Rehearsal for revolution – Sanjoy Ganguly at Jana Sanskriti

Issue No: 118

‘Even if one is unaware of it, human relationships are structured in a theatrical way. The use of space, body language, choice of words and voice modulation, the confrontation of ideas and passions, everything that we demonstrate on stage, we live in our lives. We are all actors: being a citizen is not just about living in society, it is about changing it.’( Augusto Boal’s speech to UNESCO 27th March 2009).

Tucked away from the tourist landscape of the country, shying away from the hustle and bustle of busy Kolkata, nestled in the bosom of greenery of rustic hinterland, Badu, in West Bengal is not a name one would normally identify with. But unknown to many it has been carved  into the international arena, as it attracts drones of foreigners each year, who come here in a pilgrimage of sorts, to visit ‘Jana Sanskriti’. Its pioneer and artistic director, Sanjoy Ganguly , has been practicing the Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) for the last 31 years, at this centre. Falling in stride with Augusto Boal, his mentor, he is a much sought after figure in the Political theatre landscape.


I met Sanjoy in Srilanka on a recent visit, and his non- assuming persona, wouldn’t have attracted a second glance. But talking to him revealed an identity deeply committed to the cause of the oppressed, which attracted me to follow him to his place of work, in this remote village, which was already buzzing with practitioners of this kind of theatre, from their respective countries, with a unflinching zeal to reach to the masses and incite an intellectual debate to address issues pertinent to their lives. What intrigues me was the assortment of participants, grey haired and the bubbly youth, who mingled at this workshop from over 14 countries. Their pierced ears, unkempt hair, carefree laughter and jokes, could have caught me unaware and disillusioned me to think of them as those many, seeking the ‘Oriental exotic’, but a private conversation, convinced me otherwise. Their involvement with the oppressed and their urge to reach out was compelling. They had stories of horror, corruption, migration, trafficking, red- tape, bureaucracy and abuse, things they grappled with on a daily basis, while they intrepidly adopted the approach of the ’TO’ to address these issues. And for this they seek Jana Sanskriti, a nodal point, for inputs and training.

Jana Sanskriti’s journey began from a small village in the Sunderbans in 1985. Today it has 80 satellite theatre teams in West Bengal ( Mostly in the districts South and North 24 Paraganas and Purulia), two In Tripura, two in Jharkhand, one each in New Delhi and Orissa. Teams have also been formed in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Karnataka. These teams reach to at least 2,00,000 spectators every year. It follows the philosophy of Augusto Boal, Brazilian theorist and Theatre practitioner, who first conceptualized this form of theatre, where the oppressed speak, act and express their social will.

Here, members of the theatre team select, construct, and recount a social problem from their daily lives. With artistic direction, this play is taken to an audience, who must now find a solution to the problem. Passive ‘spectators’ then become ‘Spect-actors’, who come onto the stage to enact the solutions by debating with trained activists about the viability of the solutions suggested. Thus individuals publicly engage in tackling a problem that has thus far goaded the most profound cultural silence and acceptance.

Apart from these training schedules, Jana Sanskriti has reached to school children in the impoverished areas of West Bengal, trying to bring about a fundamental and pedagogical improvement to the prescribed syllabus using theatre, arts, music and painting, while dealing with patriarchy through theatre. They also organise a Bi- Annual International forum theatre festival since 2004,’Muktadhara’, which brings together practitioners of TO from India and across the world. It has also initiated the Jana Sanskriti International Research and Resource institute (JSIRRI), which proposes to build connections and establish a cultural dialogue between the global North and South.

Jana Sanskriti (Bengali for “People’s Culture’) mixes Indian folk theatre with the political action of Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed. Teams of actors perform plays in their villages, enacting the problems of rural society- Patriarchy, sexism, alcoholism, religious hegemony, imperialism, political corruption. This ‘Forum Theatre’ is a rehearsal for reality. By touring and returning to the villages several times, Jana Sanskriti multiplies their movement, fostering more Forum Theatre teams who answer the needs of their communities.

Browsing through the history made the intent of TO clear. But as I sat through watching the methodology used in creating the play, I was intrigued and until the next step was conceived, it was difficult to imagine what was to follow. However one thing was evident. The pedagogy used was not directed towards creating ‘Actors’ and encouraging them to hone their skills, as it was towards leading them to form a collective.

