When the politics of two countries and an international group of students come together with creative collaboration in mind, the result would clearly revolve around education and empowerment of youth.
In a first-ever India-Palestine theatre experiment, a production is being planned in collaboration between The Freedom Theatre (TFT) located in Jenin Refugee Camp in north West Bank and Delhi's Jan Natya Manch (JANAM) or People's Theatre Front this winter. The Rickshaw Theatre Project, on the other hand, takes a group of Cambridge University students to three cities in north India and Nepal to teach children from less privileged backgrounds, with the help of local NGOs. In its tenth year now, the project is going to take a fresh group of students from a village in Delhi to Lucknow next where they will be teaching disadvantaged children concepts like gender inequality and personal transformation through theatrical games and activities.
The TFT-JANAM collaboration is aimed at creating awareness among the youth about the current situation in both Palestine and India and the historical ties between the two countries. “There is an entire generation in India that has no idea about the Palestinian occupation and India's new links with Israel now,” says Komita Dhanda, secretary of JANAM. “It is imperative that we talk to them.”
The 40-minute-long production, in Hindi and Arabic, would explore parallels between Zionism (nationalist Jewish movement) and hindutva. “It will look at conflict and imperialism in both contexts, given the new NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government and even the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] getting close to Israel and their defence alliances. Our current prime minister [Narendra Modi] would be the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel; we have had the Non-Aligned Movement in the past,” says Dhanda.
The production will revolve around the idea of oppression and resistance with the situation in Palestine as an important part of it. “We plan to work with personal stories—of the actors themselves and things they have seen,” says actor-director Sudhanva Deshpande, who is leading the collaboration. “This will be a play that can be performed anywhere—indoor or out, on a stage or on the floor—with the audiences on one side or all. The idea is to train the Palestinian actors in the techniques of street theatre, so that they can evolve their own plays and take them through the West Bank.”
The TFT-JANAM collaboration is an act of solidarity with Palestine against its occupation by Israel. “But solidarity for us, from a third-world perspective, is not a one-way street,” says Deshpande, who is currently in the US for research. “We also need their solidarity in our fight against religious intolerance and myopia. Both, JANAM and TFT, have a lot to learn from each other. They want to learn the techniques of street theatre. We want to learn how they work in such difficult conditions. What is great about this collaboration is that it hasn't come about through the aegis of a funding agency or acultural organisation. This is truly people-to-people contact, rather artist-to-artist. They sought us out, and we sought them out because we found inspiration in each other's work. This is third-world talking to third-world, without the first-world telling us who to talk to, or what to talk about.”
Funds for the production are being raised through crowdsourcing in Palestine and non-direct, non-government donors in India. Both groups will travel to the other side to understand each other's work and contexts.
Starting November for three months, eight artists from TFT will come to India and work with theatre experts here and the joint production will travel to many Indian cities in January 2016, in partnership with local hosts and groups.
Meanwhile, as the Rickshaw Theatre Project makes its way to Lucknow for another workshop, the members—for most, it is their first visit to India—are posting social media updates of their experience of teaching theatre to children as well as the sights and sounds of India, including the surprise at seeing a lone pig walking around on a railway platform.
Started in 2006, the project is the brainchild of James Norton of Cambridge, who wanted to combine his passion for theatre and children. In August this year, a group led by Phoebe Hill worked with young boys in Tughlakabad village in Delhi on gender issues using games, and with an art school for migrants and their children in Kapashera village in Gurgaon on honing their acting skills. The workshops lasted about two hours every day for two weeks. “We would play drama-focused games, teach warm ups and exercises that we use as actors in Cambridge and then introduce longer activities with focus on improving character work or building and improvising stories,” says Hill.
What were the challenges that they faced while interacting with the children? “The challenges included the language barrier,” says Hill. “At times, when translators weren't as useful, given that we were teaching drama, we overcame it with demonstrations and getting the kids to copy us. We ourselves learnt a lot about teaching. The kids' enthusiasm to learn and focus was inspiring. I have been particularly struck by the way organisations can work together in India, with one charity school bringing in another organisation to teach a specific thing.”
On the final day in Delhi, the kids burst into a spontaneous “Indian” dance before their theatre performance, “taking lots of pictures” and trying not to get “too emotional”, says Hill.
The interactions left a strong impression on one of the team members, Zoe Higgins, who is now considering a career path for herself that involves using theatre to teach children about social issues.