Aagaaz, No longer a Toddler!- Devika

Children in their years of early development, slowly start to understand concepts. They develop a sense of self and discover time which eventually leads to the acknowledgement of something as simple as age. Aagaaz has had a very similar journey. Dates and starting points were very irrelevant to us when we were smaller and younger. Now, our work and our community has grown and we are beginning to grapple with our identity in the larger ecosystem and ways to stay connected – to our growing world and also our roots. We decided to create a birthday ritual for ourselves – drama games and a show and all our friends.

June was an amazing month for many reasons. One of them was lack of time, which made the process of planning and preparation rigorous and exciting. A special version of Duniya Sabki was the most important element of the day. The core group put their hearts into it and they did everything required to ensure that the play was made, that too beautifully. They practiced at night, negotiated with their families and pushed their bodies without complaining about fatigue. The grown up Aagaaz, was reflected in their actions and decisions.

Muzammil, the director of the play shared that this became a process of mapping Aagaaz’s journey. On an occasion like this, he wanted to present something meaningful and relevant to the group.Despite all the challenges they encountered, he received a lot of support from the rest of the actors. He was impressed by their commitment, especially since they all agreed to practice during late hours. There was a lot of hard work involved and inputs from Sanyukta and others only came in one night prior to the performance.

Saddam, from the core group found the preparation rather challenging at first. He expressed that a lot of the actors didn’t show up initially and punctuality was an issue. He was also constantly concerned about Muzammil, Ismail and Nagina’s energy, which varied depending on the intensity of their work at KHOJ Studios. He was glad to see a gradual shift in the attitudes. Saddam pegs the success of the performance, on the seriousness that emerged during the last few days of rehearsal.

The day itself was like an exercise in ensemble work. We co-created the space for our guests. Cleaning up the space, bringing food, cleaning, labelling and greeting people- all of it happened without much effort. The larger community also blended in with ease. Something about the whole experience was magical. ‘Bhelpuri Khalo’ and ‘Roohafsa lelo’ became the code words for ice-breaking and conversations happened with old friends and new.

We were lucky that some of out near and dear ones, took out time on a busy weekday. The added their own zeal to the space. Like every other birthday, we couldn’t have survived without a small dose of rituals. Mridula from Theatre Professionals and Dhruv, who mentors Aslam – one of our core group members, fulfilled this need by bringing two wonderful cakes. This helped us embrace the cliches we love, and allowed us to consume them in grand proportions.

The performance spoke for itself as the refrains of Safdar’s lines cushioned Aagaaz’s journey and Ankit from Play for Peace helped us set the tone with energisers that had all of us radiating with joy and sweat on the muggy day. Awkwardness permeated the air when everyone was asked to share their favourite ‘Aagaaz Memory’. The initial discomfort gave way to some thoughtful sharings, funny anecdotes and significant stories. There was laughter, running, dancing, selfies, unexpected conversations, and ideas that emerged out of nowhere. Our initial nervousness around not being able to host people, slowly disappeared. Eventually, an invisible thread connected us all and now we are further tangled up in each others’ stories.

ACTing on and off stage

The core group of actors from Aagaaz, have been engaging with regular conversations about gender and sexuality. The adolescent girls meet me on a weekly basis to co-create a safe space.

I have always been fascinated by the prospect of exploring gender as a theme with adolescents. However, this group at Nizamuddin is responsible for opening my eyes to the struggles and significance of such crucial and controversial work. I feel that I have come a long way as a learner, if not a facilitator. My initial conversations with the girls were primarily scientific and factual. We discussed the details of menstruation and spent a whole lot of time naming body parts and critically examining myths and taboos around menstrual health. Gradually, we moved towards understanding personal space, ideas around consent and objectification and slowly transitioned into exploring the notion of pleasure.

Aagaaz’s vision statement says “we relentlessly question ‘what is’ to probe ‘what could and should be’ to learn ways to act and perform beyond just the stage”. We constantly strive to understand the world through theatre, and sometimes we dramatic work based on our lived experience. Being selected for Gender Bender in 2016 ( a festival co-curated and supported by Sandbox Collective and Goethe Institut, Bangalore) with Urban Turban, was more of the latter.

As I watched the three actors perform the work-in-progress piece in Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti on the 23rd of April, I saw how beautifully they are negotiating their understandings and confusions around their bodies, identities, and their worlds through the thin overlapping space between performing on and off the stage. Urban Turban explores how gender plays out in the everyday lives of three girls living in Nizamuddin Basti. The play explores their struggles, their confusions and their attempts to make their space in the world. It explores their stories, yet manages to encapsulate bits of their next-door neighbour’s story, bits of their school friend’s story, bits of my story and maybe bits of the story being lived by a woman you saw walking on the street.

Our director, Dhwani Vij uses aspects of physical theatre, object theatre and immersive theatre to create an experience that makes the intricacies of these everyday episodes come alive.

In the play, we see the girls in their familiar environments doing the things they do. There is a morning routine, going to school, interacting with the neighbourhood and being at home. The theatrical technique is highlighted when the girls start singing about all the things they don’t understand about the world. The lyrics of the song are comical yet powerful. There is a point where the girls say that ‘sadkon par masti nahi karna samaj nahi aata’ and the simple statement blatantly outlines the patriarchal power structures and the restrictions they create.

