Exploring Democracy through Drama

The following is an excerpt from an article based on Aagaaz’s work that appeared in Learning Curve, a publication on education run by the Azim Premji University. The full article can be found here.

Why Duniya Sabki?

‘Duniya Sabki’, performed by Aagaaz Repertory at Studio Safdar

A citizen is anyone who inhabits a nation and enjoys its rights and privileges, no matter what intersectionalities he or she belongs to. All citizens have the responsibility to actively hold the state accountable to uphold the values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. This possibility of affirmative action in a society rife with diverse identities, perspectives and interests is not possible without dialogue. For effective dialogue to take place, spaces that nurture imagination, curiosity and critical thinking in individuals and collectives, need to exist. At Aagaaz, our overarching purpose is to create such spaces through the language of theatre.

Duniya Sabki was the first play that we created in 2010, before Aagaaz was even conceived as a separate entity. In the years of performing the play as a repertory, each time it was a new play because the stories of the actors kept changing. Each time they brought their individual stories, relevant to their lives at that moment. The play then became a mode of understanding one’s own voice and sharing it with others. This act of courage is an important step towards beginning dialogue as an active citizen. In the last few years, we have been taking this play to be co-created with many young people in various contexts. In these seven-to-tenday-long workshops, many new performances of Duniya Sabki have emerged and many different stories of many different children have found expression.

In this article, we share two of our experiences: one, of working with forty children of classes VII-IX in the Delhi Public School, Srinagar (2017) and another of 18 members in the age group of 9–12, of the Community Library Project’s Sheikh Sarai/ Khirki Village chapter (a densely populated urban settlement with primarily migrant population) in Delhi (2018).

Initiating the process

‘Duniya Sabki’, performed by Aagaaz Repertory at Studio Safdar

The group in Srinagar laid immense emphasis on the arts in their school. Here, we began the session by playing games together, even before names were exchanged. This led all of us shedding any inhibitions that we may have had about one other and paved the way for shared possibilities. On the other hand, members of the Community Library Project at Sheikh Sarai work with educational institutions with rudimentary arts infrastructure. Here, collectively clearing the narrow basement for all the games that we were to play established a sense of ownership of the workshop to follow.

To become present as a group, we began every session by forming a circle, which while creating a ritual, also created a way of bringing the group together. A circle, where everybody can see each other and is himself/herself seen, becomes a container that holds everybody’s presence. A circle is a reflection of a mutually held structure — no one is in front, middle or last and everyone’s willingness gives it shape. This sense of co-ownership was also reaffirmed by Aagaaz’s repertory members, who have been facilitating these sessions since their adolescent years. When children/adolescents are cofacilitating a process with those who are close to their age, it changes the notions of learners and teachers. A common ground emerges, and there is a heightened possibility of accepting and building on ideas playfully, even while making mistakes in the process. The quality of engagement and the stories that are thus, discovered, also shift.

Stimulus for exploration

‘Duniya Sabki’, performed by Aagaaz Repertory at Studio Safdar

As a process, the drama uses various stimuli to move towards creation. In both Srinagar, as well as Sheikh Sarai, we used questions and text to negotiate the creative process. Both of these can create a framework for guided reflection on the connectedness of our experiences with those of others. This facilitates a curiosity/inquiry towards an understanding of the environment and allows for an imagination of possibilities beyond. This investigation creates a sensorial experience for the group.

To be able to respond to what is, it is essential to understand the existing reality and question its implications on the everyday lives of individuals and collectives. Understanding and questioning, in themselves, are integral to deepening each other. Open-ended questions facilitate participation because they create an opportunity for diverse perspectives and personal experiences. Active participation, instead of passive reception, lays the foundation for democratic practices. Children’s roles in a democratic space are no different. Their questions, voices, and stories are more often than not unheard — their perspectives negated. The depth of their experiences is not valued by the adult world. Performing these stories creates a stage for their voices to reach diverse audiences.

The process of uncovering stories for us happens through the act of framing questions. These questions help us find our way into our own stories and are the bridges that connect them with the stories of others — through resonance, similarities, differences and disagreements.

The chosen text in this case, Duniya Sabki, raises a pertinent question — does the world belong to everyone? Each child’s answer leads to a further train of enquiry — ‘Why do you say it does/doesn’t? Have you ever had an experience that made you feel this way?’

The poem becomes a stimulus, creating a space for personal stories to emerge. The experiences of children are diverse and the text, with its central questions, opens up the possibility for everyone’s enquiry. Triggered from the same questions, these stories when shared, create a sense of community. Why does this sense of community emerge? Conversely, what are the larger systems at play that create the commonalities in experiences of not feeling a sense of belongingness in the world?

The poem is pivoted on the statement — ‘ya to duniya sabki hai, ya nahi kisi ki, bhai’ (the world either belongs to all or to no one at all). It is either an effort towards asserting everyone’s rights (ya to duniya sabki hai), or it is not a democratic process at all (ya nahi kisi ki bhai).

Sanyukta is the Founder and Artistic Director of Aagaaz.

Sanyukta identifies as an applied theatre practitioner. She primarily works with children and young people through drama to imagine and discover ways of acting to work towards their realisation. She has a postgraduate degree from the University of Leeds in Theatre and Development Studies. She has been mentored in her journey to strengthen Aagaaz by Unlimited Delhi, ARThink South Asia and Changelooms Fellowship. Her journey in applied theatre includes working with pandies’ theatre, Aga Khan Foundations Nizamuddin urban renewal Initiative, and Theatre Professionals Education. She currently also facilitates the practicum modules of theatre and self development work at the B.El.Ed Programme in Delhi University’s Institute of Home Economics. She is also an actor and has been devising shows and performing them for young audiences in the age range of 6 months to 8 years of age.

Devika spends her time walking frantically, staring at walls, drawing fish and drinking coffee. She graduated from Centre for Learning, Bangalore in March, 2015, took a life-changing gap year and then created chaos for a while at Swaraj University, Udaipur. She has a keen interest in education and working with people. She also enjoys working with her hands and wants to explore the role of arts in pedagogy and learning. Devika has been full time at Aagaaz since May, 2017, where she enjoys mentoring, designing learning spaces, working on sexual and reproductive health sessions, engaging with bigger questions, learning about theatre and simply interacting with the kids who bring out the crazy in her!

An arts based organisation dedicated to creating inclusive learning spaces that nurture curiosity and critical thought while creating safe spaces for dialogue.