I visited India in May this year, the hottest month as I couldn’t go earlier or later and experienced temperatures up to 45 degrees which combined with being ill made the trip overly difficult. It was my twelfth visit to India since 1971 when I was 21 and now at the age of 67, I had to concede that extended travel on boneshaker buses was possibly something I was too old for. Nothing bad happened, the people were great but it looks like it might be my last visit. There was an element of nostalgia to my visit and India has changed so much during the intervening 45 years and even since my last visit in 2011.
I started out in Delhi where I ran a pre-arranged Playback Theatre workshop for the Yuva Ekta Foundation, an NGO that works with disadvantaged youth in the Delhi area. They were a lovely group to work with and were very pleased to have an opportunity to be introduced to Playback Theatre. I did two days at the outset and a third day at the end of my three week visit as a follow-up. In the interim period, the group offered a Playback Theatre performance to the staff at the offices where they were based as a trial run, which was much appreciated and they told me that the performance offered an opportunity for everyone to get to know each other in a new way through their stories: the Playback way!
You can see some more photos here:
and read a reflection on the Delhi workshop here:
Stepping Stones by Rijul Kataria of the Yuva ekta Foundation
Our method has always been our standout feature. No matter what we work on, we as a Foundation have always prided on our ability to use tools of Expressive Arts to bring a diverse set of individuals on one common platform. Theatre has not only been for us a medium to engage with people and communities, but also a tool for self exploration. Over the years, we have been able to expand its scope and practise, so as to be able to use Theatre in diverse socio-economic settings. Be it schools, Juvenile Observation Homes, Communities or Theatre Festivals, we have been able to carve out for ourselves a space, where Theatre and Expressive Arts are healing and therapeutic tools.
We have never worked with the intention of creating a theatre piece at the end of our workshops. The aim is always to open up a space for deliberation, dialogue and interaction. We hope that this platform is a space where individuals can open themselves up to the experiences of others and create an environment of mutual trust.
Playback Theatre has been a great boost and learning experience to fulfil our endeavours. As facilitators, we feel more confident and equipped to go into different settings and help people bring out their stories. We feel that it would help us immensely to connect with people at an affective level. Everything we have aspired for as a Foundation is closely related to how Playback Theatre functions. This is exactly why this particular experience has been so important for us. The learning has been immense.
Our introduction to Playback Theatre was overseen by Brian Tasker. On his visit to India, he brought with himself an irresistible recipe. It contained a hint of expertise, with a desire to engage and a will to impart knowledge. Seen by all as the perfect combination, it lasted for a special span of 3 days where Mr. Tasker was able to give us a part of his life, experiences and memories, in order to grow the Playback Network.
While working with Playback Theatre we discovered a new found coherence as a group. Since we were the actors, learners and the audience ourselves, we had to adjust to a growing personal space. Not only did we share our stories with each other, we also saw elements of our lives being portrayed by other facilitators. It was a part of our journey in Playback. Actors who were a part of the workshop felt that it gave them a chance to present emotions more clearly. It helped them nuance their own understanding of expressions. At a personal level, Playback is an intense exercise. All of us discovered something about ourselves. It also kept us on our toes constantly. To be able to improvise at the drop of a hat was dreading and endearing at the same time. But what it did to for sure, is add a lot to our repertoire of skills.
We also learnt new techniques of telling a story. One of the most critical aspects while working with communities and street theatre is the ability to tell people’s story to them. Playback is just the medium we needed to enhance our own capabilities as facilitators in order to do that. By the end of the 1st day that lasted close to 7 hours, the exercise seemed effortless. We couldn’t wait to practise Playback ourselves.
Although we couldn’t cover all Playback Techniques, whatever we did was a novel experience. Be it the tableaus, the stills, the 3 part story or the chorus, each of these forms taught us how to become careful observers. To be able to portray a single image or one emotion, or quite simply, one human being is more complex than it looks. The idea of working closer together even physically, gave us new dimensions of time and space as actors. While using basic props was allowed, one of the challenges during the initial phases of the workshop was to be able to blend the brand of theatre we practise, with the new form we were learning.
There was also a considerable stress laid to tuning in with beats and music. As an essential component of Playback, music was of utmost importance in being able to create a flow and process which everyone in the workshop could tune into.
The 2nd day was spent in developing the techniques we learnt and perfecting whatever we could. The most memorable part of this day was the sharing activity. We were told to write a kind of a short advertisement about ourselves which contains our strengths and weaknesses. We were then asked to present them in a prototype Playback introduction where one actor comes up and makes a statement about him/herself and the other actors have to portray that.
We also delved into the art of conducting Playback. Ms. Puneeta Roy (Managing Trustee, Yuva Ekta Foundation) took on for some parts, Brian’s role as he taught us how to conduct a session. All this was a part of a comprehensive training module which went a long way in bettering our workshop structures.
On the 3rd and final day of the workshop which was scheduled as a feedback session after a fortnight, we shared our own experiences of having conducted two Playback sessions in that time frame.
Community Theatre and Playback
Our first Playback performance as an organisation was in Jahangir Puri. An urban village in Delhi, Jahangir Puri has been our site for a Community Theatre Project. We have been working on creating a community network and addressing community concerns since the last year. As a part of our ongoing theatre workshops, we implemented a Playback Session to re-introduce ourselves as facilitators and actors, in order to hear the stories of our participants. The response was magical. Not only did we manage to share our intent with them, we also got requests from our workshops participants to get up and perform. Stories that emerged ranged from the feeling of loss to being let down by friends, to everyday troubles at home to being cheated by touts. Stories were personal and intimate.