The routine would start as regular warm up exercises, commonly used in theatre training. Then they worked on frozen images and compositions : individually as well as in pairs and groups. Various emotions, expressions, body movements, pace, speech etc were introduced at various stages of the training, but each culminated in the formation of still images. Slowly groups were formed and this sequence was repeated. Once this routine was set, each group was asked to respond to the image created by the other; to interpret it. First as single words, then sentences. A narrator from the group would then tell a story, which could be personal or fictitious. The collective would then arrange the prominent stages in the story in a linear narrative and present it as a series of still images without any sound or conversation. It was almost similar to the concept of ‘frames’ in cinema. After this, the groups were asked to ‘dynamise’ these stills and subsequently add conversations, sound, music etc, as also introducing props as required. This led to  progression using rudimentary elements of storytelling. Improvisations and rehearsals would then follow, to give shape to the final presentation. Once a routine in images and movements is established and a definitive story emerges, a text is created with collective inputs of the group. (If one were to watch the methodology used carefully, the still images come first, then these stills merge with other stills to form a collective. Then these are dynamised. Only after this one probes to see if a story is thus emerging from it. However in conventional theatre, often a story is in place and its progress is represented on stage through compositions and movement (blocking). It is also important to understand that the final aim is not to necessarily arrive at a devised play.) This play is then taken in front of the audience and staged. In this form of theatre,  a ‘Joker’ (Portuguese for ‘Facilitator’), enters the stage after the show and recapitulates the events that have transpired. In this kind of political theatre, one can spot the ‘Protagonist’, ‘Oppressor’ and the ‘Oppressed’.

The Joker now intervenes and asks the audience if they are convinced with what has been show. Since it is a ‘political’ play or then has a ‘politic’ in it, there is friction and argument. He invites the audience members to come onto the stage and take on the position of some of the characters (mostly the Oppressed) and then argue for a different approach to the sequence shown in the story, and lead the play as he wishes to. This is a highly interactive and participatory part of the evening and can go on longer than the actual performance and is encouraged in this theatre practice. The idea is not so much as to find alternate solutions as it is to make the viewers think, be bold enough to participate in discussions and articulate their thoughts rationally.

Watching all this was a unique experience. In the beginning I had been apprehensive but was now fascinated. To see ordinary village folk speak their mind with such lucidity and offer such interesting solutions and observations in a fearless manner, was inspiring. In the whole business of making this play, there was a palpable sense of democracy and collective participation, which seem to confluence with the ideology and intent of ‘TO’.

As Sanjoy Ganguly explained,  ‘To me theatre is a social metaphor. It needs to connect with the villagers through an idea of abstraction. They connect more with movements and images than a written text narration. Our’s is a non-party political activity using theatre for the masses. Jana Sanskriti is a political space for marginalised people; a space that allows them to talk and develop an understanding about their issues. It’s a democratic space for doing politics through theatre, where people script power in theatre and in collective action, making them ‘Spect- Activists’. We fundamentally think that people are essentially intellectual and, secondly that the ‘TO’ is a politics of creating connections and transforming society.’

‘Boal called the ‘TO’ a  ‘Rehearsal for revolution’. We at Jana Sanskriti extend it by saying that it is a ‘Theatre for total revolution’, meaning evolving people as intellectuals, helping them internalise the issues and deal with them rationally. The aim is to develop an objectivity which will help people to discover irrationality in tradition and in the modern exploitative system. But we have to be careful of branding anything as tradition or modern. We have to find where rationality exists: that’s the search, that’s the exercise. It is not a problem solving endeavour. ‘TO’ is intended to ensure this rational act. That is why it is anti-system’.

‘TO ‘is based on a cultural dialogue, where the ‘I’ should be replaced by ‘WE’. Otherwise we will not create rational thinkers, rather create followers. This will hamper the main intent of this theatre.’

‘Human rights to me is a space where people intellectually grow and discover their ability to think and have the rationale to examine society. When you prevent people from having such an understanding, you are creating a culture of monologues. It’s a didactic way of approaching development.’

‘Our methodology revolves around creating ‘Structural beauty’ through images and aesthetics, which deals with the joy of learning. And I personally believe that this journey has to be from ‘effect to cause’. It is a journey from ‘knowing’ to ‘understanding’, from ‘being’ to ‘becoming’. It then makes it a Theatre ‘OF’ the Oppressed. It saddens me when people practice it to make their Resumes attractive, when it seems to become the Theatre ‘FOR’ the oppressed, run by such people. We respect and regard the collective, so an individual becomes important.’

‘After the show we want our audience to go back angry, frustrated, disappointed, and intellectually incomplete. This will make them think rationally. Here we perform at least three times in front of the same audience. This is important to make them ‘Spec-actors’. The intervention that follows will make them ‘Spec-activists’. So there is a need for constant engagement with the community. Only then will ‘TO’ work, or else this exercise is futile. ‘TO’ has to be a dedicated and happy political space treated not as a party but a movement.’

This workshop that I witnessed had two components – the training in the method of ‘TO’ and the application in front of an audience of the community. Having seen the former, I couldn’t stay back for the latter. Observing the methodology used, had raised enough queries in my mind. For a person exposed to the routine theatrical training methods, whether western or purely Indian, this difference in approach needed further critique. I was curious and definitely unsettled and apprehensive, of what would transpire on the field. As I unhesitatingly made my resolve to attend Part 2 of the session, I wondered whether it would quench my thirst for knowledge and understanding of the application of this form of theatre or then lead me further into the labyrinth of unanswered questions. Let’s see. I look forward to it!

Dr. Ajay Joshi is a practicing dentist, with a PhD in theatre criticism and an MA in Journalism and Mass Communication. He has freelanced as a theatre journalist for publications like Times of India, Indian Express, Saakal, PtNotes, Himal etc. He is involved in theatre as a media person, organiser, coordinator, judge and teacher.

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