Grant Period: Nine months
Deepa Rajkumar is an independent researcher, theatre practitioner and writer. Her doctoral research, post-doctoral projects, discussions and writings on theatre and arts collectives across India and abroad have remained focussed on the politics of knowledge production and the production of autonomous, creative spaces. Her writings go beyond the academic to become artistic exercises and political interventions that question the linearity of conventional academic and storytelling practices, authorship, readership, representation, authority and agency. This project enables Deepa and six other artists to create a performance work exploring the identity and politics of the ‘refugee’.
The roots of this project lie in Deepa’s PhD dissertation titled Moving Sudanese Stories: Voices that Contest the Dominant Refugee Discourse(s). This work explores the complex journeys of people from (former) Sudan (now Sudan and South Sudan) who made their way to Canada mainly between the 1990s and 2000s. It is an oral history of the conversations and recollections of almost one hundred and fifty men, women and children that Deepa interviewed in Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto. Woven together, from multiple locations, and in dialogue with one another, the everyday stories of struggles and negotiations contest the dominant discourses that place refugees as passive, lacking agency, and as characterised mainly through their experience of displacement.
It was during her work with Manalmagudi Theatre Land in Kovilpatti, that Deepa came across a group of six other artists from diverse backgrounds whose politics of land, body and people were similar to those of her own. They came together as a collective and set out on a similar journey. At this point, Deepa’s dissertation on the Sudanese refugees served as the base document that sparked off further dialogues within the collective. For each of them, the refugee, and its violent construction had personal resonances. Therefore they related strongly to the approach of the dissertation and the narratives in it.
The artists in this collective along with Deepa include, Savita Rani, a research scholar and theatre practitioner, Binu Kumar and Lilly, both theatre, folk arts and martial arts practitioners, Sarath Sasi, a visual artist and theatre practitioner, Chenthuran, a writer, editor, literary, theatre and film critic and Rathinavel, a theatre and yoga practitioner and photographer. Enabled by this grant, the collective seeks to create a performance that questions the prevalent dominant refugee discourses that brand refugees as deviant, criminal and the ‘other’. Anchored in the stories of the Sudanese refugees, the performance will be built on the artists’ individual and collective explorations and experiences of marginalisation, exclusions, borders, statist politics, ‘refugee-ness’ and ‘other-ness’. Through the interweaving of narratives across the borders, the performance seeks to engage with the politics of the refugee that are currently rife in India and in other parts of the world. While the performance refuses to see the refugee as a distinct, limited category of human experience, it also does not want to appropriate and homogenise the experience of the refugee. The attempt is to create a consciousness of the number of ways in which exclusions take place and to open channels for human connections and inclusions.
Since the production fundamentally questions the idea of borders, in terms of form as well, it seeks to move beyond conventional theatre that separates performers and audiences. Chaotic in structure, the work will be ‘polyphonic, multi-vocal, multi-located and multi-media, and unsettling of conventional theatrical practices, in terms of body, time, space and director-actor-designer-technician-audience relationships.’ All artists in this project, in a self-reflexive and responsible manner, will open up the space for audiences as well to be able to involve themselves in a similar process. The production will be devised, scripted, designed, directed and performed by the collective. Further, kalari and yoga expert Maneesh, and theatre practitioners Anish Victor and S Murugaboopathy will be resource persons on this project.
The work will be carried out in phases of one month duration, with a fortnight break between each phase. In each of these, ideas will be developed and shared with small audiences of relevant theatre practitioners, critics, friends, in various spaces, for feedback. There will be four such work-in-progress sharing sessions before the final set of work-in-progress shows take place from September 2018 onwards. These shows will begin with Pondicherry and then move to Chennai and other parts of Tamilnadu and South India. It could be that other interactive artistic works may emerge from the final production. The entire process will be documented in still, audio-video form and in writing. This documentation will be the deliverables from this project.
The process of developing this proposal took almost a year. The evaluators endorsed the significance and the conceptual strength of this project but had some questions about how it would play out in performance. Following this, programme staff made a trip to Pondicherry in November 2018 to watch the team in rehearsals. It was here that staff witnessed some very powerful moments that had come out of their rehearsal process. This gave IFA a clearer idea of how the performance would take shape and the confidence to make the grant.
Across all its programmes, IFA has sought to support work on marginalised voices / narratives / histories. While many of our projects have addressed this variously in terms of gender, class, caste and so on, this project is unique in the way it weaves together, inextricably, international, national and personal politics, making a larger comment on human existence. Given the refugee crisis in India and across the world, in present times, we believe that this work is particularly of relevance now and will be able to reach diverse and multiple audiences in India and abroad.