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Budhan bolta hai

By Anosh Malekar

The dialogue must go on, says Dakxin Bajrange, the moving spirit behind Gujarat’s Budhan Theatre, a decade-old theatre group comprised of Chharas, a tribe dubbed criminals by the British raj and still stigmatised even after the repeal of the Criminal Tribes Act. Budhan Theatre is their effort to communicate that no one is a born criminal, and they believe that their theatre has transformed their lives and their identities

“How do you convince a world that suspects you are a ‘born thief’? You act like a thief!” Theatre person Dakxin Bajrange was matter-of-fact as he explained the circumstances that led to the birth of a unique street theatre at a pre-Independence-era resettlement site on the outskirts of Gujarat’s commercial heart, Ahmedabad, where a people called Chharas were subjected to forced labour and constant surveillance by the British.  

Budhan Theatre was founded on August 31, 1998, to commemorate the repeal of the Criminal Tribes Act, 1911, on August 31, 1952. “The withdrawal of the British law was supposed to lift the stigma of criminality attached to our people. But the stigma remains to this day. Budhan Theatre is an effort to communicate that no one is a born criminal. In fact, we call ourselves born actors,” he said. 

Bajrange had an interesting point to make: “Even if for a moment we consider that we are born thieves, it still does not falsify our claim to be born actors. A bad actor cannot be a thief. My father was a thief. I realised while doing theatre that theft is also an art form. It follows a fixed method and requires a fair amount of creativity. It is like theatre -- there is a director, an actor and a stage. Your audience should not know how they were distracted and picked. There is a lot of drama in all this. We have tried to revive the art form, of course in a positive way.” 

Bajrange is a Chhara and has been the moving spirit behind the theatre movement since its inception. He writes, directs and acts in plays that revolve around real-life experiences of his community with law-enforcing agencies, often involving illegal detentions and custodial deaths. “Our goal is to tell the world that Chharas and other similarly stigmatised people -- some 60 million across India now referred to as denotified tribes (DNTs) -- are human beings with real emotions, capacities and aspirations.” 

The plays performed by Budhan Theatre are neither conventional nor experimental as you would know them. They have unique themes that are based on the personal experiences of the actors and have unfailingly touched a chord with audiences. “In the last 10 years that we have been performing, theatre has changed our identity; it has also provided dignity. Established artists in Gujarati cinema and theatre have started looking up to us as one of them. Earlier, our children could not get into college for higher education, but now they do because they are considered good actors. And often, even if their grades are not up to the mark, they are admitted because their acting skills are seen as an asset,” Kalpana Gagdekar, founding member of Budhan Theatre and now an established Gujarati film and television actor, claimed. 

Gagdekar reminisced on the journey that began in 1998 when writer-activists Mahasweta Devi and Ganesh Devy came to meet the Chharas at their homes. They were warned by the police against entering the ‘criminal ghetto’, but they insisted and pushed their way through. “Mahasweta Devi came and asked us what it was that we needed most. We told her that we desperately wanted to read. She spent money from her own pocket and bought us books. I think it was the first time in Chhara history that someone from outside had made such a gesture,” Gagdekar added. 

The young boys and girls in Chharanagar found in her a pillar of support. They started calling her ‘Amma’ and in gratitude composed a play on the life and death of Budhan Sabar, a denotified tribal from Purulia district in West Bengal killed in police custody. The first performance took place before her, at the first national convention of DNTs held in Chharanagar in August 1998.  

Mahasweta, who was portrayed as a character pleading for the dignity and rights of DNTs, cried as she watched those branded criminals speak about their plight. The Chharas were only too familiar with police atrocities, and it showed, though none of the actors were professionals. They went on to perform some 500 shows of the play at schools and colleges across India.  

The media started writing about the library Mahasweta Devi helped set up and the unique theatre experiment launched with her intervention in Chharanagar. It provided the first ray of hope for a community living on the margins of society and often banished to the crime section of mainstream media. 

Entering Chharanagar always felt like crossing an invisible border into another world. Located beyond the Naroda railway crossing on the eastern periphery of Ahmedabad, the streets are narrower and dirtier, sandwiched between a warren of houses and small shops set out like weekly market stalls. The area is crowded and noisy -- roughly three square miles teeming with 20,000 human souls. The only open spaces are pools of stagnant water overrun by pigs feeding on the abundant refuse. The sharp stink of illicit liquor emanates from the muddle of dilapidated, dark dwellings whose occupants eye strangers with suspicion and fear. No auto or taxi operator would drive here.  

