Liberation Through Theatre

November 3, 2010 at 9:15 PMNov (Activism, Friends, Media, Musings, Slice Of Life, Theater)

Dakxin Bajrange, founder member of the Budhan Theater in Charanagar, Ahmedabad is all set to leave to U.K. for his studies in Theater with the help of the fellowship he has received from the Ford Foundation.

Shifting the focus from himself to his community members, at this point, Mr. Bajrange said, “Chharanagar now enjoys a distinct identity as an ‘actor’s colony’. Many of its inhabitants are employed in reputed places of work; and two of its artists have made entries into prestigious National School of Drama, earning name for themselves as well as for the city of their birth. Another member of their community is a casting director in a Hollywood film production named Patang. Yet another is studying drama at a local college, and one of its major actors is a journalist, and crime reporter for a national daily called DNA. Another youth is working for TV 9, a Gujarati news channel, anchoring a programme on crime; whereas a female counterpart has made her name into Gujarati film industries.”

It is but natural for anyone to ask what is so great about all these. Mr. Bajrange and the people of Charanagar belong to a de-notified tribe called Chara.

What is de-notified tribe?

Britishers tagged million of People of India named them ‘Born Criminals’ to create ‘Criminal Tribes Act – 1871’. An inhuman act, branded 192 tribal ‘Born Criminals’ and make worst life of such communities, put them into different settlement (like Nazi – concentration camps) and restricted their movements who were traditionally nomads and performers.

The British policy makers, baffled by some indigenous itinerary ways of some of the tribes and nomad groups of India, transfixed them in the category of hereditary criminals. Such unnatural legislation coupled with newly imposed forest laws and revenue policies deprived many of the itinerants of their livelihood, which led them into petty crime for sustenance, which reinforced the idea of ‘hereditary criminal traits’. This piece of legislation called the Criminal Tribes Act was enacted by the British Government in 1871 and was periodically revised to vest the police with more power.

The Act authorized the local governments to establish industrial, agricultural or reformatory schools and settlements for the ‘Criminal Tribe’ members. In such cases, the members were not allowed to venture outside the enclosure without a pass, which was issued at the discretion of the manager of the settlement. The law not only restricted their movement to certain area, but made them venerable to all sorts of brutality and excesses.

Let’s look into this act’s page no 356: “Any eunuch so registered who appears, dressed or ornamented like woman, in a public street or place, or any other place, with the intention of being seen from a public street or place, or who dances or plays music, or takes part in any exhibition, in a public street or place or for a hire in private house may be arrested without warrant and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine or with both”

This is an ideal example that how British dominated traditional talents of nomadic communities and seen as criminals. Due to tainted history as nomads social stigmas have developed about the DNTs situating them at considerable disadvantage in competing for employment and education. They have become scapegoats and usual suspects for police, placing them in constant uneasy relation to authority and that has resulted in an extremely high rate of incarceration.


The Chharas of Gujarat, also known as Sansis in Punjab and Kanjars in Rajasthan, were indigenous and nomadic people of the Punjab region who were “notified” and settled by an order of the British colonial government in the 1930s, in a colony called Chharanagar and rehabilitated as industrial and agricultural labor.

Released from the forced labor camp which had been their prison for the past forty years, the Chharas were resettled at the outskirts of Ahmedabad, in Chharanagar. Roughly three square miles, with a population of over twenty thousand, Chharanagar is primarily known for its home brewed liquor – illegal in the dry state of Gujarat. The government of Gujarat gave them provisional land in front of the settlement, but also set up a police station to keep a close watch on them.

Accustomed to being imprisoned, beaten, extorted and humiliated over the decades, a cumulative anger always burned in the Chharas. The educated among them were denied employment after the name ‘Chharanagar’ was discovered on their resumes, and earnest students were shunted from good schools. Punished once by the past, and twice by a people who maliciously remember it, the Chhara youths were desperately seeking a remedy to break through this vicious circle. With faith in education and inspired by Mahasweta Devi, a literary figure and activist of repute and Ganesh Devi, a scholar-writer committed to the cause of the adivasis and de-notified tribes of India, they decided to jettison the life of crime lived by their parents.

