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Jana-Sanskriti: Theatre of the Oppressed

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By Amartya Banerjee

A few weeks ago, as a student of Delhi University, looking for a place to intern for the summer, as required by the university, I approached one of our teachers, who told me for the first time about Jana-Sanskriti. She gave an initial introduction and, to be honest, I found it a bit strange: “How could theatre be the mode of operation for an NGO?” This primarily derives from an understanding of such organizations as a deliverer of services such as roti-kapda-makan. Despite my initial misgivings, I accepted the proposal since I had very little time. I was specifically warned that if I did not agree with their ideology, I should not progress with it. I was a little puzzled as to what their approach entailed that it warranted such a response. Little did I know that I would be eating my words because the approach is anything but ‘ordinary’?

Since 1991, the organization has practiced what it calls the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed.’ The concept consists of two very easily distinguishable elements: ‘Theatre’ and ‘Oppressed’. One easy way to describe it would be as the theatre performed with the oppressed people or for the oppressed people. In a way, technically it would be correct. The real deal is far more complex than that, as I found out, both during my interaction with the Director and members of the group and, also, during my real experience in the field.

The Director, Mr. Sanjoy Ganguly, gave me a brief introduction to the concept on the very first day.  To be honest, I had a kind of “Am I really on the verge of discovering something extraordinary?” moment.  I am not exaggerating because it seems very romantic to think that you can use theatre as a medium for working amongst people. It is a common thinking amongst the urbanites that theatre is “too intellectual” for the village folks. Also, among other segments of society, a tendency persists that theater is “way beyond our level.” A great medium of communication is, thus, lost in a maze.

It struck me when Mr. Ganguly said, quite unabashedly: “We often assume that people from the villages are intellectually inferior to us townsfolk, which is not true.” For people in the city, where education is often the only way to rise beyond ordinary circumstances and carve out a niche for oneself, the natural reaction is to dismiss any other form of consciousness.  We refuse to recognize the very fact that education is not a fulcrum pivoting around a university degree. This is often an even more dangerous tendency in community work or, in a broader sense, social work. A ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude often characterizes people who go to work in communities. This is something that the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ stands against in its basic philosophy. It accords equal status to the people it’s working for or portraying in its performances. It operates on the assumption that theatre can form a link between the actors and the audience. What they see on stage is not something alien to them, occurring light-years away but things that they see or perceive taking place in their daily lives, issues that are closest to their heart. The theatre is a place where people see the complexities in their lives being painted in brush-strokes on the stage. Thus, they forge a connection and more importantly the theatre evokes thought, discussion, debate, and deliberation. As opposed to other forms of theatrical performances, the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ does not believe in sermonizing and directing but lets the people decide their own course of action. This is, in fact, a manifestation of democratic beliefs, in play. Mr. Ganguly  makes this point persuasively, “When I began work with agricultural workers in villagers, I noticed two important features in people’s art form. First, in rural folk culture, the relationship between art and audience is extremely democratic. This is because they understood that, in any form of collective learning, democracy has to play a significant role. Second, I have witnessed the use of classical tales in rural folk-culture and never found characters that lack complexity. The characters presented onstage are replete with qualities and flaws. As a result, it’s hardly possible to fully empathize with them. Alienation is the norm. The artists wanted the audience to be alienated from the characters and be able to examine them.”

So, if people of the so-called “backward regions” can create characters of immense complexity, much on the lines of what in films are known as characters with “grey shades,” the supposition that they are intellectually inferior holds no rational basis. The readers might think that I have been presenting a romanticized view of the rural-folk but I have experienced, during the course of my internship with Jana-Sanskriti, the power of this theatre to explore the immense capacities of rural people. The field visits that I undertook presented this reality to me. I am, I confess, brought up on a diet of a “nothing can change in this country” mentality; so I find it hard to see subtle changes, even when they are presented in front of me. However, I felt a rude jolt when I saw debates on various aspects of primary education taking place in the village of Ramganga in Pathar-Pratima Block, South-24-Parganas district.  My usual urban acquaintances would find it hard to digest that citizens in another part of the country are engaging in discussions regarding the quality of teachers present in the primary schools in the area. Moreover, the debate is not being conducted by the academics at Calcutta University or any faraway resident without an idea about the local dynamics but by people who are residents of the village, retired and current teachers, respected elders, representatives of various political parties, etc. The image of young boys and girls running out after the school looks good on advertisements about the ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan,’ that the government tom-toms around as one of its landmark initiatives in the social sector, besides the NREGA and the NRHM. However, here I find people debating about the quality of teaching at these grassroots organizations.