It was no different in November 2008, nearly 10 years after I first visited the place. The taxi driver failed to turn up at the last minute; maybe he developed cold feet. Luckily I met up with an old journalist friend who volunteered to drop me at Chharanagar proper on his motorcycle. Even now journalists are among the few who dare venture into the area. 

The Chharas trace their origins to nomads from the Punjab engaged by traders in transporting commodities like salt and honey between the coasts and the inland forests, before the arrival of the East India Company. The English too relied on the tribe’s knowledge of the vast country to guide their armies through unknown territories and establish trading relationships. But these networks were rendered redundant as railways and telegraphs were built in the 1850s. The colonial authorities grew nervous of the nomads who moved around freely, carrying intelligence they could not directly control.  

In the aftermath of the revolt of 1857 these former allies began to be seen as potential enemies. The colonisers dubbed as ‘thugs’ some of them who supposedly strangled, beheaded and robbed travellers in the name of the goddess Kali. The colonial masters responded with equally brutal repression. In 1871, an Act was passed for “the notification of criminal tribes”. Overnight, hundreds of tribes became criminals. When they could not be forcibly settled, they were shot at sight. Those who were settled were kept in confined areas, subjected to a pass system to control their movements, and rehabilitated through rigorous labour.  

The first such settlement came up in the northeast, then in the south and in the Bombay Presidency. There were around 10-15 such settlements across the country, the biggest one in Solapur, in Maharashtra. Millions were detained in such settlements. Newborns were separated from their parents at birth. The British feared that young children would also become ‘criminals’ if they stayed with their parents. 

But did the criminal tribes really exist, or did the British invent them as an excuse to seize tighter control of India? Independent researchers confirm the existence of different groups of ‘thugs’ over the centuries, but the monsters the British made of them had much more to do with colonial imaginings of India than with reality. 

The tribes were formally denotified in 1952 after India’s independence. But they were reclassified as “habitual offenders” in 1959. Many laws and regulations in various states prohibit certain communities of people from travelling; others must register at police stations in the districts they pass through. The percentage of such tribes in custody and under investigation remains highly disproportionate to their population. 

The Chharas believe they were notified and settled by the colonial masters at Chharanagar in the 1930s. They were engaged in industrial and agricultural labour. After Independence, they were released from the settlement but many chose to stay back, having no resources or other means of livelihood, and no useful skills. 

The elderly Chharas do not deny outright the tag of criminality, explaining it as a social and economic compulsion after being discriminated against as young children in schools and denied opportunities of higher education. But they are proud of their 20 youngsters and some 40 children involved with theatre. The parents of most of these children are petty thieves or brew illicit liquor. Around 50% of the people in the area are still involved in illegal activities. But these men and women want their children to become actors. When the kids come back from school they are sent to the library and encouraged to do theatre. 

Roxy Gagdekar, founder member and a crime reporter with a leading national English newspaper, said: “We never really knew why we chose theatre in the first place. Perhaps the Chharas, like several other DNTs, were well-versed culturally, but due to difficult living conditions lacked the opportunity to develop their talent properly.” 

Dakxin Bajrange recalls the performance of Badal Sircar’s Spartacus way back in 1979-80: “Ahmedabad-based theatre personality Prem Prakash was hunting for actors to play slaves in his production of the play. The Chharas fit the bill, and Prakash was happy with their performance. He kept coming to us and we owe our primary training in contemporary theatre to him.” 

He vouches for the innate and extraordinary acting talent among Chharas. “If you ask anyone from this ghetto to sing, dance or act, they will do so unabashedly. Their quality of facial expression, speech and gesture is unmatched. Because acting is inborn, a tradition dating back several centuries. They are still performing with what little they have -- their bodies, their voices and their creative talent -- in the hope of changing society so that they may have a future within it.” 

It was never easy to do theatre in Chharanagar. The one open space available for rehearsals is right opposite the police station. “We have no option, you see,” laughs Roxy Gagdekar. “We have always performed the theatre of our lived experiences, never mind who the audiences are. While Budhan Bolta Hai, based on a custodial death in West Bengal, was performed at several police gatherings, Bulldozer, which portrays the evacuation of the poor in Ahmedabad for the beautification of the city, was performed outside the house of the city’s municipal commissioner.”  