Liberation through theatre

“Theatre Art is used by our forefathers for thieving. Sorry I can’t explain it in detail as it is still survival of our some of people. It was Invisible Theatre. This art was in our genes. We used it for social change and community development. We didn’t inherit our ancestor’s crimes but we did retain that artistic strain. And a play group by the name of ‘Budhan Theatre’ was founded on 31st August 1998 in commemoration of the day when India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, lifted the stigma of criminality from the settled tribes in 1952. 5 years after Independence,” recollects Mr. Bajrange
What is Budhan Theatre? Is it concrete made Theatre or auditorium? Is it practicing conventional plays? Or what kind of plays? Who are the performers in it? Why they are performing Theatre Art since last 11 years? Where it is? Let’s glance in the Art who changed identity and lives of Stigmatized Group.

Budhan Theatre is Tradition, Culture, Transformation, Weapon to Protest on a Non- Violent way and medium of development which began in 1998 in the infamous area known as Chharanagar in Ahmedabad City. People had a mindset that it is a ghetto of ‘Thieves’ and Bootleggers. The Charas were always ‘Forever Suspect’ in the eye of legal and judiciary system.

In 1998 with the help of Dr. Ganesh Devy and Mahasveta Devi Theatre journey began and the Charas performed a play Budhan, a play based on the custodial death of Budhan Sabar in Purulia District by West Bengal police. The play was penned by Mr. Bajrange. The play performed over 300 shows in schools, collages, institutes, seminars and festivals. In fact Budhan Theatre has strong relation with violence as most of plays of Budhan Theatre based on the atrocities on de-notified tribes. Through Theatre art, the youth of Budhan Theatre are fighting but on a non violent way.

Budhan Theater made and performed 21 plays among them 8 plays were performed by Chhara children. Now they learn how to express themselves through Theatre Art and develop Theatre. They are writing, directing and composing plays.

Budhan Theatre has performed street plays to raise awareness about the condition of their likes. Their goal is to demonstrate that Chharas are not “born criminals,” they are humans with real emotions, capacities, and aspirations. Each of their productions has dramatized the events surrounding custodial deaths, abductions, beatings and torture of such tribes across the map of the country. At present, a matured Budhan Theatre is reaching out to other similarly stigmatized communities and including their stories in its repertoire.

“By Practicing Theatre in Budhan Theatre, I can see the transformation of performer, community and place where people did not want to come. And now Chharanagar is being identified as a Theatre Activity Centre and slowly, people are coming to Chharanagar,” said Mr. Bajrange with great satisfaction.

In fact, Budhan Theatre is reviving tradition art of Chharas in a positive manner for social change and community development and being develop as a potential cultural platform to raise voice of Denotified Tribes against all odds and atrocities. Budhan Theatre is trying to remove a Criminal Stigma on Chhara Tribe. Through theatre the Charas are sensitizing mainstream societies for social acceptance and to the system for our fundamental and human rights.

“On 31st Aug. 2008, the Charas celebrated Budhan@ten and performed play ‘Ek Aur Balcony’, inspired by French playwright Jean Genat’s La Balcon. In last 10 years we had performed specifically focused ‘Violence’ depicted real life plays and when we were opening Ek Aur Balocy on 31st Aug. 2008, we did not expect that too much audience because we were first time performing in the heart of town. But, when curtain went up we saw entire auditorium was over crowded,” recollects Mr. Bajrange and adds to it, “It’s proved that Violence on Denotified Tribes accepted by wider audience and it is day by day increasing. To perform violence is becoming an Acceptance from the rest of world and acceptance is opening various kind of livelihood options and slowly the stigmatized community is transforming from Past to present and that is all due to THEATRE.”

This write up is majorly based on the paper that Dakxin Bhai presented in Udupi and partial on my recent meeting with him in Delhi. I have merged the both and tried giving a feature like look to it.

02 November 2009

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