Street Theatre for Social Justice

Article by Stephanie Relf 

Proudly claim that you are a Hindu, proudly claim that you are a Muslim, but amongst all these is there anyone who is an Indian?

These are the opening words of every play by Nishant Natya Manch, a theatre group set up by Shamsul Islam in Delhi in 1970to counter communal violence.

Human rights activism has taken many forms in South Asia. This striking example has shown that campaigning can happen outside the traditional structures of law courts or parliament; it is not just for lawyers and politicians. Over the past 45 years there have been ordinary people speaking into their country’s injustices on street corners, in the language of the oppressed, using the instruments of the strong.

In India, Bangladesh and Nepal, street theatre has become a widespread form of grassroots activism, using art as a catalyst to further social change.

In India, this was in response to the degeneration of political, economic, social and cultural institutions towards the late 1960s, and communalism which divided towns and cities, pitting religious and ethnic communities against one another. It is one amongst a web of voices in the arts, alongside Nai Kavita (‘New Poetry’) a poetry group, and Nai Kahani a ‘New Story’ group. According to Shamsul Islam, “in the world of art and literature new forms appeared which questioned the rot and the establishment”.

Their mantra became realism and change; reflecting the reality of everyday life in India, but not without a vision of hope. The activists have had the chance to experiment in ways that challenge the established form of theatre and express dissent against communal violence and its causes. Mr Islam explains that theatre was originally used to give a voice to the voiceless, the ability to communicate what could not be expressed; it therefore has a historic responsibility to be the voice of the people.

It is unsurprising that there has been a backlash against his plays; people have dismissed it, even refusing to call it theatre. The State recognized it could not kill ideas with ‘stones and truncheons alone’ and so turned from physical repression of activists to adopting it themselves. In Andhra, the police launched a street theatre group called ‘Bharti’, co-opting the movement, belittling and vulgarizing it to dishearten activists.
At a production in 1990, local youth shouted “Who are you? Where have you come from? What do you want? Go back!” but the activists were protected by the crowd.

The challenge of this group is therefore ensuring the people do not forget the soul of the movement. 45 years later, activists and speakers are still abused, and communalism still tears towns apart. However, Nishant Natya Manch continues to inspire and empower many through their plays that are performed in a range of local languages including Hindi, Haryanvi, Urdu, Punjabi, Nepali, Bhojpuri and Telugu.

There is a similar group in Bangladesh which works to address human rights issues like gender inequality and access to justice. The group Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) provides legal aid, but set up Action Theatre to form small local groups with individuals and NGOs to dramatise a social issue. Their aim is for the theatre group to become part of the community and be able to mobilize individuals to effect change. They have had enormous success, seeing a reduction in the number of child marriages, an increase in the number of children receiving secondary education, and rape being finally declared as a major crime.

Another group was set up in Nepal by the National Democracy Institute and the Nepali Election Commission with the intention of encouraging voter participation. In 1990, democracy was restored to Nepal but there were problems with bribery which tainted the otherwise free and fair elections. In 1999 the ‘Project Clean and Conscious voter’ was set up to demonstrate good voting practice. These have been particularly successful in rural areas where entertainment is limited and is estimated to have reached 30,000 people.

Street theatre has been used creatively in different parts of South Asia, to educate, build community, and protest but all with the aim of improving human and civil rights at a local level; to show that communities can exist as a mix of race and creed. They should be free to follow their own religion and allow others to do the same. The potential for grass roots activism is strong and the impact can reach further than we expect.

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