Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Field Note: Ahmedabad, India

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Field Note: Ahmedabad, India

Article excerpt

December 20, 2004. Driving through Ahmedabad's frenzied traffic: taxis, bicycles, cows, porters (barefoot) pushing wooden carts, dogs, pedestrians-at busy intersections the air is literally blue with smog. I am traveling with Vidya to the community of Kagwad Padi to watch the company perform its newest Forum Theatre play, Aasha (translates as Hope). We drive in a minibus that has been converted into a mobile theater.

[Vidya (knowledge) is a performance society founded in 1999 in a partnership between the Pan Centre for Intercultural Arts (based in London, England) and the Darpana Academy, a performing arts school in the city of Ahmedabad. The Pan Centre had received multiyear funding (97,824 pounds) from Britain's National Lottery Charities International Board to set up Vidya as a three-year pilot project. Vidya brought together sixteen individuals from the city's most socially and economically marginalized communities for the purposes of training this group in Auguste Boal's pedagogy of the Theatre of the Oppressed.]

On route, Manisha (Vidya's artistic director) explains that Kagwad Padi is a large slum with an approximate population of thirty-five hundred families whose primary occupations are daily laborers, garbage collectors, factory workers, and "rag pickers." She relates that this is a particularly "sensitive" area of the city, where "communal relations" have been a particular hot issue. Apparently, the area was a flash point in the riots between Hindu and Muslims that erupted throughout the state of Gujarat in 2002, and as Manisha points out, this tension remains "close beneath the surface" of daily life.

We arrive in a dusty courtyard just off a major thoroughfare for passing traffic. Vidya disembarks, one side of the bus unfolds into a traveling stage, a sound system is erected to cut through the surrounding din, costumes and instruments are unpacked. The courtyard is an enclosed space where men attend to a variety of small industries. To one side, a group ropes together a teetering mountain of spent burlap sacks used to transport dried chili peppers from local farms to the city's vegetable and spice markets. The air is full of chili dust that burns the eyes and throat. Another group squats, mixing what appears to be some sort of chemical concoction in large blue plastic vats-the smell is toxic. Children perch on surrounding rooftops flying kites, tugging and yanking great spools of colored thread, cries of victory erupt when a competitor's kite gets caught in the knot of overhanging power lines.

Even though it is the cold season, the noonday sun is fierce. I try to find a quiet place, somewhere from which to observe and scribble notes, but to no avail. I am flanked by inquisitive eyes. I have an intense feeling of being scrutinized.

The PA crackles and Aasha begins with a series of songs, drawing the attention of the assembled crowd (now several hundred), and designed to communicate what (I'm told by Kunal-my translator) is the process and purpose of Forum Theatre. The play is organized around a series of escalating conflicts between oppressor and oppressed. Central to a rather loose narrative structure is the experiences of a young bride who works in a nearby ceramic factory, and who now finds herself in an abusive relationship, having been married to an older man. The staged conflicts are raw, tense, and charged. After it becomes clear that the marriage is barren, these scenarios escalate to a point of crisis, and the play closes with the young woman being beaten and set on fire by her husband and mother-in-law. After the play finishes, it is immediately reperformed. This time the audience is encouraged to freeze the dramatic action at any point, come up on stage, and replace any character that is perceived to be the object of oppression. …

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