It’s dusk, and a slum settlement near the railway station in Maninagar, Ahmedabad, sees the footfalls of people returning home after a hard day’s work. Everything appears normal until some passers-by start exchanging dialogues in animated fashion.
The basti becomes the setting for a “live” play. Utensils, bottles and other workaday materials produce music.
Produced by Budhan Theatre, a group of professional artistes from the city’s Chhara community, the play is based on Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths. It addresses the problems of the denotified tribes (DNT) living in the area: joblessness, rehabilitation and migration.
The Chharas who live in Chharanagar, Ahmedabad, were labelled “born criminals” by the British. After independence, the community continued to live in confined settlements or “open jails” till 1952, when the government released them and declared them DNT.
They now have a thriving community of theatre writers and actors. A documentary on Budhan Theatre titled Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir! by Shashwati Talukdar and P. Kerim Friedman has been selected for the International Film Festival of India in Goa, to be held from 20-30 November. The film chronicles the community’s journey.
In 2003, Alok Gagdekar, a Chhara, got admission to the National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi, a premier institute for acting. In 2005, another Chhara community member, Vivek Ghamande, went to NSD. He has acted in films like The Dirty Picture and Prakash Jha’s Chakravyuh. Recently, Nitin Panchal, who studies in class X, landed a role in an international film, Patang—The Kite. Prashant Bhargava, the director of the film, decided to remunerate him by funding his studies till college.
Dakxin Bajrange, a founding member of Budhan Theatre, says, “The ex-criminal tribes of India again came under government scrutiny and we were labelled ‘habitual offenders’ (in 1959). The community has been involved in liquor-making, and many have been involved in petty crimes due to lack of a proper policy for us.”
In 1998, Prof. Ganesh Devy, founder and director of the Tribal Academy at Tejgadh, Gujarat, along with noted Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi, visited the area and set up a library.
Around this time, a judgement from the Calcutta high court about the killing of Budhan Sabar, who belonged to a denotified tribe in West Bengal, appeared in the quarterly magazine Budhan. The Chharas, traditionally entertainers, came up with a street play based on the life of Budhan. At the end, the actors asked the audience, “Are we second-class citizens?”
Bajrange, who scripted the play, says they were unknowingly following Jerzy Grotowski’s poor theatre, which requires just a voice and a body. Even those in the audience who were afraid of the community hugged the actors after this performance. Budhan became an identity for Chharas, who named this group after him.
The group has performed over 40 different productions so far, including Encounter, Bulldozer, Budhan Bolta Hai and Pinya Hari Kale Ke Maut. Their plays act as a medium between the community and the mainstream and are based on improvisation by the actors.
“We go to other communities and train them to perform and voice their problems on their own. We don’t want anyone to be dependent on us,” says Bajrange. Budhan is inspired by the Indian People’s Theatre Association (Ipta), an association of Leftist theatre activists formed in 1943-44 in Kolkata and Mumbai.
Educational institutions, including the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, and the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), have invited Budhan Theatre to conduct classes at their institutes. “Apart from their deeply moving performances over the past few years at the IIM, Ahmedabad, Budhan Theatre has helped start a new course for the MBA programme called participatory theatre for development,” says Prof. Navdeep Mathur, a faculty member at IIM-A. The course uses the Budhan method of community theatre in which students spend time with young actors at Chharanagar to understand their lives and aspirations.
While many people in Chharanagar, home to 2,500-3,000 families, may still be into gambling or the illegal liquor business, a transformation is visible. Many have got jobs in the last one decade. “Today, Chharanagar is one of the biggest hubs for lawyers and there are at least 250 of them living here,” Bajrange says.