Dramatic Impact

A Palestinian theatre group finds comrades in Delhi

Faisal Abu Alheja, an actor and instructor with the Freedom Theatre, was one of its first students after it was founded, in 2006, in the West Bank town of Jenin. Utsa Hazarika
01 March, 2015

THE DAY SHIFT at the Atlas Cycles factory in Sahibabad, in the north-east of the National Capital Region, ends at 5 pm. On 5 January, workers filed through a security check at the complex’s gates and into the cold twilight. A cluster of red flags, each bearing a hammer and sickle, rippled nearby; under them stood a small clutch of activists from the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, wearing matching visors. With them were seven actors from Jana Natya Manch, or Janam—a left-wing street theatre group based in Delhi. “Aao aao natak dekho,” the actors cried, inviting the workers to a play. About a hundred of them gathered around.

Janam, founded in 1973, performs regularly at universities, working-class neighbourhoods, industrial areas, city streets—anywhere it can draw an audience. The crowd at the Atlas Cycles factory was fairly typical for a Janam performance, but it also included three unusual guests: members of the Freedom Theatre, a group based in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. The group uses drama and art to resist the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, and its experiences and outlook overlap in surprising ways with those of the Indian group.

As a teenager, Faisal Abu Alheja, one of the visitors, was among the first to enrol at the Freedom Theatre after it was founded, in 2006. He completed a three-year course with the group, and stayed on as an actor and instructor. Since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967, the area has seen repeated revolts and reprisals, and widespread Palestinian complaints of human rights violations. Israel continues to build settlements in the territory in violation of international law, and maintains a system of walls and checkpoints that divides communities and severely restricts Palestinian movement. At a discussion at Studio Safdar, Janam’s spare performance space in west Delhi, Alheja described the Freedom Theatre’s own work with street plays, travelling around the West Bank to interview Palestinians about their experiences and acting them out on the spot. “It is important to tell these stories,” he said, “because we normalise the occupation. When we go there and ask them their stories, and put them on the stage again, that gives them the power to continue to fight.”

Seeing Janam, Alheja said, was a reminder that there are “other people in the world that use art the same way we do.” Both groups also dwelled on another, darker parallel. The actor and activist Juliano Mer-Khamis, who founded the Freedom Theatre, was shot to death by a masked gunman in Jenin in 2011. Safdar Hashmi, the co-founder of Janam, died from his injuries after being attacked during a street performance not far from the Atlas Cycles factory, in 1989. Later, Sudhanva Deshpande, a Janam stalwart, told me his group hopes to learn from the Freedom Theatre’s ability to work under difficult circumstances. Though the groups operate in very different contexts, he said, “our work is very political, and that is what connects us.” At a fundraising performance shortly before Alheja and his companions departed, Deshpande told a cheering crowd that “later in the year, inshallah, if all goes well, Janam and the Freedom Theatre will do a joint production.”

Back at the cycle factory, Janam performed an original play titled Yeh Hum Kyun Sahen--—roughly, “Why should we suffer this?” Deshpande played an industrialist named Satsangi Lala Mansukhlal, sporting a Gandhi topi and a saffron-coloured scarf, and with a belly protruding from under his kurta. He recited his acts of religious charity—giving seven blankets to seven homeless people, feeding halwa to seven devotees at a Vaishno Devi shrine—but the mention of a minimum wage sent his heart aflutter, and talk of overtime got his blood pressure soaring. “Main hoon Lala, Main hoon Lala,” he announced, “Khane se peechhe nahin hatne valaMain hi toh hoon share bazaar ko uthane aur girane vala/ Bhari hai tijori mazdooron ka chheenke nivala” (I don’t shy away from eating … I make the share market rise and fall/ My coffers are full from stealing crumbs from the workers). Laughter rippled through the crowd.

“It was interesting for me to see the way the audience reacted to the character,” Alheja said. “That’s the feeling that we get from the audience in Palestine when we play a soldier from the Israeli army.”

Utsa Hazarika Utsa Hazarika is a freelance writer based in Delhi.