The play conflates its ostensible focus on ex-criminal tribes with the problems that beset Dalits as a whole which, given the narrative that is emerging post the murder of Chindaki, is not entirely a departure. The tribal question and the caste question can be still tackled together.
Last week, we were left numb by the news of the lynching of a young tribal man, Madhu Chindaki, by self-professed vigilantes who cruelly and puerilely recorded his ordeal. He hailed from the Attappadi forest reserves, a region with a large traditionally self-sustaining indigenous population. His half-bemused expression, even while bound and confined, possibly moments before what is now widely regarded as his martyrdom, is untouched by guile or contrition. He was a forest-dweller battling mental health issues, and could probably not completely fathom what was being done to him. One photograph doing the rounds reads, “Brothers, I stole because I was hungry. Should I be killed for that?” Another is that of a clay figurine created in his likeness, and a third re-imagines him as The Little Prince from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella, inscribed with the message, “Sorry, we couldn’t find enough space for you here.” One wouldn’t call them memes because they aren’t frivolous or disposable. They have the force of virality because of the measureless pathos and outrage packed into an image that will likely have the iconic staying power of, say, Rohith Vemula’s serenely smiling visage drawn in blue ink.
For more than a decade, the Attappadi region has had a well-known theatre connection. It is home to the theatre outfit founded by contemporary auteur Sankar Venkateswaran. Initially, he sought out spaces there in which he could cost-effectively develop his early works, like Sahyante Makan: The Elephant Project (2007), a theatrical interpretation of Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon’s poem. Away from the expensive trappings of civilisation, there was a serenity and freedom afforded to artistic exploration, the value of which cannot be overstated. With time, he found he couldn’t remain completely inured to the existential circumstances of the people who lived around him, in the same habitat. In 2013, Venkateswaran was awarded an International Ibsen Scholarship, of around 25 lakh rupees, to evolve adaptations of Henrik Ibsen’s works with the local tribal populace. It provided an opportunity for him to merge his artistic practice with the setting in which it thrived.
During this year’s International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK), a minor fracas provided early talking points at the festival. This edition’s theme was announced as ‘Reclaiming the Margins’. The official blurb stated, “We hope to highlight the power of the margins as a space for collective reflection, engagement and action: a place where silences are broken, old languages revived, new ones forged, and, a space to make the invisible, visible.” Venkateswaran was part of a panel on Theatres of Resistance, in which his address to the audience consisted of reading out, almost in its entirety, the script of his new dramatic work, Criminal Tribes Act, a two-hander featuring Anirudh Nair and Chandra Ninasam (Chandru), commissioned by the Zürcher Theater Spektakel. When asked by the chair, M K Raina, to wrap up his spiel, Venkateswaran berated the organisers (the festival is run by the government’s cultural wing, the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi) for their lip-service towards an overarching thematic idea that he said they had no locus standi to actually champion. Festival directors Raina and Rajiv Krishnan, the first outside-Kerala curators since ITFoK’s inception, tried to assuage him, but he staged a walk-out with a few of his cohorts.
One reason for Venkateswaran’s outburst was his anger at the treatment meted out to a contingent of Attappadi tribals who had made the arduous trek down to Thrissur, on their own expense, in order to participate in the festival. ITFoK is always short on resources and manpower, and at previous editions the tribals had always found employment, but this time, they were turned back even after being kept waiting for days for a decision to be made on their involvement. The irony of a festival high-mindedly claiming to reclaim the margins, but finding no space within its ramparts for people who were truly marginalised, was not lost on Venkateswaran. This year’s edition uncharacteristically featured such mainstream free-for-all attractions as a rock gig and a Bollywood concert, as opposed to the traditional forms like theyyam that he had tried to showcase during his own stints as ITFoK’s festival director. Then there was the politics of representation — a panel on protest theatre filled with international names and upper-caste faces. In this Venkateswaran counted himself — a Tamil Brahmin born into privilege, who has received impeccable international tutelage in theatre, and whose practice is extensively supported by foreign funding.
It is through this prism that one must look at Criminal Tribes Act, where Venkateswaran juxtaposes two actors from disparate backgrounds. Chandru is Dalit while Nair is upper-caste. The play conflates its ostensible focus on ex-criminal tribes with the problems that beset Dalits as a whole which, given the narrative that is emerging post the murder of Chindaki, is not entirely a departure. The tribal question and the caste question can be still tackled together. In the play, Chandru is mesmerising both in terms of an actor’s deportment and the seething gravitas he exhibits that belies the stories that he holds within himself like a bad luck charm — of an inherited social exclusion that has to be negotiated every day. His was a childhood full of painful memories that have not been vindicated to this day, yet his demeanour is never that of a victim, but of someone who has acquired his bearings all on his own.
By contrast, Venkateswaran casts Nair (and himself, since the short piece is accompanied by a Q&A that serves as an important addendum to the performance) almost as an agency-giver who translates all of Chandru’s lines into English (which arguably, was not really required in this instance) and attempts to steer the proceedings. There is a conceit that practitioners hold on to, of being neutral bodies in space, yet Nair and Venkateswaran are not able to shed the colossal trappings of privilege that appear to limit their understanding of the ostensibly simple truths recounted by Chandru, and the toll they must have extracted from him. The upper-caste men end up as entirely spurious to this endeavour. It is not significant that the notion of ‘castelessness’ (as embodied by Nair) should be offered up as an example of a post-caste society, when all that is signifies is a deafening insularity that is a symptom of the divisions that riddle our society, rather than any kind of panacea. In a recent performance in Mumbai (which took place on the same day as ITFoK opened in Thrissur) some in the audience may have been able to train an intersectional gaze on the liminal spaces occupied by Chandru, but others remained insulated from the reality of his existence, as the piece did little to bridge a gap, already deemed insurmountable. Criminal Tribes Act is likely to be just a blip in the horizon, but the memory of Chindaki’s death will remind us of the prejudices that reign unabated in our country. The correction of historical wrongs means nothing when that history is still being written.