Interview
 
Dakxin Bajrange
Dakxin Nandlal Bajrange can pass off as any other young, carefree person zipping through life. But talking to him has revealed a person who has seen fear and brutalities far too many. Dakxin belongs to the Chhara family of Nomadic tribes. This tribe like other denotified tribes is shunned by society, demeaned by the Indian authorities and stigmatized for life. But yet Dakxin chose to overcome his circumstances. He chose theatre to find comfort, solace and lead his generation towards a path of dignity and self-respect. Still this was no cakewalk and here’s a story of a journey of resistance- a battle that his theatre group, Budhan is still fighting.In spite of the fact that the Nomadic tribes fought with valour in the 1857 upsurge against the colonial Raj, they posed a threat to the British. Dakxin’s people were traditionally nomads and performers -singers, dancers, acrobats, artistes and well connected to distant lands- something that the British detested. So they were rounded up and confined to barbed wire settlements [so called Rehabilitation centers; one of the biggest being in Solapur]. Cut off from the outside world they had no source of livelihood and hence resorted to theft. The Britishers tagged millions of such people and named them ‘Born Criminals’ to create the ‘Criminal Tribes Act – 1871’. This inhuman act branded 192 tribal communities as ‘Born Criminals’ and made life hell for them. They were a lost community and totally forgotten when India got independence and laid down its Constitution. Though the Act was repealed in 1952 the stigma is still there. Chharas are one amongst the other communities who were branded Criminals by colonial rule. Dakxin belongs to this community.On release from the settlements, Dakxin’s grandfather and later his parents resorted to petty theft and crimes but Dakxin vowed not to let his generation accept this life. He was put in school but endured years of pain. He was ostracized by other children, humiliated by the teachers but he refused to accept defeat even as his parents resorted to theft to support him. Struggle became synonymous with his life. Today however Dakxin is a graduate from the Gujarat University in Psychology, an award-winning filmmaker, founder of the Budhan Theatre and director-actor. His plays have been translated into many languages and have been performed worldwide. He is also a faculty at the National Tribal Academy, Tejgarh and a fellow at the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, Baroda. He has represented the Nomadic and Denotified Tribes of India at the U.N. in 2007 and in various universities in the U.S. Inspite of these awesome qualifications he ironically never gets to celebrate a single festival at home, as he could get rounded up by the police in anticipation of communal disharmony. He is still forced to go underground depending on the circumstances.It was the unfair custodial death of a toy seller, Budhan and the landmark judgement in favour of the Nomadic tribes that initiated his Budhan Theatre, wherein the tragic story of this unfortunate man was enacted. It got an overwhelming response and set the stage for the theatre activities of Dakxin and his colleagues. Budhan Theatre embodies tradition, culture and transformation. It has become a non-violent means of protest in the infamous area known as Chharanagar in Ahmedabad City. Even today most people regard the area as a ghetto of ‘Thieves’ and Bootleggers- of people who are ‘Forever Suspect’. Even as I interviewed Dakxin, another tribal Budhalal was killed in police custody. A false statement was issued, a protest went up and the play BUDHAN TO BUDHALAL was scripted and performed by Dakxin’s group. An enquiry was initiated. Fresh reports show that the man was wrongly brutalised and killed. Attempts are now on to book the accused. This is the power of theatre. And here are some answers from the man who is at the heart of it.

 Dr. Ajay Joshi

You come from a community of performers. But when did you develop a real liking for the theatre?
My formal introduction to theatre was during my school and college days. I took a great liking to it and would skip school to attend workshops. I was even thrown out of school for that. There’s an interesting story behing how my friends and I got our first real taste of the theatre. In the 80’s, theatre director Mr. Prem Prakash was doing a production of SPARTACUS and he wanted ‘Slaves’ for his play, which he could not find within his group of Sindhi Actors since he had envisaged his slaves to be dark-skinned. He came to Chharanagar and found his characters! We performed that play in the Visual Art Centre and it has become a landmark play in the history of Gujarati Theatre. This was the first time that a Badal Sirkar play was done in Gujarati by the Chharas. Unfortunately after this play there was a long break of nearly 10 to 12 yrs, when no theatre was done and then another of Badal Sircar’s play- JULOOS came along, but it never went past the rehearsal stage. Still it gave us an idea of what street theatre was all about. In 1998 with the help of Dr. Ganesh Devy and Mahashweta Devi, the theatre journey again started and we performed the play BUDHAN, which was based on the custodial death of Budhan Sabar in Purulia District by the West Bengal police. We performed over 300 shows in schools, colleges, institutes, seminars and for various festivals.

How many plays has Budhan theatre produced to date?
Budhan theatre has produced and performed 21 plays and amongst them 8 plays are performed by the children from our community. Now they have learnt how to express themselves through Theatre Art and develop Theatre with no ‘Boundaries’. They are writing, directing and composing plays. But being a Chhara theatre practitioner is so hard. There are around 50-55 Theatre artists and among them 35-40 are children. Some of these performers or their parents have been in jail either as thieves or have had false cases registered against them.

