Delhi-based theatre group pandies’ Theatre will stage Sarkari Feminism from 29-31 October at the Shri Ram Centre. Penned by novelist Anuradha Marwah, the play explores women’s issues through dark comedy, probing the earnestness of middle class-centric activism by incorporating an activist theatre group within the narrative. We spoke to Sanjay Kumar, 50, chief facilitator and director of Pandies’ Theatre, about the play and the group. Edited excerpts:
Tell us something about the genesis of your theatre group.
2We began as a university group in 1987; basically a bunch of college students and teachers who shared a common passion. In 1993, we christened our little troupe pandies’ Theatre. The name traces its origin back to the years that followed the first war of Indian independence (1857). Following the war, the British used to call anyone involved in subversive acts against the regime, pandies: a moniker that was the upshot of Mangal Pandey’s exploits. We are the pandies of modern India standing in opposition to our right-wing, consumerist and patriarchal society. What bothers us most of all is the government-development interface. Most of the time, the people who are in the need of the fruits of development are devoid of any say, or opinion. No one actually makes the effort of talking to the victims. Even the supposed NGOs are motivated by personal agendas nowadays. And that’s what moves us. We work on three levels. The first being the proscenium plays; our efforts to raise awareness by reaching out to the people directly the second. In addition to these, we organize workshops with the young crowd, those between 7 and 20, as the target. For instance, we have organized many such workshops in remote or conflict-ridden areas, Kashmir being one of them.
What about your forthcoming play, ‘Sarkari Feminism’?
Generally, we are used to doing episodic plays; but, this time around, we have decided to do a whole 100-minute script in one go. Sarkari Feminism has been penned by Anuradha Marwah—a veteran of three novels—who has collaborated with us in the past. See, we are a group of around 70 people who, with every play, try to fight against our own middle-class attitude. It’s only if we are able to question ourselves continuously that we’d ever be able to confront the audience and the ills that lurk within the society.
With this play, we go a step further. We plan to confront the audience directly, asking them all the questions straight out, thus turning it into an interactive confrontation. We shall admit to them that we don’t have any solution to the problem of child prostitution or the other problems that women suffer from. And we will ask them if they are ready to incorporate these women into their society: prostitutes or lesbians.
The story revolves around a group that has been working for the poor and the marginalized for long and, thanks to a bureaucrat, ties up with a commission that’s been suddenly inspired to work with poor women to perform a feminist play. What follows is a story that puts the middle class-centred activism of all these agencies under the scanner.
What are the kinds of reactions that you get when you perform your plays across India? Does the response differ across geographical and economic boundaries?
To be frank, the response doesn’t really vary with different regions. The percentage of conservative radicals doesn’t really vary with regions. We have had our share of scary moments where someone interrupts a play midway to hurl abuses or question our intentions. But what really scares us is the optimism that we tend to instil in people and its long-term fallout. For instance, we have seen 12-year-old girls getting up after or during our performances to shout their protesting, conservative parents down. But I’m aware of the fact that we are sojourning there and would go back in some time. The girl, though, would remain. I’m always afraid of what might happen to her, and others like her, once we leave. To return to your original question though, I would say one thing: If we are doing such a play at both India Habitat Centre (IHC) and, let’s say, Ladakh, the reactions would be more negative out here at IHC.
Lastly, where does pandies go from here? Also, where else will you be performing this play?
We are a group that was labelled feminist after our very first play. To be more precise, the press termed our performance of Macbeth, “Lady Macbeth and the Witches” (laughs). We have always been trying to regard and depict feminism as an economic movement rather than a gender movement urging people to explore the other ways of looking at life. We have now fully evolved as an atheist, secular and Left-oriented group. The Left without the political baggage it brings along, though.
As for the play, we want to take it to the colleges since we sincerely believe that all change will begin with the youth. We want to gather as much opinion from the people in their 20s as possible. After that, I want to take it anywhere possible.
Sarkari Feminism is being performed at the Shri Ram Centre, 29-31 October at 7pm. Tickets, Rs.200