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Indian Street Plays

Street theatre brings hope for Indian women
Indian provincial minister Biswanath Chowdhury has translated his love for theatre into a government programme to assist exploited women across 40,000 villages, staging plays that help educate women and their families to the dangers of forced early marriage

Guardian Weekly, Friday 31 July 2009
Biswanath Chowdhury is interviewed by journalist Anthony Dias

I have always had a passion for theatre and often frequented playhouses as a young man. Today, as I hold the reins of the Women, Child and Social Welfare ministry, I realise that my passion has come to good use. During my widespread tours throughout the Bengal province, I understood that we Indians have a natural ally in drama, which is what set me thinking.

The province of Bengal has a population touching 90 million and three-quarters of them live in the myriad, poor villages where education is minimal and people have to subsist on plants and herbs during lean seasons. I cannot forget that 28% of these villagers live below the poverty line which in India is abysmally low even compared to other developing nations. However, we try and live in cheer and this joy comes from our natural flair and love for drama.

The Integrated Child Development Services, a project which is close to my heart, has started organising street plays in far-flung areas on the Indian borders with Nepal and Bangladesh where child-trafficking and women exploitation are rampant evils. Lectures help, conventions take matters another step forward but the best way to make the villagers aware is through drama.

Our government has requested top playwrights to create stories which can connect with the villagers and educate them. The response has been hugely encouraging. Only the other day, during a visit to the tribal belt of Purulia, which is inhabited by the poorest of the poor, a group of bubbly girls in their late-teens came up to me and said that their families were forcing them to get married while they wanted to study further.

I immediately started talking to them, and realised that they had come to this realisation only after watching one of our plays in which the evils of child marriage had been depicted with telling effect. I was overjoyed and immediately summoned their parents and warned them about the consequences of marrying off their daughters so soon.

Once they understood that it was a criminal offence, they backtracked. I am told that all those girls are now studying in upper school.

A street play held in public view on a makeshift stage also makes for a festival. Whenever there is a play to be staged, my department starts making pre-recorded announcements over rickshaws fitted with microphones and colourful posters are plastered everywhere. The children look forward to the event and pester their parents to take them along. It thus becomes a family affair and villagers from adjacent areas also come in. The plays are almost always successes.

My department officials are always present at every function and try and make the affairs as colourful and appealing as possible. There are lots of song and dances and, last month, we had a typical Gambhira folk-style rendering in North Bengal where real fire torches were used and the clash of cymbals echoed throughout the villages.

The more dramatic these plays are, the more excitement they generate and the more tears shed by women watching – and the greater chance we have of the dart hitting the bull&;s eye in terms of awareness.

We still do not have specific figures but there has been a significant rise in awareness levels about the ills of child marriage, trafficking and lack of education. Back in the metropolis of Calcutta, I get to hear of case studies where villagers have refused dowry and goaded their daughters to study, citing the stories from our plays.

There have been occasions when we have held group discussions and brought in eminent dramatists from the city to talk to villagers. They have been accompanied by experts from our welfare department. The questions that are sometimes asked make me feel sad.

One day, an elderly villager asked whether his daughter would die an untimely death if she were not married off by age 12. I understand the level of ignorance, but I am sure that with time and progressive steps taken by the government, at least some of the villagers will be able to understand what the truth is. They, in turn, will pass along the message.

We also hope that these street plays will give rise to an increased appreciation of the arts among the people and we encourage villagers to take part in acting as well as decorating the stages.

However, there have been instances when our people have been attacked in the run-up to a stage play while performances have been booed by miscreants. I have instructed policemen to be present in numbers during all performances and we are keeping a log of vulnerable areas. We expected this and our our department is up to handling the menace.

Over 200,000 women are participating in these programmes at different levels. The sheer number perhaps makes our programme the largest such exercise at development through art in the world.

It is time that we opened our eyes to tour treatment of women and the lack of awareness about women&;s development. These street plays are just the beginning; there has to be greater efforts. We have also begun classrooms and kitchens in jails which are supervised by women inmates.

Mere campaigns in the press and on television will not, and cannot, solve a problem which has been existed for centuries in this country. We must ensure women become more aware of their situation. Only then will things start changing for the better.

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