Theatre

Who hogs up street space?

STREET IS THE RICH MAN’S MARKET The Samsa group performing Belchi.  

In August 1977, as many 11 landless Dalits were burnt alive in Belchi village of Raghopur district in Bihar. It was Bihar’s first caste carnage post-Emergency. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the village, riding an elephant, since it was the only option to get past waist deep water and slushy roads. Her gesture lifted hopes of the Congress. The Dalits demanded wages and a piece of land from the landlords and paid a huge price for it. This incident sent shock waves across the country. In the days to come, the late C.G. Krishnaswamy, always the voice of the downtrodden, registered his protest through theatre. One of the major forces of the Kannada amateur theatre movement, the modernist CGK, who raised a strong anti-establishment voice, identified himself with all the progressive movements of our times, and was greatly shaken by the barbaric incident. CGK, who did not dare to write a play till then decided to adapt the incident to theatre in the form of a street play, which was a tool to sow the seeds of progressive ideas among the oppressed class, at a time when electronic media was non-existent.

Belchi created history not only in Karnataka theatre, but also in other parts of the country. When the play was staged, former chief minister of West Bengal, the late Jyothi Basu, noted journalist Kuldeep Nayar watched and had words of appreciation for the effort. Without the knowledge of the playwright (CGK), theatre groups from other languages had staged it in their languages and in their states. CGK selected the artistes from slums in Srirampura, Vinobha Nagara and Mavalli. C.K. Gundanna, Shashidhara Adapa, Taxi driver Madhavan, Nijaguna and Lalitha supported him in the unique endeavour. He conducted rehearsals in the class rooms of R.V. High School. Noted-theatre personality C.S. Basavalingaiah and Janardhan (popularly known as Jenny in theatre circle) essayed key roles in the play. Interestingly, most of the artistes in the play were from the lower echelons of society. Dalit poet Siddalingaiah wrote heart-wrenching songs for the play. Belchi in a way used all the possibilities of theatre and was dubbed as a turning point in street theatre.

Shobhana Kulottungan, Ruth and Chalam who have already worked in slums expressed their desire to take the play first to slum areas. After protracted discussions in Samudaya, it was decided to stage the play in major slums of Bangalore. CGK, Shashidhara Adapa, Nandaprakash, Gundanna and Lalitha identified the people who will support the endeavour. There was an apprehension about the impact of the play because of its political connotations.

The play was first staged at the Gopalaswamy Hostel on August 26, 1978 and people from Srirampura slum and Swatantra Palya thronged the venue. It was a different experience for the audience. Their response enthused the major players in the movement. CGK decided to stage the play in the slums around Lalbagh. Artists entered the area singing songs and inviting audience for the play. It was a new experience for the slum dwellers. The experiment was a huge success and audience responded to the play through their own style of running commentary. They contributed small sums of money and appealed the group to enact the play in every slum across the state. The play started it’s journey from one slum to another, before Belchi became a huge movement in itself.

Intellectual discussions around the form, content and success of the play became common. Prominent Dalit writer Kotaganahalli Ramaiah wrote songs both in Kannada and Telugu for the play. Madhava Prasad translated the play in to English. The troupe staged the play even in Eden Gardens of Calcutta and Marina beach of Madras. The play, which raised the issue of wages, has become relevant now at a time when the new National Democratic Alliance headed by Bharatiya Janata Party is planning to amend the Factories Act, the implications of which will be detrimental to the interest of working class in the country. Belchi has been staged across the state with the support of theatre organisations. Suresh says: “We have not taken any financial support from the government for this experiment. It is a tribute to CGK.”

Street play lent voice to voiceless communities once, it has now become a tool of the multi-national companies to market their products. According to Shashidhara Adapa, a pesticide company recently used the street play format to sell its product. “Street play concept which was a platform for protest once, has transformed over the years, it is being exploited for commercial purposes,” he says. Interestingly, it is BJP which used street play during the recent Lok Sabha elections to project its prime-ministerial candidate and his model of development. Now the street has changed, it resonates with voices from the market.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 8:47:32 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/theatre/who-hogs-up-street-space/article6151609.ece

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