Lecture discusses value of theater in Indian activism

“Is it art?”

A brief moment of silence followed UNC lecturer John Caldwell’s question at the Ackland Art Museum’s Art For Lunch program Wednesday on Sahmat’s Theatrical Origins.

Students, professors and Chapel Hill residents filled the gallery to eat lunch and hear Caldwell and Afroz Taj, an Asian studies associate professor, answer that question and speak about the role theater plays in Indian activism. The program directly relates to the museum’s current exhibit, “The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India Since 1989.”

The Sahmat, an activist group that fights against religious fundamentalism and sectarianism, uses street theater to communicate with the portion of the population that normal theater or propaganda would not be able to reach, Taj said.

Stephanie Chen, a new Friends of the Ackland member, said she came to the discussion out of curiosity about theater’s impacts on culture.

“Hopefully, when you understand the culture, you’ll eventually branch out and understand the economic and political sides of that culture,” she said.

Sean Renegar, a junior Asian studies major, said he came so he could learn more about India.

“I’m here to expand my own knowledge,” he said.

Caldwell and Taj began the program with a vivid video clip of a theater group performing in the streets of India. They asked the audience about the Hindi word “tamasha,” meaning “entertaining spectacle” and explained how entertainment is a crucial form of communication for Indian activist groups.

Street theater groups aim to entertain people passing by and get some extra money, Caldwell said, but entertainment is only a small part of these street performers’ goal.

“There’s no formality,” Taj said.

The groups have no formal costumes, timing or props when they perform. He said they aim to give an impromptu performance and convey the messages they fight for to as many people as possible.

Taj said since there is a high illiteracy rate in India, activists need a way other than writing and reading to convey messages.

“For those with no voice, the group fights for speech and unity,” Taj said.

Caldwell said other issues street theater groups fight for include free speech and anti-communalism. The audience discussed whether art, like street performances and the modern pieces in the Sahmat Collective, can be considered art if they could also be propaganda and serve a political purpose.

“It’s very intentionally not art for art’s sake. It’s art for social progress and uplift and political agendas,” Caldwell said.

Rachana Umashankar, who teaches Hindi-Urdu classes in the Asian studies department, brought her students to the discussion during their class.

“I think a really important part of learning language is knowing about the region’s culture, so this was a great opportunity,” she said.

Taj said the main thought he wanted the audience to walk away with is that changes are being made. He said he thinks street theater will be an influential form of political activism in India and a key part of Indian culture for many years to come.

“Street theater will be an influence in India for at least 10 years or until they find a different means of communication,” he said.

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