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April 24, 2018
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Chhara theatre activists fight social stigma, censorshipThe denotified tribe members use political plays to demolish traditional biases that treat them as thieves and criminals

Theatre and film personality Dakxin Bajrange is fighting a battle on two-fronts. Notions about his community, the Chhara denotified tribes, being ‘born criminals’ are deep-rooted, while the restrictive Dramatic Performances Act of 1876 is still in vogue in his home state of Gujarat.

Both are oppressive colonial legacies. Ahmedabad’s Chharanagar, the tribe’s ghetto housing about 20,000 of its members, faces frequent police raids and ‘false cases.’ “As we speak, there are raids happening in Chharanagar, unmindful of the ongoing board exams. We [the Budhan theatre group that he leads] have been talking to the authorities for 20 years, but a change in their mindset is tough to achieve,” says Dakxin, who is here for Theruvarangu-2018, a theatre festival organised by the P.J. Antony Memorial Foundation.

Gujarat’s commercial theatre has takers in Mumbai, but not in its backyard. Despite the censorship, little groups like Budhan or the National Peace Theatre Group (featuring Dalits and Muslims) are active, pursuing political, socially-relevant theatre. Budhan, he says, has now approached the government demanding to repeal the colonial-era act which demands that the script of a play be vetted by the censors and the police.

“One has to be brave and innovative,” says Dakxin, who finds odd spaces like junkyards or terraces to rehearse and even to perform. “If it is a political play or one on religious extremism, you just can’t perform.” So the group uses private spaces like homes and shops. Gujarat needs critical theatre, he says.

Recently, when the Mallika Sarabhai-run Darpana invited them for a performance of The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, the government denied permission.

Out of isolation

The Chharas remained isolated in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1979, theatre director Prem Prakash was on the lookout for black-skinned people to appear as slaves in Badal Sircar’s Spartacus. “He had so far been casting actors from the good-looking Sindhi community. He spotted in our community the traits he needed for the slave characters. It was my father’s generation. I saw theatre up-close a decade later when another Badal Sircar play, Juloos, was being rehearsed. It never got staged, but it gave me a steep learning curve.

The landmark judgment in the Budhan Sabar custodial torture and murder case (in Purulia, West Bengal) in 1998 brought Ganesh Devy and Mahashweta Devi to us, and what we saw in Budhan was a story that was akin to ours. That’s how it all began,” he explained.

The group has produced 47 plays and done over 1000 shows. “But we still get harassed by the police. I was sent to jail for three months in 2003 and parents of our artists face the threat of being falsely implicated in cases. The silver lining is that some good policemen sought to find out why we make plays on police atrocities and at their invitation, we trained some 300 police officers changing their view of the community.”

In 2008, Dakxin was returning from a U.N. visit where he represented the Nomadic and Denotified Tribes when he was stopped by police and probed for being a Chhara.