The debate was about how the quality of teaching was affecting the academic standard of the kids in the village. Speakers deliberated upon various aspects of the issue, from making teachers more accountable to regularly holding parent-teacher meetings to making the parents more involved in the process of educating a child. While all the basic infrastructures including the school building, the toilets, kitchen, and the playground are present, people engage in discussions about more substantive issues such as the time teachers spend in classes, the learning capabilities of the students under their charge, honesty and sincerity of the teachers, involvement of all stake-holders in the meetings etc. Even more surprising was that people here were actually debating if the mid-day meals were beneficial to the kids or not? We, the budding social workers, with our romantic notion of ‘societal change’, take it for granted that the scheme is beneficial to a number of kids who cannot afford two straight meals at home. Is it not an excellent, dual-purpose, idea of the government to combine education with nutrition? However, this is not the picture I found during the debate.

Mothers, who came to the meeting in droves, presented a different reality. They argued that the mid-day meals often created a road-block in the path of learning, which is, after all, the main reason why they send their kids to school. With all the brouhaha over implementation of the mid-day meal scheme across the country, the headline-grabbing news about the poor quality of meals and rampant corruption present in the system, this scheme has rapidly become the single most focused upon object in the whole system of education, especially in the rural areas. Some mothers even went to the extent of saying that “sometimes it feels like the school is running not for the sake of education but for the mid-day meal itself!” Shocking? In a manner of speaking, yes. But if we consider that people themselves are raising these questions, then we must respect their judgment.

Jana-Sanskriti, has been working in these areas since the mid-1980s and through its untiring efforts, it has been able to instill a sense of belonging, a sense of responsibility amongst the people. This responsibility refers to the belief that things and situations will not change if one gives up hope. It will change only when they themselves unite in their efforts and harness the collective energy for constructive work.

A Brief History of Jana-Sanskriti

When I asked Mr. Ganguly about the history of Jana-Sanskriti, he narrated to an incident that Augusto Boal – the Brazilian playwright on whose work, ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ is based – described in his book, The Rainbow of Desire: The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy. Boal had taken a group of actors, all whites, educated and belonging to the privileged sections of society, to perform a play in the village. At the end, the actors sang in chorus, a song entitled, ‘Let us spill our blood.’

After the play was over, a poor farmer called Virgilio approached the actors, evidently in tears. He explained that he was moved by what the artists had said and they were right  if the villagers had to take back the lands that were  grabbed by the landlords,  they would have to shed blood, if need be. Boal thought that their mission was successful and he felt a sense of pride. Here is the conversation in Boal’s words:

“Virgilio went on.

Since you think exactly like us, this is what we are going to do: we’ll…all go together…and send the colonel’s bull boys packing…but first, let’s eat…

We had lost our appetite…our guns were…not real…

Then what are they for?

They are for acting in plays, they can’t actually be fired.

Ok, since the guns are fake, let’s chuck them. But you people aren’t fakes, you’re genuine, so come with us; we have guns enough for everyone.

Now, the artists were in a fix. They tried to explain to Virgilio how they could not be a part of this protest and if they participated in the operation, they would be more of a hindrance than help. At this stage, Virgilio made a significant statement:  “So, when you true artists talk of the blood that must be spilt…it’s our blood, not yours, isn’t that so?”

Here, Boal observes:  “Around that time Che Guevera coined a beautiful phrase, ‘Solidarity’ meaning running the same risk. This helped us understand our error…we were incapable of following our own advice…we white men, from the big city; there was very little we could teach…I have never written plays that give advice, nor have I ever sent “messages” again. Except on occasions when I was running the same risks as everyone else.”

Thus, as Mr. Ganguly put it, “The essential conditions of becoming a true artist, according to Boal,  are the integration of thought, words, and action.”