The Playback session was categorically placed right in the middle of the Community Theatre workshops. These were conducted with 2 batches, i.e. with girls and boys separately. This session was tried with the boys’ batch due to time and space constraints.
Workshops at Jahangir Puri can be exhausting because of their length and the terrible weather in Delhi. That was possibly the first time, we as facilitators didn’t feel even an iota of exhaustion. At the end of that workshops, both us and our participants left feeling energised and confident about the activity they were engaged in. They came back the next day and reoriented their prepared work, which turned out to be better than ever.
It was a pleasure to read Rijul’s account and hear how powerful Playback Theatre can be.
Following the initial workshop, I made an overnight bus ride to Nanital in the Himalyan foothills (6087 ft.) as I wanted to find the hut where I lived in 1971 at a village called Jeolikote below Nanital at an altitude of about 4000 feet. Nanital is a Hill Station built around a lake from the time of the British Raj that served as an escape from the heat of the plains for the Colonial rulers. It’s now a holiday destination for Indians and serves the same purpose. It would be remiss not to mention the help of Rahul (very front of photo on the right) who drove me to the pick up point for my bus that evening which had moved to an obscure location.
My story, or at least part of it was that I ended up in Jeolikote back in 1971 having walked there barefoot (my money had run out and I was living on the street) and met an Indian school teacher called Ravi Chand who was about my age and visiting his mother who lived in the village and who was the local midwife. They very kindly let me stay for a few days and introduced me to an English writer and his wife who were living in a bungalow further along the valley. The writer was called Neil Smith (do get in touch if you ever read this) and they invited me to return and stay with them in September after the rains. It was July when I met them and I wanted to return to my search for my supposed Guru Hans Ji Maharaj (then 13 years -old) who was proving to be very elusive on his travels around the area, but that’s another story. I did return in September as arranged and they let me stay in the servant’s hut behind the bungalow. As I had no money, they gave me a smart suit to sell up in Nanital. So I duly walked up to Nanital via the goat path to hawk this suit around the local bazaar. I must have looked an odd sight, this barefoot long-haired hippy in ragged khurta and pyjama selling a very smart navy pinstripe double-breasted jacket and trousers. I did sell it and bought some provisions before walking back down the path to Jeolikote. I spent a delightful month in that valley post-monsoon
and while there wrote to my sister in England who sent me three one pound notes concealed in an envelope to get me back to Delhi where I had £40 waiting at the American Express to get me back to England overland; the way I had come. There was more money waiting at the American Express in Tehran to help me complete the journey and ensure that I came home. Except, I didn’t go straight home, I took a train to Bombay (as it was then known) then a boat down to Goa where some old friends were. I stayed on Anjuna and Calangute beaches for awhile just hanging out (there was hardly anything there in those days) before heading back to Delhi and beginning the trip home. I hitchhiked to Kabul leaving India on the day before the war started between India and Pakistan in early December. As I headed west across Pakistan on the top of trucks, military convoys were heading east towards the Indian border. I got back home on New Year’s Eve, the journey taking just under a month costing around £50.
I returned to Nanital 45 years later hoping to find the hut and see who might be living in the bungalow nowadays. I spent a few days hanging out in Nanital, getting my bag of repairs done by a very helpful Muslim tailor for 200 Rupees (£2) who wouldn’t accept any more money. I then rented a taxi for a couple of hours to drive down to Jeolikote, a village much expanded since I was last there. I asked the taxi driver to wait at a chai stall near where the goat path started, while I walked back towards the village. I did find the bungalow eventually, but it had been destroyed in a fire making it difficult to see from the road.
I climbed up to the ruins and saw that the hut had survived. But the debris surrounding the ruined bungalow that included a large number of discarded whisky bottles made me wary of approaching the hut any closer as it seemed unlikely that the current inhabitants would speak English or welcome my intrusion. I took a photograph before leaving,
then back on the road got waylaid by two groups of Indian tourists who wanted a photo opportunity with me and it was interesting to note that I still had novelty value. I walked back to the chai stall and my taxi driver asked around the people there, including an old man, but no one seemed to know what had happened to the bungalow or know of the midwife Mrs. Chand back in 1971.
Shortly after, I left Nanital and spent the entire day travelling to Rishikesh on boneshaker buses and spent a week there in a hotel with ‘Ganga View’ in Laxman Jhula, just out of town.
I had lived in Rishikesh in 1971 with the chillum Sadhus on the banks of the Ganges but couldn’t locate where they might although my chillum-smoking (Om Shankar!) days were long over. I was able to launch some puja boats (marigolds, incense and a candle on a leaf boat) down the Ganges for some friends before returning to Delhi to deliver the final day of the workshop.
Returning to my search for Hans Ji Maharaj back in 1971, I did eventually track down my Guru one rainy afternoon in a town called Ranikhet where he was giving Satsang in a private house. I filed through with all the other devotees, somehow and somewhat naively expecting to be blown away by his presence. Alas, when I saw him, I felt nothing, I wasn’t even disappointed, I just felt nothing. I went and sat down with some men in the corner and told them my story, they shrugged and said “For some men, there is no God.” I bummed a cigarette and left to continue my spiritual journey without a Guru.
To be continued…