Violence and verse

Kultar’s Mime, that focuses on the pain of the anti-Sikh riots, will be staged at Spaces, Besant Nagar on March 19

Updated - March 17, 2015 02:12 pm IST

Published - March 16, 2015 05:33 pm IST

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mp kultar

It is clear that the scars of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 have not healed yet. To be staged in Chennai for the first time, Kultar’s Mime , a play based on the poem by Sarbpreet Singh and directed by his daughter Mehr Kaur, will focus on transcending pain and experiencing compassion as faced by the victims and families of the riots. Excerpts from an e-mail interview with Sarbpreet:

What is the background of the poem Kultar’s Mime on which the play is based?

The poem was written around 1990, and was inspired in part by an academic paper, Stories of Children, by anthropologist Veena Das. Das’s paper documented the stories of young Sikhs who had survived the massacre and how they dealt with PTSD.

The story of a young boy named Avtar struck me in particular. This child, being deaf and mute, had no way of articulating the pain he felt at his father’s lynching other than by miming his father’s death. This story was fictionalised as the story of Kultar in the poem. Hence, the name.

How and why did the poem turn into a play?

My daughter Mehr Kaur, who studies theatre at Smith College, was looking for a project in 2013. She was familiar with my poem and decided to adapt it for the stage. Merging the story with that of Hayim Nahman Bialik’s In the City of Slaughter makes the point that in the end all innocent victims are the same and their stories are indistinguishable as their pain unites them.

Why did you go with an all-American cast?

It was a very deliberate decision by Mehr to cast non-South Asian actors in the play. An American cast underscores the fact that embracing someone else’s pain is an extremely powerful tool that can be used to heal. It also makes the point that just as violence transcends culture, religion and geography, so can compassion.

How do you merge poetry, painting and music in the play?

The dialogue comes directly from the poetry; the paintings provide the backdrop and context and the music is used to set the mood.

What are the paintings used as the backdrop?

Mehr contacted a young artist named Evanleigh Davis, a fellow student at Smith College, and introduced the poem to her, highlighting the most powerful visual images that she wanted to use. Evanleigh transformed that creative vision into the artwork that is used in the play.

How many cities/countries have you staged Kultar’s Mime in? How has the response been?

So far the play has been performed 28 times in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and India. The play was also staged in Delhi on the 30th anniversary of the massacre in 2014. Most audiences have included survivors of 1984 who were either personally affected or had family members who suffered. While this is a difficult play to watch, particularly for survivors, their overwhelming response has been an expression of gratitude at the restarting of the conversation about a shameful chapter of our history that we have all chosen to bury for various reasons.

Why is this play important in today’s context?

It is important because confronting the demons of history is an important step towards catharsis and healing. Most importantly, never forgetting such horrible events is one way of preventing them from happening again.

(The play will be staged at

7 p.m. Entry is free.)

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