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The scene is set

The team. Photo: Evan Balko  

David Ravinder Selvaraj strokes his greying beard, as power returns to the grey-walled library of Visthar Academy of Peace and Justice Studies in Bangalore. Eight actors take their places as the ceiling fans and fluorescent lights hum back to life. “Take a breath, people,” he says.

Selvaraj is the Executive Director of Visthar and the director of the Indian debut of We All Live in Bhopal, a play his son, Sudhir, wrote about the Bhopal gas leak disaster. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the incident, which occurred December 3, 1984.

Satinath Sarangi, founder and managing trustee of the Sambhavna trust, and member of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, says the citizens of Bhopal remain plagued by medical issues, contamination, and economic instability. Furthermore, Union Carbide (now owned by the American Down Chemical Company) has yet to assume responsibility. “As long as they are free and unpunished, it sends a very strong message that such corporations can walk away even after murder and maiming,” Sarangi says.

Sarangi is one of the characters in the play, along with Michael Parker, former President and CEO of Dow, and Andrew Liveris, Dow’s current CEO. The play weaves statistics with corporate documents and testimony from survivors.

While Sudhir has opinions about the disaster, the play is not meant to be prescriptive. “We’re not here to give dos and don’ts,” says Sujatha Balakrishnan, a school teacher and counsellor, who plays Rashida Bee, a native of Bhopal who, along with Champadevi Shukla, won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2004. Bee and Shukla used the prize money to found the Chingari Trust, which will receive proceeds generated by performances in Bangalore.

Like most of the cast, Balakrishnan is not a professional actor. Sudhir says that this is part of his vision for the piece. It has already been performed in the U.S. and the U.K., where local groups adapted it to their contexts. A London group shifted the focus to legal issues, for example, while the Bangalore group has incorporated Hindi. At Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, personalisation happened during the facilitated discussions that occur after every performance.

“Students made connections to the fracking — a fracturing of the ground to bring up oil — going on a couple of hours from here,” says Dr. Dawn Duncan, a Professor of English/Global Studies who led the post-performance conversation.

Dr. David Wintersteen, Associate Professor and current Director of Theatre for the Communication Studies and Theatre Art department at Concordia College, says the play bridged the miles and decades separating the students from the disaster. “Several wrote to me afterward thanking me for helping to get it presented on our campus,” he says.

“It’s not a performance that you only come and appreciate, but one that draws you in,” says producer Maliha Ibrahim, a creative arts therapist and a member of Renegade Arts and Theatre Society (RATS), is backing the Bangalore production.

Many of the cast and crew members were born after the disaster. Manu Varkey, who plays Sarangi, says that the medium of theatre is particularly compelling to his generation. “If I was an audience member, it would hit me,” he says.

Varkey and Balakrishnan both add that playing survivors helped them develop empathy for their characters, another unique result of using theatre to understand issues of social justice. Selvaraj says the issues raised by Bhopal remain relevant “particularly in today’s context where our Prime Minister is pushing the agenda of development. One needs to ask questions: development for whom? And development at what cost?”

Maliha says that the group has performances planned at the Union Theological College and the Studio for Movement Arts and Therapies. They are in conversation with a number of universities, co-working spaces, and arts organisations, and hope to do the workshop in schools.

But for that to happen, they must be ready. At Visthar, Selvaraj gives the signal to begin. The actors scatter, yelling, stumbling, and imitating the mayhem that occurred on the night when thousands woke up to find their homes full of toxic gas. The scene is set. The play begins.

To invite We All Live in Bhopal to your community, contact www.renegadeartsandtheatre.com or email Ibrahim at maliha.ibrahim89@gmail.com


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Printable version | Jun 22, 2021 9:12:02 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/we-all-live-in-bhopal-play/article6646212.ece

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