Yama is dead. The preparations for his last rites are done. Incense, tulsi leaves, vibhutis are ready and the funeral procession is underway. But at the maidan, Yama is denied a cremation — his pyre cannot be lit because he does not have Aadhaar. What happens next forms the crux of Mumbai-based playwright Ramu Ramanathan’s poem, O’, did you know, Yama does not have an Aadhaar?. It is a part of the sketches that Ramanathan is putting together to talk about the pitfalls of Aadhaar.
The project is an attempt to create awareness regarding the privacy and welfare aspects of Aadhaar. “Many theatre-wallahs are very disturbed with what they see and hear. For instance, after the Aadhaar enrolment in Andhra Pradesh, of the 580 card holders, only 179 had access to food. Poor people have been enrolled but they are facing exclusion. This is a clear case of exclusion because of the way the program has been designed. Only compulsory enrolment is not sufficient,” Ramanathan said.
The playwright is known for penning acclaimed plays such as Cotton 56 Polyester 84, on the closure of Mumbai’s cotton mills; Jazz, which brought alive the rich culture of jazz music in the ’50s and ’60s; and 3, Sakina Manzil, a fiction set against the backdrop of the 1944 explosion at the Bombay docks.
The series will have 10 to 12 sketches, each read by a different theatre artist, while the audio is uploaded on the website https://aadhaar.fail that has a dedicated section for anti-Aadhaar art. Ramanathan will share these sketches with Mohit Takalkar and his Pune-based theatre group Aasakta, who are working towards presenting them.
The project, however, wasn’t a planned effort when it started. “I wrote the first poem (O’, did you know, Ashwathama does not have an Aadhaar?) to be read out at Poetry with Prakriti, a festival held in Chennai last December. “There were readings in various colleges and the response from the students and educators was good. They said that the poem should be on their syllabus. But we know that can’t happen. That’s how I thought about writing a few more,” said Ramanathan. The sketch has been recorded in actor Denzil Smith’s voice and the audio uploaded on the website. It is also being circulated on social media.
Ramanathan’s sketches, interestingly, use characters from Indian mythology. There is Aashwathama and Yama, while the sketches with Abhimanyu and Soorapnakha are works in progress. “If I say Aadhaar has impacted Dakkhu Devi, Rajsamand, Surjomati Yadav, middle-class urban metro India is simply not interested… even though the stories are brutally true and tragic. Which is why I refer to characters from Mahabharata and Ramayana who are forgotten and ignored,” says Ramanathan.
Several artistes from theatre are collaborating with Ramanathan, lending their voice to the sketches. Among those on board are Joy Sengupta and Jaimini Pathak, who have collaborated with the playwright in the past. Pathak says he was eager to be part of the project because he does not support “the compulsory registration through coercion where Aadhar is concerned”. “There are grave concerns with regard to the safety of the data, as well as continuing concerns about unnecessary and undesirable surveillance of citizens. It is also a humanitarian disaster to link Aadhar to several schemes that benefit the most disadvantaged sections of society. Artistes are the conscience-keepers of society. And in times such as these unrelenting satire is the best form of protest,” Pathak added.
Of late, many artistic expressions have emerged as a means of protest against Aadhaar. Popular stand-up group East India Comedy did a comic sketch. Recently, actor Jayant Kriplani performed a Baul song to voice his protest. Unlike Ramanathan’s project, most of these are one-off instances but have found their way on the Aadhaar Fail website, which collates news reports and research that focus on why there is a need to rethink Aadhaar.
Explaining why she created the website, Vidyut Gore says, “People do not understand the magnitude of the privacy breach happening due to Aadhaar. It’s of the same, or higher, scale if the customer database of a bank was leaked. Not only is the platform not secure, but the government is not taking any responsibility for following standard procedures. They have not reached out to the people whose data was leaked to inform them about the breach. And while these various aspects are being written or spoken about, the information is fragmented and the language used too technical. Aadhaar Fail website simplifies it for the common people to understand.”