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  • Writer's pictureHina Siddiqui

Narratives of Existence

Witnessing Lived and Imagined Realities



Vibing as a Community: Rehearsal Still from a Community Theatre Process (2016)

What this is not:

A treatise on methods of archiving

A formula to archive or to make a tangible document that can be included in a physical archive

A case for or against the politic of whose story is told and by whom. It, however, does deeply acknowledge that representation matters.

What it is instead:

It is a personal story and a way, maybe, of collecting personal stories, not for publishing, exhibition, performance or any other form of self-aggrandizement, or indeed for an archive, but for the sheer purpose of collecting stories. Of people. And in the process discovering the value, they hold for those whose stories they are.

In that sense, it could be an archive in and of itself.

And a hope of a new, by no means original or singular, way of looking at the way the arts can interact with the public.

Disclaimer:

We are not the tellers of anyone’s story.


Some Key Definitions:




Abstract:

Communities in Urban spaces like Pune tend to be fragmented with little to galvanise populations into any sort of cohaesive action. Individuals rely on hearsay and gossip to build a picture of the people they live among or are completely ignorant of who their neighbour is. The purpose of my work is to help people discover, develop and share stories about themselves, their families, communities and neighbourhoods through community theatre. The larger point here is that I think we all – as a community/society/nation need to stop looking at history and culture as impersonal maps on a school wall, but instead discover our own thread in the tapestry of civilization and work for its preservation and evolution instead of trying to save/change everything. The outcome of this work is the collection of various stories representing personal histories, communal microculture and imagined realities where the role of the theatre practitioner is to provide the process work and aesthetic structure that makes the community itself a material archive of the people who inhabit it - the people are the actors, playwrights, directors as well as audiences and the community itself is the document they consistently rewrite.


Begin here…

Oftentimes, the artistic impulse originates in personal experience. When I was disturbed with episodes of domestic violence in my vicinity, I started work with a women’s group that provided legal representation for women looking for counselling or to get out of violent situations at home. I scanned reports, sat in on interviews and collected stories – some gory, some absurd, some lacking common sense to an extent that made one wish it was legal to clank the heads of couples together and point them to the door. I wrote a play with all these ideas and images – it had armies fighting and children crying and some poignant poetry and it never saw the light of day.

Much later, when I ran a theatre workshop for women – innovatively called Girls, Get Onstage­ - because I was hard-pressed to find places where my experiences as a woman could be shared, much less understood; the line from stories of domestic abuse to stories of women was so straight, that I think I missed it altogether. The result was 14 women, who had never done theatre before, leading a small audience to a journey of… them. The stories they shared were about sleepovers where someone thought the house was haunted, of their first time teaching in a class, a first date and the desire to sleep with men with impunity. I remember after, someone in the audience asking me why the women wore black and red during the immersive showcase. It represents our menstrual blood, I said. Of course it didn’t, red and black was simply the most vivid combination all of us had in our wardrobes. But the deep expressions that greeted my sarcasm were an important reminder of how rarely people saw women’s stories outside narratives of blood and darkness.

My discomfort with ideals of beauty and the painful dread of going a beauty parlour to be tweezed, plucked and waxed every two weeks led me to explore the lives of people working in parlours. Though the process itself involved artists and actors, they worked with and documented the lives of beauticians, hajam-champi men and even a few high-end hair-dressers. It was around this project that the continuous line of people’s narratives framed in performance began to become more apparent. The pure value in staging unadulterated stories of people began to make more sense to me than working with scripts. The idea of an aesthetic framework for real experiences began to emerge.

Aesthetic Framework:

Famous Iranian film director, Abbas Kiarostami, says that “We are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it's inside a frame.” I believe that the corollary to that is, to put a frame around something in front of us makes it visible.

My understanding of an aesthetic framework is best explained through a very significant project in my practice. I had always been interested in people’s stories. What they had to say about themselves was and is, in my opinion, the most important truth one can encounter - a truth that is purer than facts or credulous evidentiary support, a truth that is - like the ones who speak it and the ones who listen - human. To deny this truth is to deny someone’s humanness. You don’t need to believe it, you simply need to listen. As storytellers and collectors, I firmly believe, we have the liberty, the privilege and the responsibility to attract and magnify this truth.


The first time I committed to this idea was when we staged Coming Out – stories collected from individuals who identified, in one way or the other, as queer. It was 8 months of gruelling work – mainly because it was very difficult to gather queer voices in a single space and have them commit to a process. The laws of the nation and stigma perpetuated by the people who live in it mean queer existence is hard to make visible, Pride Marches notwithstanding. There is very little anonymity in a theatre process, and a lot of the people we connected with, were not in a position to engage with a room full of “actors” practising monologues and movement work. Nonetheless, we were able to collect over 20 narratives from various spaces and stage 9. Here are a few excerpts from those, shared with the permission of the tellers. I wish sorely that we had perfected the technology of adding video content to print media (like some of those Black Mirror episodes) so I could show as well as tell, but I have done my best to explain the performance context in words: Coming Out: A Community Theatre Project of Queer Experience


Coming Out was designed to be a performance exhibition, a tactile experience of stories told against specifically chosen and visually prepared spaces. The performance on its own is not enough context, of course, because it took six months to get there, but the important point to note here is that the context, like the text was created in conversation with the narrative’s owner. Sessions in movement, staging, visual art went into informing those conversations.



