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Updated: June 22, 2014 21:01 IST

The food riots

SRAVASTI DATTA
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STELLAR CAST, BRILLIANT SCRIPT: A reality check
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STELLAR CAST, BRILLIANT SCRIPT: A reality check

Theatre was taken to a whole new level with the impressively researched Thook

The power of theatre was revealed in Thook. Developed as part of The Hunger for Trade project commissioned by SchauSpielHaus Hamburg, an international theatre network that explores issues of food trade, food security and hunger, Thook depicted the plight of the thousands who go hungry because of neo-liberal reforms in economic policies. It was staged at Max Mueller Bhavan-Goethe Institut and Ranga Shankara. What wasn’t highlighted as it should have been by the media was presentedthrough four powerful stories, ranging from the documentary to the satirical.

The impressively-researched Thook was performed by a stellar cast comprising of Gopal Dutt Tiwari, Ashwini Kumar Chakre, Faezeh Jalali, Abhinav Kimothi and Irawati Karnik. Adding to the production was a brilliant script by Irawati Karnik and Sandeep Shikhar, direction by Abhishek Majumdar and live music, composed by Abhijeet Tambe.

In 2008 the world witnessed its worst-ever food crisis. Basic food prices had soared, leading to food riots from Haiti to the Philippines. West Bengal was just as badly affected and witnessed food riots in 2008. Despite the enormity of the event, it was severely under-reported by the media.

The play opens with a monologue by the powerhouse performer Gopal Dutt Tiwari, who plays Winston Churchill’s Indian butler. He boasts about Churchill’s achievements and defends Churchill’s decision of feeding British soldiers rice instead of Indians even as Bengal reels from one of its worst famines in 1943.

Peppered with satirical humour, the scene, even though set in a different time, reflected how things have hardly changed in modern India. The next story depicts a deeply disturbing account of three children caught amid a food riot. They are locked in a godown to be protected from the riots. But driven by hunger, they suffer from extreme psychological turmoil. The sequence of events pans out rapidly, but one would imagine that time would stretch out like eternity and the torture of being hungry would seem never ending. The next scene is of a young woman who works in the commodity market. She looks harassed and upset because her cat goes missing. She narrates the trouble she had to go through looking for her cat, even as the food riots happen around her. Alone in her jannat (heaven) of a room with a computer, which she uses to access the outside world. The scene held a mirror to the audience to upper class and middle class’s isolation from rural India.

The third story was about a young man from Africa, facing acute food shortage back home, is in India on a visit and finds himself auditioning for a cold drink ad, ironically in a region that is short of food and water. The young man tries to explain where he comes from and that India’s link to Africa is relatively unknown.

But the urban young hip advertisers don’t even face up to their ignorance and refuse to listen.

Crestfallen, the young man meets an old grave digger who makes searing observations about the price the hungry have to pay.

Facts and figures were seamlessly woven into the play. And they were eye-openers, to say the least.

When the food riots were going on Cargill company made a profit of several thousand dollars per hour. During the last NDA rule, per capita availability of food grains fell to the same level as pre-Independence. Rice was sent to Europe to feed cattle.

The team at Indian Ensemble interviewed economists, food security analysts, right to food activists, cooks, chefs, pregnant women from different backgrounds, students of the Dhirubhai Ambani School and Aaghaaz, a theatre group for children from the Nizamuddin Basti in Delhi.

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