Every actor of Asmita Theatre Group has a favourite police story. Rahul Khanna’s belongs to December 2012, when protests against the brutal Nirbhaya gangrape had erupted in Delhi. Near India Gate on Rajpath, protestors were battling scores of policemen. The actors joined in with songs from IPTA as the cops fell on them. “We were kicked, dragged and beaten. Crouching down, I told the uniforms, ‘Sir, beat me anywhere on my body but spare my face. I have a show tomorrow’,” says Khanna.
Asmita performs to large audiences and, often, policemen approaching with lathis. A young group of more than 300, all dressed in black, travels through the city daily with plays in which domestic helps, Dalits or homosexuals — populations that are ignored, shunned or legally not allowed — are heroes. The Delhi-based group that has the distinction of turning raging debates into theatre turned 25 this summer.
“Asmita means identity or the right for all to live with dignity,” says Arvind Gaur, an engineering dropout who became a journalist and performer before founding Asmita in 1992-93. He comes from the street play activism of the late ’80s and early ’90s. When Gaur applied to a theatre school, he was rejected and asks even today, “How can a school reject a boy without knowing what’s inside him?” Asmita’s founding principle became “Hum kisi ko reject nahin karenge”. Inclusiveness is its chief ideology. The result is that the team keeps getting bigger, and needs a school ground, parks or pavements to rehearse together.
Asmita is celebrating its 25th year with an annual theatre festival on till July 28, a range of workshops, and their latest play, Hindu Code Bill. “Why were fundamentalist Hindus against a bill that stands for women’s rights? Why were many Congress leaders against it? On the other hand, why was BR Ambedkar fighting day and night for the implementation of this law?” says the director’s note in Hindu Code Bill. Political parties don’t like Asmita, and the feeling is reciprocated.
Another production, Ambedkar aur Gandhi, highlights chinks in the persona of the Father of the Nation. Every show sells out and post-play discussion can stretch for hours. Another hallowed institution gets raked in Court Martial, a legal drama that reveals class and caste discrimination in the Indian Army. Final Solutions is based on the Gujarat riots, while Ek Mamooli Aadmi is about the existential crisis of the middle-class. Recently, Asmita held a street theatre festival scripted, performed and directed by children as part of its Education Through Theatre initiative. In one powerful moment, a children’s play asked parents that if a family could watch television shows together, why couldn’t they talk of child abuse in the drawing room?
Fans call Asmita a theatre movement rather than a group; the less-impressed slam it for selling out to Bollywood. The group had a wholesome presence in the film Raanjhana, and boasts a roll call of former members now in films. “Our second rule is: We will train actors. What they do later is up to them. Kangna Ranaut was hard-working even as a youngster with us but we do not glorify films over theatre,” says Gaur.
What he is proud of is how the young members have become a common sight on Delhi roads. During the Nirbhaya protests, they presented multiple shows of the street play Dastak, on women’s rights, and Anna Hazare’s crusade resulted in a play called Corruption.
Of course, the establishment has had its say. He was told to edit Final Solutions for a show in Gujarat. Operation Three Star, based on Dario Fo’s Death of an Anarchist, about crimes by the state, was denied permission in Ahmedabad. Mr Jinnah was performed once, in 2005, and stopped thereafter. “Our first play was Hanoosh by Bhisham Sahani. It is the story of a man who is trying to make a clock. After 18 years, he succeeds. The first clock is ready and news travels to the king and the municipality. Hanoosh is the tragedy of an artist. The king has him blinded so that he cannot make another clock,” says Gaur.
Theatre took him to France, Russia, the US and Australia until the time his passport was withheld. “My passport has been ‘under surveillance’ for seven years. The last I checked, this was a category meant for desh ke dushman,” says Gaur. Equal rights, he adds, is a radical idea in India. “One day, the clock in Hanoosh breaks and its maker is sent for. The system has broken and blinded the artist. Do you know what he does? He repairs the clock,” adds the director.