Outcast(e): Exploring Dalits' rights
On Monday, Nov. 28., the “Human Rights in Global Perspective” class, taught by Oak Fellow Fatima Burnad, gave an interactive performance in the Pugh Center that emphasized bringing social justice to the Indian caste system.
The performers designed their show with Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” in mind: using a forum-style method, the class allowed audience members to participate and comment on the actor’s performance. This system allowed the performers to both inspire and facilitate a dialogue about the oppression of Dalits—the “untouchable” caste of India.
In the first scene, a Dalit woman goes to a tea shop and endures verbal abuse by the discriminating shop-owner and patrons. In the second scene, the same woman faces more discrimination as she goes to a public well to gather water. People in the street ridicule her for walking in the middle of the road in the third scene. When the woman arrives home in the final scene, her landlord is waiting to rape her, expecting her body to be as much of a commodity as the land.
A common idea among the characters of the higher caste was that the Dalit were dirty and their presence somehow polluted the air and environment around them. They also had no value and could be seen as resources. While the setting and the scenes were fairly simplistic, the actors made sure to accentuate the social issues at work. These were appropriately the most noticeable aspects of the play, facilitating a better awareness and understanding of how the caste system works in India.
Rather than passively watching the scenes progress, after the first round of four scenes the audience was able to yell, “Freeze!” and change the scene as they saw fit. Audience members could either direct performers to do something or choose to replace the bystander or Dalit and act out their part as they saw fit. The audience members who did want to take part all chose to adopt one of these roles. This allowed audience members to act out how they would address such issues in the real world.
Of the audience members, Mimi Smith ’13 and Megan Lasher ’15 each took a turn playing the role of the Dalit woman while Amnesty International Club President Aquib Yacoob ’15 and Sociology and African-American Studies Professor Cheryl Townsend Gilkes took turns as the bystander. All of these people tried to convince the actors’ characters that their actions made no sense and were very harmful. However, this strategy did not work and shows how difficult it is to change these attitudes in India. In the third round, Burnad walked into each scene and showed what she and her group have done in these situations.
Though created to be a performance, this “Theatre of the Oppressed” was more of an unorthodox community forum on a human rights issue. Rather than explicitly setting a topic, the performances drew in the audience and made them understand the topic on a more practical level. Since talking about a human rights issue in an abstract manner rarely leads to workable solutions and real change, bringing the audience closer to the discrimination was a much more effective means of encouraging change and activism.
Burnad stayed in the Pugh Center for some time after the performance so that audience members could ask questions or discuss with her what they had just learned. After such a thought-provoking performance, the Dalit will surely be in the hearts and minds of the audience for quite some time.