Diversity Dialogues - The Conference that was..

National Theatre of the Oppressed Conference, 
November 26-30, 2014. Bengaluru.

The Conference was so much more than we expected. In terms of the number of people who responded to our invitation (we had 26 participants in Sanjoy's workshop and 65 participants in the 2 day Conference),   the enthusiastic participation in all the sessions, the smiles, the thoughtful questions, the many new friendships formed, the new conversations taking place, the emerging links between TO and other kinds of social justice work in India, and most of all, the number of young and not so young fresh TO converts!

Nov 26-28 , 2014. Workshop with Sanjoy Ganguly

The 26 participants in Sanjoy's 3 day Forum Theatre workshop had an unforgettable experience . Not only did they get to experience first hand the power of 30 years of TO work , they got to work with Sima too! While Sanjoy's skilful improvisations and transitions from game to image work to scenes offered great learning opportunities, his extended debriefs and the long discussions that interspersed all the activities emphasised the politics of this work, that is never to be neglected. Sima's warmth, energy and prodigious talent as an actress infused great enthusiasm in the group.  Together Sanjoy and Sima brought a wealth of learning and their generous sharing was a great contribution to the Conference. We were also fortunate to have Ralph Yarrow, an old friend of Jana Sanskriti, at the Conference.

Nov 29-30, 2014.   Games, Workshops, Presentations, and Discussions
22 Presenters, 65 participants, from across India

It was exciting beyond words to see TO bringing different worlds together. The programme was put together with a view to appealing to a mixed audience of TO practitioners and strangers to TO. We had also tried to balance theory and practice, experience and reflection, through a variety of sessions.

We opened with a drum circle,   and had three panel presentations, three workshops and three games sessions over two days. TO practitioners from Bangalore, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Delhi facilitated some classic, and popular TO games-  academics and activists, performers, playwrights, students, teachers, all played together.

Sanjoy Ganguly's  inaugural address was followed by a modified version of  a World Cafe session. Earnest and engaged group discussions took place at the following 'stations':   " The 'real' India- rural or urban?" "Is TO Activism or Art?" "Do we always need The Big Picture?" and "India needs multilingual classrooms". Our panel on women-  called "Rehearsal for Change- Women Enact Social Change", had four remarkable women  presenters who held their audience spellbound with their narratives of struggle and success.   At the end of Day 1, one of these  presenters  gave us an inspiring solo performance  about a pioneering woman educator from 19th century India.

Panels on Day 2  showed the wide spectrum of work being done in education, teacher training, with youth and children, and in mental health, and included one disturbing and thought-provoking presentation on state suppression of voices of dissent.  On the afternoon of Day 2, when everyone had had both a taste of TO and some exposure to the range of work being done around the country, we had a discussion on adaptations and modifications of TO. This session, titled  "Is there a 'real' TO?",   was chaired by Ralph Yarrow who provided a useful pocket description of TO for the many people in the conference who were new to TO.  Facilitators spoke about  combining TO with other pedagogies and shared their experiences, as well as some doubts and questions. There was a brief discussion, following my presentation in this session, about the difference in approach between TO and David Diamond's Theatre for Living. 

The last session on Day 2 was an innovative Image Theatre exercise.   For newcomers to TO, this was an opportunity to  experience the magic of this versatile tool. The exercise invited people to imagine a TO community for India- and it was wonderful to see great idealism and a pragmatic understanding of the challenges of building such a community. The exercise left people thinking of possibilities, and in the last few minutes of this session, we invited everyone to identify three people in the room they would want to work with, stay in touch with, or visit etc. 

During the closing ceremony, and in informal chats through the Conference, there was appreciation of the democratic space this conference created,   the freedom for everyone to be themselves and express themselves freely. The written feedback also stressed this. I think this was the best appreciation for all of us who had worked to organise this conference. We conceived of it as a workshop more  than as a conference- trying to make sure everyone felt respected, had fun, and also found the sessions useful. Given that we had a really diverse group of 65 people, the  Conference was actually an experiment in dialogue- the conference objective of opening up spaces for dialogue across our differences was something that we tried to incorporate in the way we conducted every session.

One important and integral part of this effort was the space we gave to other Indian languages.   We encouraged people to use the language of their choice, and several presentations and the two evening performances happened in languages other than English. The impromptu singing in the breaks was always in regional Indian languages.  For discussions, we restricted ourselves to two languages, English and Hindi, in order to save time. Although people moved between English and Hindi fairly casually, and there was no serious discussion on this, I believe we achieved something significant with this policy decision on opening  the door to Indian languages other than English. At one level, we did not wish to impose English on our presenters and performers who worked in other languages. It also allowed all of us to be as we are outside the conference, in the real world, moving freely between languages. But at a much deeper level, it was an experiment in our ability to transcend the politics of language. We saw the definite possibility; we also saw areas for learning and improvement.

The parai performance  on the evening of Day 2 was the perfect closing- a group of young men and women from a community that had seen oppression over centuries, sang and danced to the beat of the parai, drawing everyone in with their irresistible energy and joy. That night, everything seemed possible.

Enjoy some pictures!

Diversity Dialogues -  this is a link to conference pictures

Portraits of Diversity Dialogues - this is a link to some really nice individual pictures, close ups , etc, that are not included in the general DD album pictures.

Haan, Main Savitribai Phule - as the name says, these are pictures of Sushama Deshpande's performance. Contains some absolute gems.