These stories were linked to experiences of coming out, in some cases being forced out - of the closet and became a small archive of lived experience among individuals who participated in and came to watch the process. The methodology, of course, is nothing new, however, the idea was not just to stage personal stories but to come together to witness them as well.


It is in having your truth witnessed that you at some level come to accept it and thereby deal with it. This principle is in fact the basis of group therapy and support group sessions. We simply added theatre to the mix to make the entire experience – of recounting personal history, developing narratives, sharing and witnessing– more aesthetic and interesting.

We sold out shows, we sold out workshops after that – which for an artist is a very good thing, we attracted backlash from the prominent queer activists of the city, which is always a great indicator of the impact your work is having and we moved forward in the process, working with a team that now not just enacting stories, but witnessing them in and gathering them from their own circles.

The reason I segued into this description of what was officially OQ’s first community theatre project is twofold – one because this paper is the story of my lived experience and as such need not conform to any linearity, and secondly, the difficulty we faced gathering people to stage these stories made me question the role of theatre in building community. Two other things happened in that phase.

First, I moved in to a place of my own to a residential society in the middle of the city. I had friends in the neighbourhood, my workplace was just round the corner as was the cool sector of the city – all in all, it was a very convenient location. And as I adjusted to new lifestyle of self-care, I couldn’t help but notice that no one from this society of hundreds came to talk to me, much less walk through the doors with the proverbial casserole. Of course, there were the curious ones who came to ascertain whether the single, working woman living in E2 was a hazard to the decorum of the society with oblique questions about my profession and family, there were the mandatory visits from do-gooders intent on letting me know the right place to dispose of garbage (because obviously, I had been doing it wrong) and once or twice loan sharks came by to make absolutely sure that I wasn’t a front for the defaulter who lived here before me and the wargani collectors visited – because, of course.

But none of them came to meet me - stop by for a cup of chai, talk about the weather, you know, that sort of thing? In short, as juvenile as it sounds, none of them wanted to make friends.

The second thing was that I started working in a basti, I grew up in one, so my privilege was not rocked too hard, but it was a question - in these close confines what value did the practice of process work and story-collection truly represent? And questions larger than that even. How can the story-teller-witness space pave the path for long-term inter-connectedness and communal care? And yes, there are papers a plenty that talk about the health and psychological benefits of theatre in communal spaces, and I read some of them, but I was looking more for a sense of how can community theatre help build an economy of care – the only kind of economy that works for the people in this neo-capitalist dawn of civilization?






I have a growing list of questions, some of which are listed above. The search for answers is an inevitable descent down a rabbit-hole of research, trial-and-error, assessments and redefinitions. Maybe it need not necessarily be an uncontrolled descent. Maybe it is a freefall that goes on forever. Maybe the search is the answer. These are a few other organizations that work with communities, whose work I follow closely.

Jagran, founded by Aloke Roy, teaches mime to young people from low-income neighbourhoods and migrant communities in Delhi.

Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust, run by Anurpa Roy, based in Delhi that regularly does work in conflict zones and with at-risk children.

Centre for Community Dialogue and Change, run by Radha Ramaswamy, based in Bangalore working with senior citizens and mental health.

Dharavi Art Room, founded by Aqui and Himanshu, uses art-based processes to work with children and women in the infamous neighbourhood of Dharavi.

Aagaaz Theatre Trust, founded by Sanyukta Saha, based in Delhi’s notorious Nizamuddin Basti.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but even a cursory reading of the work of those listed above gives certain context in which community theatre operates in India. It also speaks about how we chose to define individual, community and even theatre and most importantly gives an insight in to the socioeconomic and class politics at work.

Thus, community theatre as a practice is about presenting the everyday, because that’s where we live, but the very act of presenting makes the everyday valuable – not just as a narrative but as everyday.


I want to leave the reader – who has stuck around till the end as well as the one who has skipped straight to it, with another list of questions, practical ones this time - to ask/seek answers to in order to begin thinking of activating their own community and communal archiving process. I’ve already made some headway applying this to where I live in and if nothing else, at least I know a few people here on a first-name basis, which for someone like me, is unimaginable progress.


Begin here… for real this time




I wrote this paper for a conference called Performance Making and the Archive. It highlights my learnings from running community theatre projects with women, LGBTQIA+ individuals and people living in a basti that I regularly worked at. I hope it helps anyone practising community arts.


Write in if you want to discuss more of this work.

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