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Aatish is a Delhi based theatre group founded by four women who refuse to keep their voices down. They use street plays to raise awareness about issues we often ignore, suppress, or don’t know about.
We spoke to Paromita Bardoloi and Ankita Anand, two of the Founders of Aatish, about their love for theatre, their passion for social issues, and the journey with Aatish so far. Aatish has performed plays on issues as diverse as violence against women and the rights of landless labourers – the common theme being to speak up for and with the marginalised.
(Incidentally, Paromita is one of our very own writers – you can view her evocative work at Women’s Web here.)
Before we talk about Aatish, tell us a little about yourself, and your co-founders. Who are the kickass women behind Aatish? What do they do, and where do they come from?
Paromita Bardoloi: I am an alumnus of Miranda House. I was a part of the theatre society in college. As I look back now, I think that was the turning point of my life. It opened me to a myriad of experiences and to raise an individual voice. I realized that every voice is important. So, the urge to speak up gave birth to Aatish in 2011. I work as a writer. I write about things that matter, and sometimes, that just don’t.
Ankita Anand: I joined the Hindi Dramatic Society of my college, Miranda House, in 2003. In the society, we used to produce three plays a year: a one-act play, a street play, and a full-length production. We started writing and directing our own plays, and had over fifty performances in three years. In the year 2011, we got together to form our own theatre group called Aatish, as we discovered that we had been unable to let go of theatre even after college and continued to be involved with it in our individual lives.
Priyanka is devoted to theatre full time. Saumya is an associate planning director in an advertising firm. I am a freelance writer. Now there are some enthusiastic younger members who are helping take the work forward.
What prompted you to involve yourself with a medium like street theatre, in the age of the Internet?
Paromita: Had Internet been the solution to all awareness and challenges, India would have already been changed by now. Like every art form that has taken human thought a step ahead, street theatre has its own way of doing so. You can reach out to any part of the world, any street, any corner, and perform. Wherever you stand, you create your own stage. The body space is negligible with the audience, which makes it more real. Thus in a street play, it’s easier to make a point. This is one of the reasons why we chose street plays.
Ankita: Internet and auditoria are not available to everyone. We wanted to reach places where these could not. And we wanted people to start doing more theatre themselves, to use them as a medium of expression for their joy and struggle. There is something uniquely empowering about street theatre. You rely completely on your bodies rather than sets, props, lights, etc. We end up doing acts and getting into the characters like we had never imagined before. This power of the seemingly mundane, everyday, ordinary to transform things makes one believe that change on a larger scale is also possible by us, the ‘ordinary’ people.
This power of the seemingly mundane, everyday, ordinary to transform things makes one believe that change on a larger scale is also possible by us, the ‘ordinary’ people.
People often shy away from the controversial topics you talk about. What made you pick these topics, and what response do you get from people?
Paromita: The idea behind picking a topic is not to be controversial or otherwise. In a civil society, if anything ails a part of it, it should be spoken about. We believe that we are a part of a civil society that encourages freedom of speech and justice to all, as granted by our constitution. What ails one, should trouble us all. So, anything that we see needs a voice, we stand up and speak for it.
Ankita: The point is to choose topics on which there is minimum awareness. We did not want our efforts to be mere duplication of other media but to cover what they had left out. It wasn’t about whether they are controversial. ‘Sirf hungama khada karna hamara maqsad nahin.’ (Solely creating a fuss is not our purpose). But, yes, there are subjects around which there is lot of misinformation by propagandists. In those cases we certainly try to provide people with clear points of view or an alternate perspective. The fact that we are talking about it encourages the audience to join in the conversation.
The Aatish team
Could you share with us an instance where an audience member’s participation or response, moved you strongly? What response do you expect from people? What is the change you seek to effect?
Paromita: Over years of experience, I have learnt that audience reaction is not something you can predict. So you really have to wait till the play ends to see the audience react.
It was March this year; we were performing plays on ‘Women in public spaces‘. We were referring specifically to the buses. After the play got over, two ladies who looked 60 plus, came over to have a conversation. They said that they really understood that if there were more women in any public transport or places, it will be much safer for other women. This is the effect we desire to have, that for anything, if we are many voices standing together, we all win together as a society.
Ankita: After our play against menstrual taboos, a girl came to us with a question about a menstruation problem her ‘friend’ was trying to deal with. She was struggling to explain it to us. At that point the girl standing behind her came forward – “Actually, it is me she is talking about.” She then went on to explain her problem clearly. That was a moving moment for us, when a girl unwilling to speak about a taboo topic till a few moments ago came up to us and spoke boldly. This is what we expect, to break the silence around all ‘that must not be named’. Ultimately we hope to bring in a larger change where people do not accept things unquestioningly, and are able to resist oppressive structures being imposed on them.
That was a moving moment for us, when a girl unwilling to speak about a taboo topic till a few moments ago came up to us and spoke boldly.
How does working on a play or issue affect you? Could you share with us a memory or an experience that has been particularly transformative?
Paromita: What really affects one is when we do thorough research on the topic and then perform. When we were doing our play on menstruation, being a woman, I realized that what is supposed to be just another biological process has been used against women as a taboo, or as a power play. These things really transform the way you look at things. You end up changing the person you are.
Ankita: In college, we were working on a play trying to cover the subtle ways in which patriarchy works, which cannot be classified as direct physical violence and thus often escape attention. While making this play, each of our individual experiences came out and were included in the play. We found a space of perfect solidarity and bonding where we could be completely free with each other. This cohesiveness showed in the play too and we won almost everywhere.
What future do you hope to build for Aatish ?
Paromita: At this phase that we are in, we are definitely looking for expansion. We are looking for more outreach. In our past we have been collaborating with different NGOs in different parts of the country, this year especially we are looking at the North-East. Though we are into street plays, our idea behind any project is awareness, any medium that brings in awareness in any form of storytelling; we are definitely open to it.
Ankita: We now want to build sustained campaigns around particular issues through our plays. It won’t be simply about performing. We would like to facilitate more interactions and workshops, and find ways to follow up these to assess impact and learn to do better. We would want to continue our practice of covering both urban and rural spaces, only in a more extensive manner.
To know more about Aatish, or just start a conversation, head over to their Facebook page.
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