Being Indian

A scene from the performance of UR/Unreserved in Thiruvananthapuram   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Interacting with team ‘UR/Unreserved’, I see lines blurring, borders fraying and language becoming an amalgam of words. There are gestures and laughs galore; syntax is looked at only when Farid Sheikh from Srinagar renders his latest Shayari.

In Thiruvananthapuram on their last-but-one leg of ‘UR/Unreserved’, a performative journey on trains, they gather under ominous clouds on a street named ‘Manaveeyam,’ Malayalam for ‘humanistic’. A few drops of rain do not seem to bother the diverse group of artists who have travelled all the way from Srinagar, a journey of transformation, individually and collectively.

Identity and dignity

“After witnessing the exodus of people from the Northeast from Bengaluru in 2013, following rumours of their being persecuted, I began to question the idea of identity,” Bengaluru-based theatre person Anish Victor, who has conceptualised ‘UR/Unreserved’, tells me. Rather than talking about academic concepts or jargon, Anish says identity is essentially about dignity. When we talk about identity being eroded, it is not religion, caste or identity that is in danger. It is dignity, he says. That is when he began to ponder on what art could do about it. “Just pure talk” is how Anish describes their performative journey. Wherever the team halts at, they reach out to the local community, talk, share, perform, and connect.

“Connect is what we are missing. These picture messages we keep getting saying ‘Good Morning’ and ‘Good Night’ on WhatsApp… There is no meaning to art most of the time,” Anish elaborates.

So I ask the group, what does ‘being Indian’ feel like. “I learned to draw the map of India while at school,” replies Sunathi from Thrissur. “I remember the lines, the shape, the struggle to get it right. But now, all those lines have disappeared. Not only of this country, but beyond too.”

Fareed recalls how a man on a Delhi train responded with suspicion when he said he was a Kashmiri. “I am first and foremost a believer in Islam,” he adds, “but I don’t believe that those who are not do not deserve Jannat (heaven). It’s up to the Almighty to decide who gets what.” He recites another shayari. His lines are about a storm bringing in new stories to a dry river, encapsulating all that their journey is about.

I mention how Tipu Sultan’s birth anniversary is a point of controversy now and ask them what they find about festivals – a huge carrier of religious identity – as they travel across India. Sandeep from Bengaluru is exploring exactly the question. “We saw many people travel solely on the occasions of festivals. But rather than celebrating them with religious fervour, most of them see festivals as a chance to reconnect, mingle with friends and family.”

The omnipresent gender question is jovially dismissed by Sunathi. “Not even once have I felt hindered by language, let alone gender!”

Gender and language

Parmita Mukherjee, the artist of the group whose evocative sketches vividly touches upon the spirit of their journey, explains: “Women are rarely seen in many public spaces, and that is what is making it look abnormal. To break such gender norms they need to be present in all such places.”

I am still curious about language and food and they all laugh. Anish says, “Don’t get stuck in the idea of language being a barrier. As for food, yes, we have differences since those from Assam amongst us love pork, and for some, it’s taboo. We did not fight, but negotiated around it.”

“And as far as train journeys are concerned, it’s the same all across India. You get veg biriyani, chicken biriyani, or egg biriyani. Or you get chicken biriyani, egg biriyani or veg biriyani!” I return thinking about these options, so few to choose from in a country of 29 States, seven Union Territories, and in absolutely no mood to shed her values of diversity, as being proved amply by such initiatives as UR/Unreserved.


The project, which officially began in December 2016, comprises 14 artists (visual artists, story tellers, theatre workers, musicians, and dancers) engaging in conversations around identity.

They come from Bengaluru (Karnataka), Dhemaji (Assam), Srinagar (Jammu and Kashmir), and Irinjalakkuda (Kerala). The project is guided by Anish Victor and Maraa – a media and arts collective. It was developed in partnership with Maraa (Bangalore), Macbeth Drama (Dhemaji), Help Foundation (Srinagar) and Innerspace Little Theatre (Irinjalakkuda).

According to the organisers, the artists engage with people on trains – through stories, song, sketches, and poetry around the theme of identities. The second phase is a collaboration with local arts organisations in the four locations to organise a series of inter-disciplinary events called Platform 1 – comprising short performances, photographs, sketches, animation, audio recordings and so on, drawn from the earlier phase. “These events will happen in public spaces wherein we will make a special attempt to engage with children and young adults.” In Kerala, they performed at Irinjalakkuda and Thriruvananthapuram during October-November.

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2022 8:42:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/urunreserved-an-interactive-performance/article20008939.ece

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