The organization, in the six years, from 1985 to 1990, practiced what it calls ‘Propaganda Theatre’. It’s a fact that such propaganda art has had a tremendous role in taking human civilization forward. This is only when there is a harmony between honesty of intent and a firm, steadfast belief in the actions being undertaken, and words being spoken. However, after a point of time, all such ideologies, left, right or center tend to become rigid, obdurate and obstinate in their tendency to keep out alternate versions of reality, even when presented with compelling evidence to the contrary. In addition, these ideologies tend to demarcate boundaries between those whom it believes to be ‘followers’ and ‘outsiders’. What is left unclear are the essential characteristics, required to be a ‘follower’ or otherwise. Propaganda theatre denies its audience the scope or opportunity to think or act independently. It does not allow the audience the chance to say, “Hold on! Let us see for ourselves whether what they are saying is actually true or not?”

These people found it hard to imagine that the working class, without a university or college degree, could actually think on their own. The history of early theatre movement, whether in pre- or post-Independence India, is mainly a history of such propaganda theatre, primarily left-leaning, which considered historical events and social situations. The desires to throw off the British yoke and fight against the ever-present inequities in the religious or social situation were dominant themes. In the war-years, the heroic struggle of the Soviet Red Army against the Nazi war machine and the high-tide of Fascism that preceded it made this brand of thinking as something of a ‘romantic’ ideology for individuals. In the post-Independence period, the disillusionment of a large section of population with the state fuelled this theatre. However, in the course of time, theatre gradually transformed from ‘the voice of the people’ to the ‘only voice for people.’ Starting with this assumption, Jana-Sanskriti moved to the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ in 1991.

What exactly is ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’? 

Having read and experienced, I would describe the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ as a method of Interactive theatrical performance, where the audience is not only a mute bystander but an essential component of the overall performance. Their participation is actively sought and they are actually involved in the process of the play. They take the place of the oppressed characters in the play and, then, enact how they would react, had they been in the shoes of the aforementioned protagonists.

‘Forum Theatre’ is one of the categories of this theatre, a process described by Mr. Ganguly as “our main arsenal.” ‘Forum Theatre’ is not only the creation of a play but also the process that leads to its conception. Here Jana-Sanskriti does not determine beforehand the kind of oppression that would be highlighted in a performance.  Actors, who form part of a workshop, determine the kind of oppression they want to focus on. Then they choose one to focus on through the play. So the actors “script the play before they play the script.” It must be highlighted here that the actors in the play do not merely represent the characters themselves; they represent a social construct. That is to say, they are merely an individual representing a mode of thinking, present in society. I cannot help but invoke Mr. Ganguly once again because his words aptly describe the situation: “While scripting the play, actors find the reality in a critical way. Actors not only engage in a social critique but also embody social critique as they study characters to be scripted… For example, the process of scripting a play requires them to analyze the ideology of the oppressors, beliefs that oppressed characters have in mind, the practices and rationalizations through which these ideologies are apparent in the behavioural norms and so on.” Any oppressor, whether it be the drunk husband beating his wife, the father stopping his daughter from educational opportunities or the wealthy industrialist evicting people from their land to set up a factory, has a certain ideology in mind. However ludicrous it may sound, all of them have a set of ideas, notions or world-view, on which they base their thinking and justify their actions. The actors must understand these ideas and incorporate them in their performance. This is akin to the  ‘Method School’ of acting in yesteryears Hollywood, best proponent of which was the legendary, reclusive actor Marlon Brando, best known for his classics such as On the Waterfront, The Wild One, and the Vietnam War saga, Apocalypse Now. Here actors would literally get into, what they called, the “skin of the character”, explore their psyche, ideas, mode of thinking, life, and times.  These actors – whether the oppressor or the oppressed – explore the social, economic, and the psychological aspects of a situation.  They find out the roots of a problem, based on many a different interpretation.

