“And this is for Colored girls who have considered suicide, but are moving to the ends of their own rainbows.”
― Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.
Such is the story and journey of Sujatha Balakrishnan, founder of ‘Theatre for Change’ who sees the world through the lens where all the ‘isms’ as she puts it, are nothing but words. Born in Tamil Nadu, in a strict Brahmanical familial structure, Sujatha grew up soaked in the political and historical landscape of Tamil Nadu, bound by the threads of conservatism. While growing up, she was an ardent admirer of Jayalalithaa or “Amma” as she likes to address her. Her childhood was wrapped in avidity for Tamil plays that gyrated around social criticism and political activism.
This early exposure to theatre instilled in her a passion for the arts and an irreplaceable love for stories. Sujatha later went on to complete her college and then got married in a rather progressive household, where at the doorstep, liberation awaited. After marriage, she wanted to ask her husband if she could continue her career in theatre to which her husband said, “It’s your life, you don’t need to ask me.” But soon after that, in a year’s time she was pregnant with her daughter.
This did not stop her, but the birth of her daughter aided her in understanding and breaking free from socially conditioned patriarchal ideas of normative. Soon her daughter grew up and Sujatha made a decision for herself. She returned to college after 20 years to do her Masters in adolescent psychology. In 2015, Theatre for Change came to life, inspired by theatre activist Augusto Boal, known for developing Theatre for the oppressed, who once said, “Theatre is the most perfect artistic form of coercion.”
Theatre for Change’s first piece was a 15 minute performance called “Udaan” in which you witness a borderline autistic child taking center stage. With her first ever piece, she busted myths that surround people with disability whilst tackling ableism artistically to normalise conversations about the same. Theatre for Change isn’t merely about the art, as Sujatha says ,“It’s theatre for engagement not entertainment.” The continuous social engagement is an unrelenting political statement against the omnipresent patriarchy and inequality.
One of the core values of Theatre for Change is to give marginalised voices a platform where they can be heard. Their plays talk about casteism, trans lives, mental health, ageism and a varied spectrum of things that are not a part of everyday conversations. Ageism has played a significant role in the personal and professional life of Sujatha. She says, “The problem is you either get significant roles when you are 50 or you get none.” Her play, inspired from For colored girls who have considered suicide/When The Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange, is an onstage extravaganza of diversity.
Sujatha has staged nearly 12 shows based on the same, which has a varied range of actors, some of whom might be stepping foot on stage for the first time. This is mostly because her actors are not selected based on their innate capability to act but on the basis of “who has a compelling story to tell?” Like Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Her plays are monologues enriched with multi-lingual and diverse cast. The plays are followed by question and answer sessions, where the theatre group interacts with the audience to bring in conversation about various issues.
Sujatha reminiscing her shows said, “Usually when we start the Q&A session, there’s pin drop silence. Then I keep urging them and tell them that they need to talk. After which, there will be one hand that slowly rises, but what happens after this is interesting. The sessions goes on for hours together. Soon you realize that this is no longer an audience but a group of connected aware individuals, and that I think is the power of theatre and stories.”
She wants to break free from the notion that theatre is for the privileged and privileged alone. Theatre for Change thrives to bring inclusivity in theatre space and dismantle the structural demarcations of caste, class, gender, mental health and age. Her plays tap the social consciousness that has long been dormant to become dominant. There are no rants, sermonising or preaching in her work, it’s purely about everyday consciousness.
One of the foundations of Theatre for Change is a quote by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, ”Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Sujatha believes that one-dimensional stories are dangerous and limited. They tend to erase the experiences of people, who fall at intersections because their voices are muffled by predominant patriarchal perspectives. “In Ramayana, Rama is the heroic figure, the glorified epitome of good but what if the epic was told from the eyes of Mandodari?” she added. This alternate optics is always the refreshing experience in her works and it questions the established hegemony of hetero-patriarchal norms.
Amidst pandemic, while all performing spaces have been affected, Theatre for Change continues to thrive online. Sujatha says, “There’s a lockdown but there is no lockdown for art.” Theatre for Change relentlessly works to create an egalitarian space for everyone, where stories and experiences shape and liberate human minds. It frees you from the chains of your own consciousness, unfettering you into a space of understanding lives that go beyond your immediate social spectrum.
As Augusto Boal, who inspired Sujatha to start Theatre for Change, once said, “Theatre is a form of knowledge; it should and can also be a means of transforming society. Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.”