“The poetics of the oppressed is essentially the poetics of liberation: the spectator no longer delegates power to the characters either to think or to act in his place. The spectator frees himself; he thinks and acts for himself! Theatre is action!”
It perhaps does not come as a surprise to say that just like other fields, even the world of theatre has been pre-dominantly male-centric and histories of female performance have been suppressed and waned. Nonetheless, the theatre has been used as an important tool to narrate stories advocating for women’s rights and in facilitating mass movement. Since feminist theatre emerged, it has consistently critiqued existing power structures.
An almost similar narrative can be found in the state of Assam where theatre has had a place in history since Mahapurush Shrimanta Shankardev and his style of drama known as Ankia Naat Bhaona. These performances were enacted strictly by men and even the roles of women would be enacted by them. Over the years, the styles, approaches and ways of understanding and performing theatre in Assam has dramatically taken a shift.
Since feminist theatre emerged, it has consistently critiqued existing power structures.
Mobile theatre or what is more commonly known as Bhramyomaan in Assam is a popular medium almost equivalent to a cultural phenomenon. Bhramyomaan has to some extent majorly influenced theatre. Wherein women started playing roles which were previously played only by men.
Something even more interesting is what Papari Medhi from Assam, a National School of Drama (NSD) alumnus, has come up with – the idea of alternative theatre which has been titled as ‘Performed Conversations’. Performed Conversations is a way to equally engage the audience who come as spectators to the play.
As the first few lines in their concept note reads, “A conversation which in its most organic sense of the term may originate anywhere – from behind the closed doors of a bedroom to the corridors, from the tea shops to the streets – is a personal exchange of ideas and opinions where both parties are left enriched, reaching a collective larger dimensions of understanding. Performed Conversations is thus conceived by bringing together two primitive yet potent forms of human exchange of thoughts and ideas.”
On Papari and Performed Conversations, Banamallika Choudhury (who has been closely associated with the project) elaborates, “Papari who teaches theatre in education and for self-development has been using elements of it in her performances earlier. Through performance, it engages the audiences into talking about their own experience and notions on social issues like peace, gender, norms and justice. Performed Conversations is a non-resource based theatre practice where it does not require skilled actors, a stage, lights, sounds, sets or any other resource heavy equipment”.
Papari aims to bridge the distance between the performer and the audience, which is generally the case in regular theatre. In her words, “Although mobile theatre is very common here in Assam, it is observed that there is a major lack of resources that are required in a regular theatre like a stage, costume, lighting and sound, etc”.
Furthermore, Papari expresses that there was always a disjunct between what was performed by the artist and what was perceived by the viewer, something which always remained unknown after a play. So this alternate style of theatre engages the audience and creates a common ground for both parties unifying as one.
Banamallika sees Performed Conversations as a feminist project that is attempting to break notions of theatre in its practice itself – actors don’t have to be trained and characters are not assigned on the basis of the gender. In fact, in many cases, the gender of the character itself remains unknown.
It raises important feminist issues of structures and practices of injustice in everyday life and involves the audience in seeking a way forward. Its transformative focus is on the personal. If one person is able to question and locate injustice within the self and the power to change it, it is the first step towards social change.
This style of theatre is not something that is absolutely new, but there are very few who have tried it here in Assam. The interesting aspect of the style is that it is something that keeps on evolving with every new audience group. Although the primary idea or content remains the same, it is the particular group of audience that gives its own distinct essence in the setting in which it is performed.
Theatre and public performances have always helped in interrogating, exploring and in building new and collaborative modes of resistance facilitating struggles and movements. In the emerging power dynamics arising from diverse experiences and marginalisation of women vis-à-vis caste, ethnicity, tribe, class, religion, region, sexuality, etc, Performed Conversations also aims at raising everyday pertinent issues.
To sum it up, Banamallika states that, “To me, it also has the agenda of organising and movement building. Through our performances and conversations, we are trying to reach out to people with common experiences particularly in the context of Assam and the North East. Identity politics and conflict is one such experience. We hope this will induce actions in different parts of the region with the common motive of lasting peace and breaking away from narrowly defined identities”.
Also Read: How Feminist Theatre Emerged in India
Image Credits: Performed Conversations on Facebook.