In the next stage, the play is taken to the audience and performed. As the performance rolls and the oppressor and oppressed characters play out their parts, it is stopped at a crucial stage.  This is where the role of the Joker comes into play. Joker is a Portuguese word (Augusto Boal, being Brazilian would naturally use his mother-tongue), which could be roughly translated as ‘anchor’. The Joker then initiates a dialogue between the audience and the characters. He starts the process of dialogue by explaining the situation to the people watching and, then, elicits response from the audience. If done by a deft, master-hand, the Joker manages to convince the audience to come on stage and place himself or herself in place of the oppressed character. He or she then enacts the way in which he or she would free oneself from the oppression. This is where the actors, who play the role of the oppressor, study the ideology. The actor backs up his oppression by sound logic, which he derives from the actual way in which these characters think in real-life.

Thus, the theatre, in no way, imposes solutions upon the people and does not prescribe cures. It invites the audience to describe their own ways. The characters debate amongst themselves on an intellectual a journey in which the individuals are engaged in debates and discussions about pertinent issues. This way they are not bound by the limits set by any fixed dogma and are free to decide their own path. This is where one of the objectives of Jana-Sanskriti finds success and completion. The objective as described by the Director: “We do not want to limit a person within the traditional framework of food-clothing-shelter but want to acknowledge his intellectual faculties and take him to an intellectual world.” Here, the audience is not merely a mute bystander, watching the performance like a stone edifice, waiting for solutions to be given but never thinking. Or even if they are thinking and deliberating, not having the scope or opportunity to say it out loud, demonstrate or enact it. On the contrary, in the ‘Theater of the Oppressed’,  he or she participates in the process and uses their own thinking to find ways to counter the oppression and ultimately extricate oneself from it. To use Boal’s words: “the audience becomes, not merely, the spectator but the spect-actor.”

While they perform on the stage, the actors and the “spect-actors” are performers but when the lights go off, they turn into activists. Then they act outside of the stage to bring change in society, raising their voices against the injustices, inequities, discrimination, and manipulations.

The scripted play is taken to the very same group of spectators at least a minimum of three times over the course of a month. Not always does oppression remain solved; many a time it remains unresolved. The actors often leave the audience reflecting on how to find ways to end the oppressive situation, which prods the audience reflecting on the performance and its implications for them.

In the last two decades, Jana-Sanskriti has dealt with a wide range of issues  in their theatre – corruption in the PDS system that affects nutrition and health in households, liquor production that drains household income from productive to destructive activities such as addiction and physical abuse, corruption in local government, the existing nexus between party and people that places affiliation and obedience to the rank and file at a far-higher level than ability, superstitions and myths that affect progressive thinking, caste discrimination, lack of quality in primary education, and forms of violence experienced by vulnerable sections of society, especially women.

Augusto Boal, a Socratic Method?

Throughout history, a constant human feature has been to ask questions whenever something is imposed without rhyme or reason. Imposition may not be actual physical but something that is taken for granted.  The questions are directed towards established order, social practices or belief, economic disparities etc. The natural questioning mind is a constant companion of every human being. The Greek philosopher, Socrates, was one of the earliest to use this natural questioning tendency for advancement of knowledge. The natural art of conversation was his favourite method for discussing problems and issues with fellow men. He used to engage them in casual conversations and then through the art of posing critical questions at appropriate junctures, he made them aware of the reality. Noticeable in this method is a human being’s natural faculty of questioning.  His own powers of logic, reason, and thought are being used and harnessed to view reality and it is being done in a very objective, value-free sort of a way. At the end, however, he was heard saying that “only he is most knowledgeable who knows that he knows nothing.” This dialectic method is, thus, merely an art of conversation and came to be known as the ‘Socratic method.’

The role of the Joker in Boal’s play is somewhat on these lines as the joker merely plays the role of the anchor. He does not attempt to impose his or her views or thinking upon the “spect-actor” but by making them deliberate on their own, he merely guides them towards reality. The faculty present inside all human beings to question is, thus, encouraged in a democratic manner. Nowhere is the audience made to follow a particular branch of idea or ideology but is made to think on his own. They are made to critically analyze phenomena, find out reasons for the occurrence of such things and are encouraged to find a way to end the adverse circumstances, should they prove detrimental to their interests. In ‘Forum Theatre’, the audience themselves speak out against situations that they perceive as oppressive and unjust, rather than letting others decide their course of action and thinking. They enact their situations and, thus, give vent to their thoughts, expressions and ideas, which, under normal circumstances would remain ensconced within their bosom and die a quiet, soundless death.