The theatre group believes that if you have a cause then you must have a voice. It has unemployed youth, young college girls and schoolchildren venting their anger or simply speaking their mind. Budhan’s repertoire includes some 25 plays performed across India from streets to the stage: Budhan (1998), Pinya Hari Kale Ki Maut (1999), Encounter (2001), Majhab Hamein Sikhata Aapas Mein Bair Rakhna (2002), Ulgulan (2006), Mujhe Mat Maro… Saab (2006), Bhukh (2007), Bhagawa Barrack (Saffron Barrack) (2007), Bhoma (2004), Khoj (2005), Ek Chhoti Si Ladai (2005), Choli Ke Picche Kya Hai? (2007), Ek Aur Balcony (2008), Ek Chhoti Si Asha, Sangharsh Aur Siddhi, Hamari Zindagi Hamare Gaun, Swaraj, Budhan Bolta Hai… and so on. They have performed in Ahmedabad, Baroda, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, Pune and Mumbai.  

The group also started making films in 2004 as a livelihood option for the unemployed Chhara youth. The documentary Fight For Survival, based on the conflict between a tribe of snake-charmers and animal rights activists won the Jeevika Award in 2005. Other films like The Lost Water (2007), Bulldozer (2006), Thought For Development (2005), Bhasha@ten (2006), Actors Are Born Here (2006), Bhavai Nu Pedhinamu (2007), It Is The Music (2008), Acting Like A Thief (a film on Budhan Theatre by Shashwati Takukdar and Kerim Friedman, USA) have been screened abroad at international film events. 

Budhan Theatre counts among its supporters Keshav Kumar, a senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officer in Gujarat, and danseuse Mallika Sarabhai who runs Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad. Roxy’s brother, Alok Gagdekar, is the first Chhara to graduate from the National School of Drama in Delhi. Vivek Ghamande followed him. Both are now struggling for a foothold in Bollywood. That is, of course, the rosy side of the picture.  

On May 11, 2003, Dakxin Bajrange was arrested for physical assault on a person in Chharanagar. He was not present in the area at the time the police claimed the incident occurred. He was put behind bars for 15 days, and told: “Bahut natak kar rahe ho police ke khilaaf?” (You are performing theatre against the police?). Alok Gagdekar’s father was once caught by the police simply because his sons were doing theatre. They were not ready to accept that a boy from this ghetto could get admission to a reputed institution in Delhi and tortured the father to reveal the ‘real story’.  

But the Chhara spirit keeps them going. Last year, actor Sandeep was arrested by the police on a false charge. Two months later, he was let out on parole to appear for a university examination. His parole was till February 28, and the group was performing a play on February 26. Sandeep went to Dakxin Bajrange and said he would like to perform, and gave an energetic and spontaneous performance. 

“Spontaneity in performance is our life. At Budhan Theatre, we first perform and then write a play. This way our actors get involved with the issues. We try to take our plays as close as possible to real life,” Bajrange said, adding that this poses a different challenge in his state: “Doing theatre in present-day Gujarat is not easy. People do not want to talk or see real issues. It is okay if you are doing soft comedies or plays based on family and religious values. Political plays are the need of the hour, but in Gujarat they will not be staged.” 

The undeclared censorship did not deter Budhan Theatre from staging Ek Aur Balcony, a hard-hitting take on the communal situation in Gujarat, on its 10th anniversary. This was a loose adaptation of Le Balcon by French playwright Jean Genet, incidentally himself a vagabond and petty criminal in his early life who later became a political activist and playwright.  

The Chharas, after centuries of stigma and a little over a decade of theatre, seem to have perfected the art of purposeful deceit. And they have an open invitation for all those voices that go unheard, to join them. “If you do not find a place to perform in Gujarat then come straight to our ghetto. You will certainly find space here!” Devy, who has been witness to the theatre’s growth from nowhere, jokes: “This ghetto is the only place left in Ahmedabad now for meaningful cultural exchanges.” 

As twilight sets in, young members of Budhan Theatre gather at Dakxin Bajrange’s house to practise their most recent and unusual production: Non-instrumental Music. “It is music produced from the implements traditionally used for brewing liquor. You will find it on Youtube,” explains one of the child performers. Bajrange chips in: “The dialogue must go on. It is another way of saying: Look we are not born criminals; we are born actors. Any doubts?” 

Any doubts were drowned in the music… 

(Anosh Malekar is a senior researcher with www.infochangeindia.org and Infochange Agenda) 

Infochange News & Features, August 2009