You say that performance is in the genes of your community. Can you explain that?
The art of theatre was used by our forefathers for stealing. I can’t explain it in detail as it will give away the survival strategy of some of our people even today. But you can call it Invisible Theatre! My friends and I began to use this innate gift for social change and community development. As a result of our theatre activities Budhan theatre has become the first theatre group in Gujarat to produce two alumni of the National School of Drama (NSD), with some of them getting rare reviews and awards for their acting skills.

How do you manage your rehearsals?
When my colleague Alok came back from the NSD I was economically in a very bad state. So we became involved as part time workers with gambling dens to earn a living. We did our rehearsals during the night. We still don’t have a regular theatre space so we continue to practice on Rooftops, in empty garages, on whatever roadside space that appears suitable and the likes. It’s true that we disturb people at night but now they don’t mind and let us be.

Your colleague Alok had to put up with a lot of injustice by the local police…
Sadly when Alok started doing theatre, his father was arrested on the pretext that his son does theatre. He was beaten up badly, had internal wounds and subsequent kidney failure. He suffered he died. And then this family had three other members also doing theatre. So they too had to suffer a lot because of their involvement in theatre. In our community practically all the people doing theatre have such experiences but they have always given priority to theatre even though they have never earned anything from it. There is always this feeling as to what we can give society through theatre and not vice-versa. You see all our plays are anti- police. They have all arisen out of our personal experiences. We individually can feel Budhan. For instance plays like BINARE KALE KI MAUT and ENCOUNTER are based on real life incidents of the unjust killings of DNTs (Denotified Tribes) in Baramati and Solapur. These news would reach us and we would mount a play. Even today our performing space is outside a police station, because there is no other place in Chharanagar. This naturally has angered the police. We performers are often harassed, arrested or even asked to stay outside the police jurisdiction. Even I was arrested for 3 months but was given probation time and asked not to perform. But I continued. We all know that we cannot challenge the police at any level; our strengths lie only in talking through our theatre. We don’t necessarily get scared of the police as we know what they are going to do to us. We have a long relationship with them. We just move on. So I think we can call ourselves obedient criminals. If called by the police we oblige. There is no other way out.

What has been Budhan’s journey since it started in 1998?
Budhan theatre has developed its own theatre style in the field of existing theatre theories. I can see the transformation of the performers and of our community as a whole. It was a place where people never dared to come but now people throng to see our plays. In fact Budhan Theatre is reviving the age-old traditional art of Chharas in a positive manner for social change and community development. It has become a cultural voice of protest for the Denotified Tribes. Budhan Theatre is trying to remove the criminal stigma attached to the Chhara Tribe. Through theatre we are trying to sensitize mainstream societies for our social acceptance and are hence appealing for our fundamental human rights.

Apart from the activity in Chharanagar, Budhan Theatre has developed 7 theatre groups, has imparted theatre training and has prepared actors (both male and female), writers and directors in Gujarat, who are practicing the ‘ Budhan Theatre style of Protest Theatre’ in their areas. It has also started its films’ wing in 2004 with the documentary, ’Flight For Survival’. The film won the Best South Asia Documentary Film Award. Budhan also has its own well-stocked library where the children and adults come to read. It is here that children between the age group of 5 to 14 have come, read and prepared many scripts of their own.

Have you been able to sensitize the police in any way?
My father always had a dream that his children should have a stature in society, that one day the Police must salute his son- the police who had beaten them. There are some good people in the police who support us from time to time. I was invited by the police academy in Gujarat to demonstrate how we have used theatre for the reforms that our youth have undergone. They plan to apply this model to other states too. They have now made arrangements for the artistes of the children’s group to be taken in the police van for performances. Along with this they have made arrangements to implement the worldwide popular project ‘Hole in the wall ‘, wherein computers are provided in public places. Our community has benefited immensely from this. Sadly however these positive inputs have not stopped the atrocities against our community.

You had an anecdote about one of your actors…
Oh yes. Last year one of our actors, Sandeep was sent to jail by the police in a false case. He spent 2 months in jail and applied for ‘Pay-Roll’ to give his University exams. The court granted it and he could appear for his exam. He had to go back to jail on 28th February 2006. On 26th we were preparing to perform a play in the Kaleshwari Mela. Sandeep came to me and said, ‘Dakshin bhai, before I go back to jail, I want to act in the play’. I denied saying that he had not done his rehearsals. I insisted that he should spend time with his family but he was adamant. He worked on his character and performed spontaneously. The DNT commissioner was present for this performance. Along with other actors Sandeep gave his life’s most energetic performance.

How would you sum up Budhan and your creative process?
I never write a play first and then perform. I always first improvise a play and then perform. The actual writing comes at a later stage. This process helps in involving all the actors since we always take up realistic issues. Budhan Theatre is struggling to make Chharanagar a cultural activity hub instead of a criminal tribe’s hub. But it is an uphill task and I just hope our voice is heard and our struggle acknowledged.

*Dr Ajay Joshi is a practicing dentist with an M.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication. He also holds a Ph.D. on the role of Critics and Criticism in Marathi theatre. Ajay frequently contributes to the Prithvi Theatre Newsletter (PT Notes) and writes on varied topics ranging from theatre to travel for newspapers like Indian Express, Maharashtra Times, Sakal, Mid-Day, etc. He is based in Pune.


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