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Last week, Mumbai witnessed a cultural collaboration between Palestine’s Freedom Theatre (TFT), based out of a refugee camp in Jenin, and the New Delhi-based Jana Natya Manch (Janam). Their month-long tour of 10 towns and cities, which began on 18 December in Lucknow and will end in Patna on 25 January, has been dubbed the Freedom Jatha.

One of the five performances in Mumbai was in an open enclosure in front of Andheri’s Gilbert Hill, a Mesozoic-era sheer vertical monolith of black basalt that goes back 66 million years and is all that remains of a ridge that once stretched outward for miles. As a symbol of attrition, the rock lent similitude to the performers from Palestine whose land has diminished over the years in what is one of the greatest human tragedies of contemporary times. An artwork especially created for the tour by graphic artist Orijit Sen depicts the changing maps of Israel and Palestine—the red depicting Palestine’s territories reduces gradually to flecks. In the final image, a resurgence of blood-red Palestinian poppies gives the map a feel of a patterned head scarf (or keffiyeh).

This alternate hope for the future was very visible in the fresh-faced countenances of the young actors of TFT.

Sprawled around Gilbert Hill is the Gaondevi Dongar, whose 2,500 huts makes it the second-largest slum in the city after Dharavi. Here, as old tenements and new constructions coexist uneasily, the spectre of annihilation looms large. As people started streaming in, the actors emerged from amidst them, performing cartwheels and handstands. The children in the audience were enthused. Two actors wore giant papier mâché heads, another juggled tennis balls. Drama students Ibrahim Moqbel and Ihab Talahmeh performed an energetic pas de deux (dance duet) as Hindi and Arabic songs blared from screechy speakers. There was an air of pure theatre. The atmosphere was electrifying.

In a downturn to the proceedings, local Communist party cadres presented outmoded speeches before the performance of the joint production titled Hamesha Samida (which translates to forever steadfast). Political organizations such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have provided Janam the support structure that has enabled this national tour. In a call for solidarity, Janam’s Sudhanva Deshpande prefaced the play with a talk on the groups’ shared history and common politics. The audio set-up was a hecklers’ paradise, with remarks from children seated in front frequently fed back to the audience via speakers, lending the evening an immersive texture that sometimes added to, but also took away from, the play’s impact.

At 25 minutes, Hamesha Samida cannot be called a fully realized production. Indeed, it is the product of only a month-long workshop. A tank becomes the symbol of Israel’s brutality, the hurling of stones a representation of resistance.

The power of such symbols certainly seems muted in a narrative that lacks cohesion or nuance. A freedom struggle deserves more gravitas than this watered-down version achieves, even if one takes into account the context of street theatre and its limitations.

A piece of agitprop, in which actors wear masks representing Narendra Modi (Ashok Tiwari), Benjamin Netanyahu (a spirited Raneen Odeh) and Barack Obama (Deshpande), highlights a weapons nexus between India, Israel and the US and the effect all this has on the commoner. Yet it is a hackneyed portrayal that strikes a discordant note, even if it generates laughter.

However, very clear ideas, like the way most households in battle-worn Gaza have keys to houses that no longer exist, carried a powerful resonance. The culturally significant olive (zaitoon) tree that gives an entire populace a sense of rootedness was a strong metaphor for peace, and the actors, buoyed by Ameer Abu Rob’s wonderfully soaring vocals, kept the flag flying. The unfurling of Palestinian colours ended the evening on a high note. Janam must be lauded for reducing the degrees of separation between them and us.

Hamesha Samida will be performed in Hyderabad, Kolkata and Patna. For dates and venues, follow @JanamTheatre on Twitter.

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