This culture of questioning is present in other great men as well. Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa once had a huge argument with one of his disciples, when one of his other disciples protested and tried to stop him (the disciple). This irked Ramakrishna, who remarked, “let him hold forth arguments. I need this kind of arguments and debate.” It is well-known that Naredranath Dutta (later, Swami Vivekananda) entered into arguments with his future mentor with the intention of insulting him. However, all this could not persuade Ramakrishna to break from the dialectical philosophy of discussion and critical questioning. It’s so because the man was not interested in creating a blind faith or blind following, which would  impede people’s mind to the outside world and external opinion.

Boal called Paulo Freire, renowned for his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, ‘my last father’. When Boal became a member of the Legislative council of Rio de Janeiro, in his inaugural address, he remarked, “Paulo Freire invented a method, his method, our method, the method which teaches the illiterate that they are perfectly literate in the languages of life, of work, of suffering, of struggle and all they need to know is how to translate into marks on paper which they already know from their daily lives. In Socratic fashion, Paulo Freire helps the citizenry to discover by themselves that which they carry within them.”

In this context, Mr. Ganguly says, “What is to be observed here is that Freire, according to Boal, is sure of two things. First, the working class is educated in the real sense of the term because they learn from their experience. After being in theatre for 20 years, today I feel that knowledge is not only contained in books…books maybe a documentation of the knowledge gathered from experience but the source of knowledge is experience…Second, according to Boal, Freire emphasizes on the natural talents of man. In Freire’s scheme of learning, the working classes will themselves discover this inbuilt talent and perfection in themselves…” We might remember Vivekananda here, who said more than 100 years ago “education is the manifestation of perfection already in man.”

Socrates does not see any merit in preaching morality-tinged values to people; instead, the art of establishing interpersonal relationships and introducing people to their true potential have been accorded a far higher priority. Boal believes that the ruling classes always try to impose their beliefs, value-systems on the ‘ruled-over’ class. On a general level, such imposition is so far-reaching, deep-rooted and effective that the oppressed class clings onto them like the gospel-truth and thinks that there is no alternate way of living. Questions and answers, logic and counter-logic, debates and discussions are the basis for Boal’s theatre. He was bitterly hated by the autocratic regimes in Latin America because of his practice of questioning and debates. Boal has paid attention to Socrates in his philosophy but is not a follower of the Greek thinker. Boal examines Socrates with an open mind, which is a very important component of his theatre. Similarly, with regard to Freire, Boal remarks, “My fellow creature resembles me, but he is not me, he is similar to me, I am similar to him.”

In Boal’s theatre, opines Mr. Ganguly, “the oppressed face the oppressor and do not ask for mercy with the submission of a victim. The oppressed seek liberation from the oppressor.” This is important because here the oppressed is not treated as an object of mercy or sympathy but his efforts at ridding himself of the unjust circumstances are looked upon with admiration. Moreover, inspiration is drawn from it, hoping for replication.  In this method, the question is not ‘why’ but ‘how’.  Augusto Boal’s own words – “theatre is an art of looking at ourselves” – adequately sum up the tenets of the ‘Theater of the Oppressed.’

Having spent some time with Jana-Sanskriti, I realized what Jana-Sanskriti professes to practice does not end at its theatre and the organization. It begins from there.


Amartya Banerjee completed his Bachelor’s in Social Work from Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, West Bengal, and his master’s from Delhi University. Currently, he is working with Collaborative research & Dissemination as a Junior Researcher. He has a life-long romance with anything historical and, hence, sees the interplay of historical factors in the current happenings. Amartya’s abiding interests are people’s identity in urban spaces, influence of patriarchy in our everyday lives, and its relations with communal ideology.

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2 Responses to “Jana-Sanskriti: Theatre of the Oppressed”

  1. Dr Ranga Rao

    Enlightening, great interactive theatre for common” intellectually elevating” good

  2. Sairam

    Hi, I have heard a lot about Jana Sanskriti. What I don’t understand is the scripting of the plays performed. Are the scripts a collaborative work? Or are they provided by the director/some other playwright?


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