Sharmistha Saha was going through the newspaper in March, when she came across a report about a Dalit man, Pradip Kalubhai Rathod, who was killed for riding a horse. The incident took place in Timbi, a village in Gujarat. “Even in the context of mob lynching becoming almost normalised in our country, I found it bizarre that a man could die for riding a horse. In what way is this even logical? I began to search online for other such incidents. What I found was that, throughout India, it is common practice to bar Dalits from owning horses, wearing sunglasses or keeping a moustache,” she says.
The deeper she probed, the more reports of atrocities emerged until Saha, who has studied theatre at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and Freie University, Berlin, decided to make a play on the subject of caste discrimination. The production, Romeo Ravidas and Juliet Devi, opened in Mumbai in March and was performed in Pune recently. It is set to travel to Delhi in September before shows in Bangalore.
The play begins with a young man called Romeo Ravidas being chased by the upper caste of his village Dumari, Bihar. He moves through the chase in the style of Ajay Devgn in a film. Later, he says, “Hum chhote se gaon mein paley bade hain (I was born and raised in a small village). I have a mare and, when I ride it through the village, I look like Devgn from Dilwale.” He calls the horse, Juliet. A surreal journey brings Romeo close to Kaushalya, an activist, who tells him that, in college, she used to be known as Juliet.
“Hum sheher mein paley bade hain (I was born and raised in a city),” she adds. “There was a boy in our college, seedha saadha, sharmila, thoda alag. When he proposed to me the second time, I said yes,” she says. That boy has got lost. He was killed by her father. Kaushalya visits her dreams every night but cannot find him. The play plunges into the internal conflict of both characters. Romeo wants a peaceful life but is aware that the Dalit fight is raging. Kaushalya is wrapping her head around the dynamics of Dalit politics and how it affects not only the lower caste but the upper castes, such as her, as well.
Romeo Ravidas and Juliet Devi joins a number of major plays that have dwelt on caste in recent years, such as Chandala, impure by Koumarane Valvane and Deepan Sivaraman’s Khasakkite Itihasam. In Saha’s play, Romeo is a reference to Rathod while Kaushalya is a tribute to Kaushalya Shankar, an upper-caste girl from Tamil Nadu who married a Dalit man. In broad daylight in 2016, the couple was brutally attacked by goons allegedly sent by her family. Kaushalya lived but her husband was killed on the spot.
The title of the play that recalls William Shakespeare’s classic, Romeo and Juliet, is Saha’s off-handed salute to the media that highlights Dalit issues only when there is an inter-caste romance, marriage or death. “I feel that newspapers do not cover caste issues enough. I have studied in Delhi all my life and have lived in north India but did not know that Dalit men are not allowed to ride a horse during their baraat,” says Saha.
For the play, she researched online, dug through newspaper archives and read autobiographies such as Joothan by Omprakash Valmiki. A significant portion of the play is based on the lived experiences of people she sought out, such as her students at IIT Bombay, where Saha teaches performance studies. One of the students, Shubham Sumit, is from Buxar in Bihar and has written the script with Saha.
The play is a fictionalised account of real incidents, including one in which a Dalit man is attacked for watching films on CDs borrowed from a lending shop. The grimness that emerges in the dialogue-driven production is complemented by movements inspired by Eugenio Barba, an Italian theatre director who Saha assisted during her stint at Odin Teatret in Denmark. “I choreographed the play as a dance piece rather than blocking it like a play,” she says.
Romeo Ravidas and Juliet Devi follow other works on gender by Saha. Her Letters (2015) is based on a short story by Rabindranath Tagore called Stree’r Patro, in which Mrinal, the central protagonist, decides to leave her husband. Bundelkhand ki Virgin Machhliya (2017) is adapted from the book, Virgin Fish of Babughat, written by Lokenath Bhattacharya, and revolves around an actor-director, who lives in a sinister detention camp that dehumanises its inmates.