by Mridu Khullar
- India / USA -
A theatre troupe consisting of unemployed job seekers, hawkers on the streets of Kolkata, India, and people who've been told they have no prospects in life, come together each evening to sing, dance and hone their acting skills.
Earning little more than Rs. 100 (US$2) per show, they perform in small theatres, villages, local parks, even on the roadside.
Their movements are perfectly coordinated, their dramatically delivered dialogues impressive. And it's only when you see the ropes placed strategically around the stage to demarcate the boundaries that you begin to question, that you look closer and realize—almost all the performers in the troupe of Anyadesh are blind.
Anyadesh, which literally translates to "another world," was formed in January 2006 by Subhasis Gangopadhyay, 47, with the aim of spreading the message that blindness may be a physical handicap, but it doesn't have to be a mental or emotional one. The group integrates blind people into the world of the sighted by having them perform with, and in front of, sighted audiences across the state of West Bengal.
This morning, the troupe is performing in a small village, Machlandapur, on the outskirts of Kolkata. The drama is based loosely on Chandalika, a play by Rabindranath Tagore, Asia’s first Nobel laureate, and focuses on the problems faced by visually impaired people in today's society.
The performance goes smoothly. The singers and the instruments are live. The flute. The harmonium. The tabla. In the background, a cow moos. No one notices. It's all part of the ambiance.
A common curiosity among audiences is what prompts the troupe of Anyadesh to have blind and sighted members perform together. "It's an interactive process," says Gangopadhyay. "By having them act together, we're helping them develop a comfort level with the other side so that they can understand each other better. Blind people shouldn't have to live life communicating only with other blind people. This helps them come out into the world."
The act itself is unique in many ways. For these actors who've never actually "seen" good acting, but only experienced it, the emotion truly does have to come from within. They have no way of knowing what their facial expressions will translate to, and therefore, it's essential that they not only intimately know their characters, but feel their emotions as well. They have to master the art form at a much deeper level than their sighted counterparts.
Once the play ends, one of the blind actors, Subhash Dey, 37, gets up and asks the audience members to come up on stage and touch them. "We can't see how many people are in the audience," he says. "So we'd like to get a sense of how many people are present here."
One by one, people walk over to the performance area, many of them glad to get the chance to interact with this talented group. Some hug them, others give them light pecks on the cheek, a few offer them sweets.
One man doesn’t get up with everyone else. As people walk towards the stage, he sits glued to his chair. Seconds later, he swiftly wipes his eye with the back of a hand, looks around to make sure no one saw it, and then walks over to the actors.
Theatre as therapy
She moves her hands over the contours of my face, through the length of my hair, over the curves of my shoulders. I let her feel the shape of my eyebrows, let her explore the texture of my skin.
"You're beautiful," she says.
"Beautiful with a big nose," I laugh.
"Small and pretty," she replies. "I can tell."
I close my eyes and take her hand in mine. I try to remove the image of her face from my mind and imagine the kind of person she is. Her hand feels warm. Her fingers are rough, her nails short. Is she naïve and trusting or is she cynical about life, I attempt to determine. Does she get excited about little things like dancing in the rain? Is she a dog person or a cat person?
I can't tell.
I'm too dependent on my eyes to give me the first impression. But without eyes to guide her, Marzeena Khatun, 30, has to rely only on her instincts to get her through life. This instinct is what makes the performance on-stage so tangible. Not everyone is acting. Sometimes, the tears, the screams, and the frustrations are all too real.
"It's a means of expressing their pain," explains Gangopadhyay. "What we call drama therapy." Through the theatre, through the process of identifying and learning from their characters, through the acting, Marzeena and others like her are able to share their pain with the world, and with themselves.
When a blind child is born to a poor family, sometimes the choices do not revolve around upbringing and education, but between whether it's wiser to dump the baby in the orphanage or the garbage can. A lot of these children start their lives knowing that they've been rejected by their own families and communities. They live with the knowledge that they're unwanted. They always see themselves as nobodies, as outsiders.
"Theatre makes them insiders," says Gangopadhyay. "It says you're part of a group. You're all in this together."
But most of all, theatre gives them the one thing that has been missing for them all their lives: communication. Theatre gives them dialogue.
Finding their own way
As far as struggles go, life's tough enough already. She's a woman. She lives in intense poverty. She's visually impaired. And now she has the audacity to have fallen in love with the arts.
A nervous smile flitters around Mandira Bera's lips. Closing in on 31, she can't even imagine going back to being the girl she was a decade ago. The theatre has changed her. Back then, the stage made her nervous. Now, it keeps her sane.
When Mandira first joined the troupe, she was an apprehensive young girl who walked in holding her mother's hand. Every day, her mother would accompany her to practice, wait for her to finish, and then guide her back home. The other members of the troupe constantly teased her. "Leave your mother at home," they'd say. "How long will she support you? Look at us. We come alone. We have no mothers holding our hands."
Slowly but surely, Mandira let go of her support systems. Now she comes and goes alone, and the only time she holds a hand is to offer a newbie the same comfort.
The visually impaired are at a severe disadvantage because of the physical handicap that comes with living a sightless life. In India, however, this physical disadvantage is coupled with several mental handicaps, brought on by intense discrimination, lack of opportunity, and a struggle for even the basic amenities in life.
One out of every three blind people in the world lives in India—that's an estimated 13 million blind people, out of which 2 million are children. Only around 5% of them ever receive any kind of education.
Raju, 25, sells incense sticks all day in moving buses, on the street and at red lights. In the evening, he packs his belongings, drops them off at home, and walks the few blocks to the theatre class.
His family does not like this.
"What is this obsession with acting?" they ask him. "Who do you think you'll become? Amitabh Bachchan?"
The time Raju spends reciting poetry could easily be spent selling more incense sticks and earning a few extra Rupees for the family. "Does the quality of life always have to be measured by how many Rupees I've made in a day? Money's not everything, is it?" he asks. It's a rhetorical question. There's absolutely no doubt in Raju's mind what his priorities are. The extra money can wait. He has lines to learn.
Despite the many troubles theatre brings, Raju says he could not have survived without it. He smokes less. He laughs more. And he doesn’t mind the drudgery of being a hawker every day, knowing that he has the evenings to look forward to.
What lies ahead
"Where to from here?" is a question Gangopadhyay often asks himself and the troupe. They've come far in the ten years of their existence, but part of the future, says Gangopadhyay, is to see that it becomes a self-sustaining entity, able to carry on the legacy even after the initial founders are no longer involved.
Several members of the troupe have, over the years, extended themselves much beyond their initial capabilities and become involved in scriptwriting, implementing and planning activities, and now the school. They've stretched beyond their original roles.
They've discovered that in drama and in life, they're each given a part. And sometimes, the part is much bigger than the one they thought they were meant to play.
Mridu's article is part of our focus on disability issues. - Ed.
About the Author
Mridu Khullar is an independent journalist from New Delhi, India. For the past six years, she has written extensively about human rights and women's issues in Asia and Africa. Her work has been published in Time, Elle, Marie Claire, Ms., Women’s eNews, and East West, among others.
Khullar is currently a Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Visit her website at www.mridukhullar.com.