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Every time we think we’ve seen the worst of the world, a new bottomless pit opens up and we are confronted by another...

Since 1997, Pandies Theatre has been working with people who live on the margins of society

Every time we think we’ve seen the worst of the world, a new bottomless pit opens up and we are confronted by another, more terrible hell,” says Sanjay Kumar, whose group, Pandies Theatre, since 1997, has been working with people who live on the margins of society—in slums, on railway platforms, in riot-scarred ghettos.

“We are Pandies,” says Kumar referring to the word used by British commanders who could not pronounce Pandey, a reference to Mangal Pandey. “Pandie is an expletive pronounced with an ejection of spit at the end. Pandie, a term even more hated, more despised than the English traitor. We are Pandies of modern India, in a constant subversive relation with all that our mainstream culture and its values represent,” he adds.

Pandies’ roots go back to 1987 when a handful of teachers and students of Delhi University attempted to do meaningful theatre. “Early on, we decided that patriarchal modes have failed and if we want to inhabit a better world it, has to be more woman-oriented.” They called themselves a feminist theatre group and one of their constant efforts involves homosexual women in deprived areas. “Amazingly, the more deprived people are, the more keen they are on theatre,” he says.

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In November 2005, the group—comprising about 75 members, mostly university students and teachers—was invited to a school in Nithari. “Children are natural actors with an inherent need for self-expression,” he says. During the once-a-week classes with the Nithari youngsters, the group often encountered rumours of missing children. “But nothing had prepared us for what would happen next,” he recalls. Even as the police unearthed the horrors of Nithari in Noida where skulls and bones of missing children were discovered in December 2006, Kumar noticed that the children had turned horribly silent. “Some of them had narrowly escaped being killed, others had siblings who had been murdered,” he says. With little prodding from the theatre group, the children groups independently created three skits, all of which showed tiny bodies being chopped. “It is a comment on our times that two of the skits ended with the accused bribing the police and escaping,” says Kumar.

Work in Nithari continues, but three months ago Pandies arrived at a village in Badarpur Khadar. “We found four villages, flanked by UP on three sides and with the Yamuna on the fourth. Caught between Delhi and UP, the villages have no electricity or proper healthcare facilities and only a handful of the children have been to school. Yet, they have a strong urge to study,” he says. Pandies members spend more than an hour teaching the children English, Hindi, mathematics and art. “And then, theatre takes over and it is our turn to learn from what the children have to tell us,” says Kumar.

Children are always a revelation, he says. For instance, at a workshop with children who live in the Delhi railway stations, a nine-year-old boy whispered that he loved Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains. “I wondered why? Then, to my horror, I found out that the boys would get paid hefty sums to be sexually exploited in the bathrooms. Also, because the dustbins of these trains contain good food.”

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Pandies’ new production, he says, will be on “issues that should be election issues but never are” and will be held at the Shri Ram Centre. But for these rebels, the stage will remain the poorest localities of the Delhi and its surroundings. “Because in the milieu of the disempowered one has to act. To act is to perform; to act is also to do and to change.”

First published on: 21-09-2008 at 01:58:05 am
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