Coming back to the show I watched in Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti, we performed for the community workers of Aga Khan Foundation. This show will remain in our memories for posterity. It was extremely special. This is the school the girls went to as children, this is the neighbourhood where they live and the audience comprises of the people who co-exist in this environment and share this ‘lived experience’. Performing in these circumstances takes a lot more strength, especially when it has potential to confront reality. There is no possibility for the actors to remove themselves from the context after the curtain call.

 

Process oriented theatre is slow work. Sometimes, it takes a while to notice small yet significant insights that emerge over a period of time. This performance for the community, and a few other instances have marked a major shift in how the girls interact with world. 17 year old Jasmine feels that change doesn’t happen overnight and little interventions can make a difference in the way people perceive gender. She feels optimistic about using performance to challenge mindsets and hopes that these messages would influence her environment at home. 18 year old Nagina was glad to see that the questions thrown at the actors, were answered by the women in the audience themselves. She felt that it signified common experience and a relatable understanding of the context. The play triggered moments of self- evaluation for some of the women in the audience and that was also a crucial response, according to her. A moment from the audience interaction that stands out for me was an older woman in the audience saying,” I am going to stop gossiping about young girls from now onwards.”

16 year old Nagma, has other perspectives to offer. She talks about the fear of performing in front of people who might tell her parents what her ‘theatre’ is all about. At the same time, there is acknowledgement of the fact that performances such as these, have potential to show a mirror to society. She strongly believes that change starts from the self, and Urban Turban is a trigger in that direction.

Suddenly, I am able to see how the girls are understanding th larger purpose and long term impact of their work. They feel the need to create more sustainable and frequent exposures in their community. In addition to the performative element, our Darpan sessions have also seen some beautiful turning points. One such moment happened during a recent workshop exploring personal perspectives on gender. We used improvisation games, embodiments, visual arts and scene work to talk about society and the moral standards it imposes on girls. We also managed to do deeper into it, by looking at our narratives of ‘Ideal Women’ and detecting the loopholes there as well. This snippet from a short piece they improvised during this session, highlights their ability to understand the topic with respect to both context and privilege.

(An interaction between a low caste scholar, a middle class housewife, a wealthy socialite and feminist activist)

Scholar: मेरी बेटी को तो देखो कैसे कपड़े पहन के बाहर घूमती रहती है| समाज क्या सोचेगा?

Activist: उसे जो करना है करने दो| समाज समाज समाज!! क्या समाज तुम्हारी थाली पर खाना रखता है या तुम खुद?

Housewife: हम इस समाज का हिस्सा हैं और अभी हम यहाँ से बाहर नही निकल सकते| ह्मे खुद को लोगों की बातों से बचाना है, क्योंकि ह्में ही सुनना पड़ता है|

While dialogues in Nizamuddin are becoming more nuanced by the day, we are still quite new to creating similar spaces with unfamiliar adolescents. Our work at Pehchan Centre in Jaitpur, is taking a different trajectory. Recently, we realised how engaging with the arts consistently can transform an exercise from an intimidating instruction to an opportunity for personal expression. And this hardly took us a few weeks. However, the challenge now lies in pushing ourselves to go deeper into the ideas and the processes.

Friends of Aagaaz Meet By Vardhna Puri

Aagaaz has been growing in so many ways. Our work has diversified and we’re in constant need of support to be able to ensure that rent, salaries and stipends are given on time. This is what led to the formation of ‘Friends of Aagaaz‘. While we’re still in the lookout for people who align with our values and would like to offer support, we know that we couldn’t make it this far without those who have already pledged to be a part of this journey. This meet was an endeavor to (re)introduce them to the work that has been happening.

The poetic invitation, doing justice to the importance this event holds for us, brought together an eclectic mix of people together on the evening of 27th August. Sanyukta, Devika, Nishant along with the core group members worked tirelessly to create an impressive visual display of the various programs.
This with the hope that the tree grows as the programs expand.

True to their word, all our friends turned up with food fit for a feast. The homemade caramel custards and masala idlis spoil us rotten. So did the coconut bread from a bakery in Nizamuddin basti. After the informal introductions, as promised, the presentation of the work began. Taking forward the tradition of Aagaaz, we could not have settled down for just a talk. A session of किस्से connection ensured that all the people who have been involved in the journey of the program got an opportunity to talk about their personal journey. The members became books, some for the first time and the friends were the readers for the evening. The members answered questions ranging from their association with Aagaaz to their thoughts about the program as well as their hopes and aspirations.

After two rounds of conversations, everyone settled to watch performances. First one was Urban Turban, a performance initially conceptualized for Gender Bender 2016 in Bangalore. The performance looked at everyday lives of young girls and their experiences of living in and navigating the basti. This was followed by Duniya Sabki, a play based on a poem by Sadar Hashmi with the same name. The premise of play being Akbar expressing ownership over the palace he considers rightfully his’, yet being humbly reminded that either it belongs to everyone or no one. Pertinent in the current environment, the play merges this with the everyday experiences of children, raising so many questions. Does the city/its banks/its parks/its roads belong to some more than the others? The performances culminated in a round of applause and followed by questions from the viewers.

The meet was heartening to us in so many ways. Each person has interacted with the group in their own way, however for the first time, so many of them came together. It opens up another forum for us to implement programs and come back to a space, not just to report but to reflect on our own processes.