Casting Stones

A director channels the rage of Kashmiri youth into theatre

Sanjay Kumar of Pandies Theatre guides his Kashmiri actors through a theatre exercise in Sonamarg. COURTESY PANDIES THEATRE GROUP
01 July, 2013

ON 3 JUNE 2013, a police truck hauled 16 teenage boys from the Sopore region of northern Kashmir to a rented hut in Sonamarg, which is also known as the ‘meadow of gold’, in the mountains east of Srinagar. One by one, the boys got down from the truck to be received by Sanjay Kumar, who had landed in Kashmir the previous day. Kumar, the co-founder of a Delhi-based theatre group called Pandies, had come to lead the boys in a four-day acting workshop with an additional element to its drama: his performers were all stone pelters who had once busied themselves with hurling rocks at police and army personnel.

“The boys coming out of the caged vehicle was a very powerful moment which I would never forget,” said Kumar, who is also an English professor at the University of Delhi’s Hans Raj College. “No one was sure whether they have been brought directly from the police station or from their homes. The image of them coming out from a harsh world to a space they know nothing about is in itself something extraordinary.”

Kumar believes that the boys, who have been at loggerheads with the Indian state since the 2010 mass uprising in Kashmir, are victims of state oppression. “Some of them were shot while others were beaten up—and all of them are under constant surveillance of the police,” he said when I met him in his Vasant Kunj apartment last month. “The kids are being shot dead by the state apparatus regularly. There has to be another way of dialogue which does not end up in funerals.”

Kumar tried to initiate such a dialogue by directing the boys in three plays, which they performed for each other and a small audience that included a district commissioner of police. Among the plays was Zooni, a drama about a maid who has been like a mother to the young son of a family for whom she works. When the woman finds out that the boy has been throwing stones, she forces his family to excommunicate him so that he stops participating in this act of resistance.

Kumar’s own relationship with theatre began at Delhi University in 1984, when, along with some colleagues, he began staging adaptations of plays from around the world. The plays, chosen for their social and political themes, were performed against the backdrop of various contemporary events, ranging from violence against women and farmer suicides to liberalisation and the fall of Babri Masjid. Pandies, as the theatre group came to be called, derived its name from an expletive used by British soldiers and officials during the Indian rebellion of 1857, when they mispronounced the name Panday while referring to Mangal Panday. For the British, a ‘Pandy’ was a traitor, but for Kumar it signified something else: a rebel.

In Sonamarg, the stone pelters were energised by the opportunity to articulate their feelings through the workshop. During group discussions, the boys frequently expressed anger over police accusations that they were drug addicts, only throwing rocks for a pittance that anti-government activists would pay them. Among the stone throwers was Kranti (an alias he had received as tribute to his stone pelting) and Atif, who lost his brother during a clash with security forces. Kranti, in particular, was extremely agitated and told the group, “Those who want to say that we do it for money have an agenda of belittling the movement.”

At one point during rehearsals, Kumar asked Atif if he planned to stop assailing the police and army. “You already have sacrificed your brother, won’t you stop hurling stones now?” he said. “I promise I won’t pelt stones in Sopore,” Atif replied. “But I will throw them in Budgam or somewhere else,” he added with a smile.