Theatre As A Weapon

Rohit Vemulas Continue to Die

By a Correspondent

My birth is my fatal accident’. It’s been six years since Rohith Vemula’s final words—still a grim reminder of the atrocities and discrimination Dalit students face in educational institutions. The 26-year-old PhD student was not the first to die by suicide because of it. In fact, data illustrates that he was not the last. The Blue Line aims to address this worrisome trend in modern India, with its eight-week-long series, which opened to the public on April 7. Facilitated by multi-disciplinary artiste Padma and theatre artiste Sri Vamsi Matta, it provides space to support students from Dalit, Adivasi and Other Backward Castes (OBC) to navigate hostile environments within the education system and begin the process of building sustainable support networks, using theatre.

“In India, suicide among teens and young adults is on the rise for several factors. While this in itself is an alarming trend that needs immediate socio-political intervention, discrimination owing to casteism contributes to the number. Casteism is widely practised yet hardly ever addressed. Dalits, especially students from premier educational institutes, have been dying by suicide at an alarming rate,” says Padma, who has also been a practising art therapist for the past five years.

Let’s take a look at the numbers to corroborate Padma’s point. According to government data that came out in December 2021 (IIT, NIT, CU: 58 percent student suicides from SC, ST, OBC, minority communities ( the last eight years saw 122 students die by suicide at Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), National Institutes of Technology (NITs), Indian Institute of Science, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), along with central universities. Of these cases, a majority (71 or 58 percent) belonged to Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, OBCs and minority communities.

Recently, the Indian Institute of Science replaced ceiling fans with wall-mounted fans at its hostels as a suicide and self-harm prevention measure. The institute’s rationale was that three out of the four suicides that occurred in 2021 (since March) were by hanging. Padma calls this an “oblivious and insensitive move that will not address the needs of the students who are clearly struggling due to systemic failure”.

The Blue Line has eight once-a-week sessions to support students (aged 18-24 years) from marginalised castes in educational institutes in Bengaluru. The ninety-minute sessions, the facilitators stress, is not a theatre workshop but instead employ theatre as a medium for the process. “Theatre reaches out to diverse viewers so that they may all learn the same thing differently—in this case how caste engages in their lives,” explains 29-year-old Vamsi, who is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Science and has been a part of the city’s theatre fraternity for over a decade. The performances employ both theatre and games to make a point, although, as Padma says, “It is not a therapy group, we will hold space for whatever comes up.” The takeaway, Vamsi hopes, is to create dialogues around the intersection of caste and mental health, “a connect which is non-existent.” The production aims to provide this vocabulary.

Which is why art therapy is integral to the series, leading participants to articulate their experiences. Take, for example, playback theatre. Here, members share stories from their lives, which are then played back to them on the spot. Besides this, the weekly sessions also employ techniques from drama therapy and Theatre of the Oppressed. The latter allows the audience to take on a more active role so as to turn the traditional monologue format of theatre into a dialogue by giving them the space where they can deal with issues of oppression.

“Even the most woke person can sometimes struggle to articulate their experience, especially in a patriarchal, casteist and capitalistic system where mental health conversations are mostly absent. What is present is often restricted to English speaking social media savvy folks, which is often simplistic as it does not acknowledge the structural issues, making it damaging,” explains Padma. She also believes that sharing her experiences doesn’t feel safe, as “even the most well-intentioned folks often dismiss caste as a non-existent issue and attribute my struggles to familiar topics like gender or worse, personal failure.”

This acknowledgement of caste being a reality today could actually be the first step to addressing the issue. “Centering the needs of the marginalised folks and empowering them in all/ any way possible is the next step,” says Vamsi.

The duo is careful to ensure that the series remains safe and inclusive. While Padma is a trained mental health worker, Vamsi’s own experience as a Dalit student in a premier educational institute has sensitised him to the needs of students from marginalised communities. Besides English, they also use Telegu, Tamil, Kannada and Hindi in the production. “The language is inclusive and comes from the community. There is no gas lighting — everyone’s experience is acknowledged and validated. Confidentiality is a cardinal principle of such sessions,” says Padma.

The programme was meant to start in March but due to low registrations, possibly due to the exam season, it was pushed to April. A happy coincidence, Padma says, given that it is also Dalit History Month. “Acknowledging that casteism is at the root of the constant discrimination is a luxury Dalit students are rarely afforded. So bringing a group of students together for the purpose is a big step in the healing process,” she says.

 [Courtesy : news9 live] 

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Vol 54, No. 46, May 15 - 21, 2022