A fifteen-year-old boy, Santosh, was whipped until he submitted to the demands of his client for a particular kind of sex. The boy, from Gorakhpur in eastern UP, was shipped to Dubai through a complex network of child traffickers. They had found him on a social networking site, calling himself Santosh Supernova, after exploding stars that shine brightly for one last time before they fade away. Santosh is one of the thousands of children who are sold into the sex trade every year by strangers they have made friends with online.
Santosh is the protagonist of a new play called #Supernova that believes that India doesn’t talk — or know — enough about cyber trafficking. Until recently, director Abhishek Majumdar and writer Rahul Rai were among the ignorant. “In the last 10 years, cyber trafficking has grown exponentially. One reason is that internet penetration has gone up, but security measures have not increased proportionally. Once we found out how big the problem was, we developed a dark play,” says Majumdar, 36, who is based in Bangalore and is the founder of Indian Ensemble, one of the most experimental theatre troupes in India now. After a few shows in Bangalore, the play recently toured Germany. It was performed at the culmination of the Human Trade Network Meeting in Freiburg.
#Supernova begins with giving audiences a personal experience of digital dangers. No more than 30 people watch the play at a time. Each person fills a questionnaire — truthfully or not — before entering the theatre. “In the hall, the audience logs into a special site that we have created on the smartphone. Immediately, a window opens and somebody wants to chat with them. This stranger is a person from our group but the audience member doesn’t know this,” says Majumdar.
In the dark hall, as Santosh’s life unspools over the course of a dreadful night, strangers on cellphones are leading audience members into a sexual conversation. The audience sits on four sides of the actors and watch the play — except those whose thumbs are caressing buttons on the cellphone keypad. Identities are confidential but transcripts of the chat scroll down four screens.
“We get a lot of ‘I love this kind of penis’ and ‘My husband beats me in bed’. Somebody sent us pictures of different kinds of sexual symbols from various cultures. You’ll be surprised how quickly this happens. Some people stop watching the play to chat. The nature of online communication is that it turns intimate very quickly,” says Majumdar. How vulnerable, then, are teens?
Santosh is a fictional character, but Majumdar reels off instances — gleaned from one-and-a-half-years’ research by the group — about children who have fallen prey to online predators. A disgruntled Facebook post of “I hate my father” could mark out a possible victim. “A lot of the trafficking has also moved online. We’ve found that a child could be sold from Gorakhpur or the Nepal border, using bitcoin, and the IP address would be of Kerala,” says Majumdar.
Contemporary socio-political concerns are consistent in Majumdar’s work. Two boys — a Kashmiri Pandit and a Kashmiri Muslim — are firm friends in Gasha, which won three awards at META in 2013. The Djinns of Eidgah (2012), which played at the Royal Court in London, among others, is about siblings damaged by the conflict in Kashmir. Afterlife of Birds (2013) deals with ideas of nationalism and loyalty. Muktidham (2016-17) takes on the cultural right-wing with a story about a time when Brahmanical Hinduism had to decide to either relax its caste laws or lose out to Buddhism. “The theatre I grew up watching was always looking at the personal in a larger socio-political context. These were plays by Habib Tanvir and a good amount of Bangla plays that were translations or adaptations of plays from other parts of the world,” says Majumdar.
Majumdar spent his early years at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, where his parents worked. Different creativities flourished on campus, from Tanvir rehearsing his productions to young musicians giving rhythm to their angst. Their home was always full of students and Majumdar grew up amid discussions of history, science and politics.
When he turned 11, he attended a theatre workshop conducted by Robin Das, an actor, director and faculty member of the National School of Drama. At 19, Majumdar started a job with a startup while pursuing a college degree. This was his first taste of corporate life — and he found it unfulfilling. After quitting, he attended XIM, Bhubaneswar for his postgraduation in rural development, a course that took him to remote villages. This was the time he began to relate to the theatre experience of his formative years.
Majumdar shifted to Bangalore in 2004, around the time that Arundhati Nag’s Ranga Shankara opened. He enrolled at a theatre workshop by Mahesh Dattani.In 2006, two doors opened for him — he received a scholarship to study Environmental Economics from Cambridge University, and a call to attend London International School of Performing Arts. He chose the latter. He started Indian Ensemble with Sandeep Shikhar in 2009, with the aim to create hard-hitting and aesthetic performances that responded to India’s contemporary realities.
A new play he is writing is an adaptation of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck. The adaptation is set in Ipres, where, 100 years after World War I, farmers still till out remains of soldiers, shells and bombs. “More than 70,000 soliders of the Lahore and Meerut contingents died here, fighting under the British flag, at a time when the idea of nationalism was being born in India,” says Majumdar.
He speaks over phone from Bangalore, as he babysits his two-year-old daughter. Soon, she will begin to show interest in his laptop and cellphone. “I wouldn’t say I make theatre from my personal life but it is true that I observe children a lot more closely now,” he says. In #Supernova, Santosh does not end up as a hapless victim. In Gorakhpur, his father is frantically searching for him. But Santosh is not sure if he can return home. Would society accept him? In hindsight, Santosh’s user name was prophetic.