Is there a place for theatre in a place of war?
This is the question with which Nandita Dinesh began her work in theatre, after she got the Watson fellowship in 2007. She was then a student at the New York University, pursuing her Masters in Performance Studies. Since then, she has travelled to Guatemala, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Kashmir, and many other places that have survived years of war. The intention is to use theatre to address conflict.
On the evening of June 18, we are in the well-lit gallery of Atta Galaata for readings from Theatre and War – Notes from the Field, an account of Dinesh’s experiences in ‘theatre-in-war interventions.’
Nandita Dinesh stands tall – her back straight, shoulders never slumping, in black kurta and trousers. She has a kind face and smiling eyes. I’m reassured by this when I goof up soon as she begins talking. I’m trying to locate the recorder on my mobile and instead Google Speak comes on, loudly announcing a request to repeat myself. I actually don’t mind repeating that, Dinesh says even as I break into numerous apologies and the audience chuckles.
There are two narratives in the book, she says. One is theoretical and the other, personal. She chooses the personal for her reading.
Dinesh firmly holds the book in her right hand and begins to read. With her left, she is gesturing. She narrates her experience of watching a theatre troupe perform in Northern Uganda. She was intrigued because they were performing at the Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camp. And this was the ‘essence’ of her kind of work. Her voice is loud and booms across the gallery. The man sitting at the counter looks up, impressed, like all of us, when we first hear her.
A woman walks in quietly with her year-old toddler and Dinesh stops to welcome them. The duo become shy and walks quickly towards the empty seats in the last row.
There is a moment during the reading when her eyes soften and her voice follows.
There is one moment from that afternoon that I still remember vividly. At the beginning of the play, the audience had been warned, “There will be a scene where actors will come out dressed in rebel uniforms. When this happens, please do not worry, they are only actors”, we were told. We were not told when in the play this would happen, just that it was going to occur. An hour into the play, during the church scene mentioned above, men in camouflage burst upon the stage. My heart lurched. I thought they were the rebels. And I wasn’t alone. Every child in the audience leapt up from her seat and began to run. Some crying, others just fleeing. In a war that had primarily brutalized children, the kids had been warned from very young ages to run when they think the rebels are coming. The rebels came — on stage — and run they did.
Heads nodded, and eyes widened in empathy as she stopped with this. The woman sitting in front of me is wearing a black silk shirt with shining embroidery on it. She has lowered her face so that her specs slide a little on her nose. She puts her left hand on her chin and watches intently and not even for a second does she take her eyes off Dinesh. She sits like this for the rest of the reading – her gaze fixed on Dinesh.
This is Dinesh’s mother and the audience know this because before the reading began, the woman told Dinesh ‘papa wanted me to sit with him in the back but it’s ok, I’ll sit here’
Dinesh welcomes the questions which pour in one after the other without break. The first one makes her giggle.
Dinesh has spent the last year working on a project based on the Kashmir conflict and someone wants to know if this 24- hours- play (performed in July in Pune) is actually like reality TV.
Hopefully nothing like it, she says and adds that the whole idea is to make the audience feel comfortable enough to ask questions.
When she began work on the Kashmir project, language was a problem. She managed with Hindi, she says and it worked out quite well because their Hindi (in Kashmir) and hers were equally broken and so a certain parity was achieved.
The next question had the audience giggling because her father asked her how she handled fear.
Everybody turned around to see the man in blue shirt who, as the evening progressed, didn’t let anybody forget that he was indeed Nandita Dinesh’s father.
Well, in Rwanda, I handled fear rather well – I drank a lot, she winks, and the audience cheers. But in Kashmir, right after Burhan Wani’s death, there was curfew and so much tension that I had to leave early. I deal with fear case by case now, she adds.
How is what you are doing going to help Kashmir?
The question seemed to have been hanging in the air all evening for her and everybody’s father and her answer brought it down in one swing.
What I do is not to help them; I know I cannot help them. It’s for the non-Kashmiris, for people like me. I am my target audience. The girl behind me nodded so fiercely that she knocked her bag down.
The session ended with the ‘Why do you do what you do?’ question from a man whose daughter was on his lap, pulling out large books from the shelf next to them (I don’t know what else I’d rather be doing).
Dinesh and I are now sitting at one of the coffee tables in Atta Galaata. We talk about her book and I am curious that she didn’t bring any books to sell. It’s available online for free, don’t buy it, she says, over and over.
Open Book Publishers is a UK based publication house. Its free online books are currently being accessed by over 20,000 readers each month in more than 200 countries.
A young girl stops at our table to ask Dinesh if she’d be performing in Bangalore soon. Not soon, says Dinesh and invites the girl to Pune where the performance is scheduled during the last week of July.
Is it because it is Harry Potter’s birthday then, the girl asks excitedly. Why else, says Dinesh.
For some of us, politics is more important than art and for some of us, the opposite is important. For Dinesh, Politics and art are equal. What does she do to convince people that her work is just as important? I don’t, she says simply. My work is a good enough answer.
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