The aftermath of an inherited exclusion

Taking turn:  The play is the latest in a series of works that has marked a departure from Sankar Venkateswaran’s celebrated cross-cultural projects

Taking turn: The play is the latest in a series of works that has marked a departure from Sankar Venkateswaran’s celebrated cross-cultural projects

We are assuredly no stranger to Victorian-era statutes in our law-books whose ramifications are being felt to this day — Section 377 is one egregious and illiberal example. Yet, there are legislations that were repealed soon after Independence, whose effects have proved as obstinately difficult to shake off. The 1871 Criminal Tribes Act was a Colonial measure that sought the ‘registration, surveillance and control’ of ‘criminal’ communities. According to criminology scholar Simon A. Cole, culturally short-sighted British ethnographers believed Indian castes were ‘pure’ racial types and that criminal disposition was inherited — thereby ethnicising criminality in one fell swoop.

However, the draconian law brought under its sway not just those actually beyond the pale, but also a vast number of itinerant communities, petty traders, performing troupes, forest-dwelling tribals, and the ilk, who were thus automatically stigmatised, seemingly for posterity. Even after the act was revoked in 1949, millions of those belonging to the tribes, now ‘denotified’ from arbitrary prosecution but deplorably designated ‘ex-criminal’, continue to suffer under the yoke of historical associations not of their own making. The ostensible acceptance into the Hindu fold came with its own subtle, and therefore much more insidious, forms of exclusion.

Looking in and out

The new play from Sankar Venkateswaran, titled after the 1871 act, takes up cudgels for those marginalised by ‘inherited modes of social exclusion’, via a performative tête-à-tête between Anirudh Nair and Chandra Ninasam (Chandru). The actors, theatremakers in their own right, brought their own backgrounds and perspectives to the mix, arriving at an understanding of the issues at hand that was far from monolithic. The short piece, just 35 minutes long, was commissioned by the Zürich Theatre Spektakel, where it opened in August last year. This was followed by showings at Munich’s Spielart festival in November, as part of a particularly politicised programme featuring works tackling history through a radical revisionist lens. The play’s upcoming run in Mumbai is its first in India, so it is still finding its feet. “With each show, we discover points of rupture, or arrive at moments of clarity,” said Venkateswaran. “You can only represent one of many truths. The moment you shift perspective, the truth also changes. This has very much to do with where one locates one’s gaze.” The collaborators view theatre as a tool to share insight and spark debate.

The play is also the latest in a series of works that has marked a departure from Venkateswaran’s celebrated cross-cultural projects. This has coincided with his setting up a theatre residency in the remote tribal hamlets of Attappadi. After graduating from Singapore’s Intercultural Theatre Institute in 2006, he was enthused with the vocabulary of working across cultures. “It allowed me to question identities and notions that one might take for granted,” he said, almost eschewing rootedness for something much more universal. An encounter with the legendary Kanhailal at a theatre exposition initiated new questions about his own practice, and where it was taking him. “Working at Attappadi, coexisting with its indigenous culture, made me examine what my intercultural sensibilities really mean. It has surely changed my perspective on theatre,” he said. In 2013, Venkateswaran was awarded an International Ibsen Scholarship for his proposed Tribal Ibsen Project, which has infinitely supported his work with indigenous communities. In 2014, he travelled with a large troupe of tribal performers to the National School of Drama’s Aadirang Mahotsav in Mumbai. In 2016, he opened Time That Went Without Knowing , that drew on the pastoral romanticism of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt , at Thrissur.

Clans and communities

The opening act at last year’s edition of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala, was Venkateswaran’s counteractive piece, Udaluravu… Uyirezhuthu… Udaleduppu , a collaboration with Malayalam theatre veteran, K. Gopalan and both the actors of his latest project. That play started out (and persists) as a solo performance featuring Chandru. “In a way, Chandru’s journey with that piece has culminated in his work in our new play,” said Venkateswaran. Over the years, he has questioned where the notion of a ‘tribe’ comes from. “It was a colonial construct, certainly, but I was taken aback when I unearthed the tenets of the Act. The human consequences of these measures was the starting point of creation,” he said, about the inspiration behind Criminal Tribes Act. He was also intrigued by ideas contained in Bell Hooks’ Marginality as a Site of Resistance , a re-imagining of the agency that is retained by the dispossessed.

With his recent works, Venkateswaran finds himself estranged from the more conventional modes of theatre he was engaged in as one of the prime movers of Thrissur’s bustling theatre scene, preferring instead an amorphousness of approach, where his work is not so much about what he produces as a theatremaker, but the process itself. Of course, his international collaborations with the Münchner Volkstheater of Germany, keeps him in touch with an infrastructurally supported production system, while giving him mobility “across space, culture and class”. It is a unique melange of influences and perspectives that is likely to reflect well on the uncommon works he continues to produce.

Criminal Tribes Act will be performed at Studio Tamaasha today at7.30 p.m. and Sunday, January 21 7 p.m. See for details.

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 19, 2022 2:22:43 am |