Budhan Theatre: “Born actors, not criminals”

Budhan Theatre is about more than just acting, it’s about building a new identity, fighting social stigma and making people’s voices heard, loud and clear.

by Aisiri Amin

Dakxin Bajrange Chhara, director of Budhan Theatre. © Aneri Nihlani

In February 1998, Budhan Sabar who lived in the Purulia District in the Indian State of West Bengal was arrested by the police for alleged theft. A few days later Budhan died in police custody. While the police claimed that he hung himself in his jail cell with his “gamchha”, or thin towel, further investigation by a fact-finding group revealed that the police had beaten him to death.

It was this incident that inspired the Budhan Theatre’s first play, Budhan Bolta Hai written and directed by Dakxin Bajrange Chhara and performed almost immediately after this incident. The theatre group was founded in 1998 by Prof. Ganesh Devy and renowned writer activist Mahaswetha Devi.  For them, it wasn’t just about Budhan’s innocence, it was about the inhumane behaviour of the police towards the Denotified Tribes of India (DNT), which Budhan belonged to.

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A still from the play ‘Budhan Bolta Hai.’ © Budhan Theatre/Facebook

Back in 1871, the British colonisers labelled many nomadic communities as “born criminals” using the theory that criminality is hereditary.  They introduced the Criminal Tribes Act which enforced harsh punishments for members of criminal tribes. The act was passed for “the notification of criminal tribes.” With that, they took more than their freedom, they took their identity.

The members of community theatre group,  Budhan Theatre, are from the Chhara tribe, one of denotified tribal community in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Director of the group, Dakxin Chhara who also belongs to the Chhara community says, “They didn’t understand Indian civilisation and they wanted cheap labour so they branded them as criminals. They branded more than 200 communities and put them in 52 settlements.”

In 1952 these criminal tribes were de-notified after India’s independence. But in 1959  they were reclassified as “habitual offenders”. The stigma of them being a “criminal” is a shadow they haven’t been able to shake off. With no Constitutional guarantee and excluded from the society, the denotified tribes have been caged by the label of criminal for decades.

Dakxin with the Budhan Theatre team members. © Aneri Niilani

To highlight the plight of these tribes, to start a cultural discourse, Budhan Theatre was started. “We are born actors, not criminals,” says Dakxin.

Budhan Theatre mostly do street plays which are based on true events. What sets them apart is how they involve the audience in the plays which are often intense, wrapped in a strong social message.Since its birth, Budhan Theatre which has about 25 regular members, has performed 47 plays across India.

Dakxin has been leading the theatre group for almost two decades now. For him, theatre is more than storytelling, it’s a tool of resistance, a medium to create awareness which holds the power to bring about a change.

Dakxin was always into filmmaking but he never thought he would find his calling in theatre. The award-winning filmmaker is a graduate from  Gujarat University in Psychology. The only formal training he got in theatre was as a teenager when he bunked classes for two weeks to attend a theatre workshops. Years later when he heard that Mahaswetha Devi was associated with Budhan Theatre, he knew he had to be a part of it. He applied, got in and today he is the leader of the theatre group.

His first play was the intense Budhan Bolta Hai which was highly appreciated. “When I did the play Budhan Bolta Hai, I realised that there is a lot of to do. One play won’t change anything. I realised that this theatrical process has immense potential to develop communities leaders who can solve their own problems.”

This August  Budhan Theatre completes 20 years. Until now they have trained more than 300 youth across the country. “We don’t train people as actors, directors, and writers, we aim to make them a social change agent. Because as an actor or director or writer, when they start to perform an issue, it is important for them to try and solve the issue also. Performing can initiate the dialogue but it should also lead to solving the problem,” Dakxin explains.

“For instance, after performing each play we ask the people, ‘Are we second-class citizens?’ We try and start a cultural discourse between actor and spectator.”

Dakxin strongly believes that if a theatre group of actors addresses an issue through performance, it can do wonders. He goes on to talk about one such positive story. “We were doing a play called Bulldozer based on the slums which were brutally bulldozed by the local authorities. Through that play, many people came together in support of the cause. We also did a rally and performed there. We filed the case in high court and we won the case. This shows the kind of power that theatre can have.”

A still from one of their street plays. © Aneri Nihlani

To sensitise others, we need to be able to empathise, to understand why it matters and the relevance of it. In activist theatre, when you perform a play, the character becomes your own, you breathe in it and you feel what they felt. It’s a powerful medium that not only documents the incidents but also helps you intimately understand the society that it subsists in.

But unfortunately, theatre as an art has been long ignored in the Indian education system. “In India, we treat theatre as an annual event in schools, which for me is a crime. Theatre is important to develop leadership amongst the youth, make them sensitive towards important issues. If systemically theatre is used in education, many of the problems can be solved. Theatre makes you a thinker.”

Through theatre one can question, one can critically analyse the society, raise issues and question the loopholes and demand answers that the state doesn’t want to give. “But it is this critique that makes the society and the state uncomfortable which is why critical theatre is not funded by government agencies.”

But Dakxin strongly believes that the government should make theatre a compulsory subject in schools. “It’s something else to learn about things by using your body and voice.”

For him, theatre is much beyond acting. He feels everyone, be it actor, writer or director doing theatre should also be a social change agent. It’s important to work towards solving the problem instead of waiting for the government do so. He says, “Let’s start the dialogue and take it from there.”

©Aneri Nihlani

To all the theatre artists, Dakxin quotes Polish director Jerzy Grotowski. “Follow the Grotowski idea. He posed the question: What is indispensable to theatre? ‘Can the theatre exist without costumes and sets? Yes, it can. Can it exist without music to accompany the plot? Yes. Can it exist without lighting effects? Of course. And without a text? Yes.’ But what is crucial for theatre is the actor. And the actor is nothing but body and voice. So, your body and your voice are the powerful allies so use them well.”

And more importantly, learn to express, he says. While we struggle to not drown in the madness of the world, it’s important to set your emotions free. “Whatever you feel, be it anguish, love or pain, express. The society we live in constantly tries to suppress our emotions which eventually leads to frustration then violence. So, don’t hide your feelings. Feel it. Say it.”

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