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Dissent, Art And Politics: What Delhi University’s Street Theatre Means For Students

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“Arrey suno suno, suno suno, suno suno suno suno suno, oh balle! Suno suno, suno suno, suno suno, sunoo! Arrey aage waale, arrey peechhe waale, daaye waale, baaye waale, suno suno, suno suno, suno suno sunoo!”

This chant, along with thunderous claps and powerful beats of the drum, defines the energy and the motives of the artists in Delhi University Theatre Circuit (DUTC) who attempt to bring forth all that is wrong with the system. Thus, they form a focal point for political dissent in the campus space.

Theatre And Democracy

Theatre is a collective art form. The script is often not the creation of just one author but a collaborative effort of the team. Each play is formed out of a long process of reading, discussing, improvising, setting up a scene, scripting dialogues, enacting them out, editing, performing and then editing them back, as per reviews of the audiences.

This process supplements for the notion that street theatre stands for democracy. It points out the spirit of the practitioners who perform democratically, listening to and including each and every idea from all the team members.

Of The People, For The People, By The People

Street theatre is not like movies where you go in with popcorn and relax your mind for two hours. It is rather a temporary transformation of your workplace, a street or a public place into an artistic, yet real space.

This consciousness of actors performing in a public space creates a allegorical meaning for the audience where they are forced to look beyond the literal meaning of the play and realise the hidden meaning. The performance occurring in a public space helps in catering to everyone and avoiding marginalisation.

The Beginning Of A Protest

Sudhanva Deshpande in his article aptly says, “Street theatre, in its modern Indian avatar, was born in reaction to the Emergency, as a form of resistance to authoritarianism. Today, as we see unprecedented authoritarianism in our polity, street theatre acquires added edge, because it helps us forge, protect, nurture and push the idea of democracy not as a once-in-five-year ritual of voting, but as a practice on the streets.”

Voices that were raised have been suppressed mercilessly in the last five years. Theatre has been one of the primary outlets for dissent. Students of the Delhi University theatre circuit have fearlessly spoken on issues like Hindutva politics, freedom of speech, farmer issues, biased media and TRPs, feminism, gender equality, acceptance for the LGBTQ community, saffron terror, and Islamophobia.

Against The Forces

Street plays in Delhi University, characterised by left-leaning criticism of right-wing politics began with ‘Welcome To The Machine’ by Ankur, the theatre society of SGTB Khalsa College, which brought out the truth and took names. The play faced a lot of opposition from ABVP leaders who termed it “anti-Hindu” and “anti-national” because according to them, it was against the spirit of democracy. Ironic, right?

The play was served with a ban by the ABVP which was opposed by the theatre circuit. This led to continuous criticism of the ABVP and other groups as there was a continuous assault on the democratic space of the campus.

Students perform a street play. (Photo: ANKUR – The Theatre Society, SGTB Khalsa College/Facebook)

A similar protest was seen in February 2017. Ramjas College witnessed thousands of students protesting against the hooliganism of the ABVP. The protest turned violent, injuring several teachers and students in the process. It was also followed by banning yet another play by Ankur.

A long list of such actions can be prepared in the university space. Funnily, the ABVP also has a long history of such hooliganism and vandalism.

Why Is It A Problem?

Despite what these street plays stand for, they are seen to be elitist and known for only competing in college cultural fests. While some societies still focus on content, others are just attractive in terms of their form, songs, dialogues and the cathartic effect their actors make.

Somewhere down the line, the real artistic and the political meaning of this form of protest is being forgotten and street theatre has now taken an ugly form of bulky percussion, hollow dialogues and jingles that are almost too melodic to be theatre.

It becomes important to remember Safdar Hashmi, a man who in a sense, started it all. While he was all in for the solid content of the plays, he despised those who had no art in them. He would argue that being a political artist meant not only taking good politics to the people, but also good art.

A Revolution On Its Way

To paraphrase Paulo Freire, theatre doesn’t change the world. Theatre changes people. People change the world.

Street theatre, especially in Delhi University, is one of the most effective ways to create a mass ideology and thus, mobilise people. Theatre artists and societies in that sense can be held responsible for being relevant sources of information.

In Sudhanva Deshpande’s words, “Street theatre helps create pockets of democracy. Spaces where people can come together, enjoy a social and artistic experience unmediated by technology, discuss and argue and even disagree. Without breaking each others’ heads.”

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: Arvind Gaur/Facebook.
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