indian theater. It must examine its own engagement with the market, and consciously choose its place. It should not remain passive as it has become in recent times, voluntary accepting the consequences of a particular political stance, because it undermines the very meaning of street play while being in such a position.

I’d say that because culture is the sphere where power and domination manifests, and art must be critical of the culture its producing. A culture that inherently reproduces the power relations or a counter-hegemonic culture that makes a dent in the dominant narrative.

We must fight our own contradictions to come to a stand of political relevance, and that will need constant engagement with both, the form and the content of our art. Till recent times, only the theater circuit remains a place in DU, where students question and ask the government to be accountable.

The government has tried to enter our conscience by trying to enter the circuit by organising festivals like Udaan Utsav that are bent on awakening nationalism in young minds and purging any kind of activism through theater in our campuses. And yet, we saw in the last few years, many societies in DU proudly winning large amounts of money in their fest, and signing up to be groomed ideologically through workshops without knowing what they were entering into.

It’s our responsibility to know that the system creates ‘soch’ through ideology, and what we think and believe in, generally affects how power functions in our society. We can’t change the ‘soch’ without changing the system. Our alienated existence in a capitalist system demands us not to ponder only over our social condition of being alienated individuals, but to rebel and rise against the alienators, and against the alienating society.

Delhi University’s theater circuit gave me the best time of my life. It opened me up as an individual to things I had never known. I became what I am today through my engagement with this super energetic cultural front of Delhi University. I loved the common calls, some of the rare sites where hierarchies inside as well as outside broke in DUTC, and you enjoyed your tunes as people from all across the theater circuit would dance and sing (not forgetting the patriarchal aspects of our many songs). It’s lovely to see girls give a tight blow to stereotypes surrounding their lives through their plays, and many teams resorting to non-competitive performances as a mark of protest against the competitive nature of our circuits. It gives hope.

As the Delhi University Theater Circuit is the only space where dissent of any kind is left in DU. Theater by its practice, I believe has made us conscious to a certain extent. But it’s high time we must choose our place, and become committed towards the politics of our art, as I must remark in the fashion of Ngugi Wa Thiong’s – “Every artist is an artist in politics, the question is whose politics?”

– These words, written with love and hope.


Image source: Abhinay, DDS, Mindkeytech, Vayam/Facebook
You must be to comment.

More from Mohammed Asif Khan

Similar Posts

By Vipashyana Dubey

By Imran Hasib

By Meemansa Narula

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

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.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below