Being an outsider

Vinaya Patil
Saturday, 15 July 2017

Author Nandita Dinesh speaks of her experiences of working in conflict zones across the world and using theatre as a means of connecting with the audiences there

She has been inside and outside conflict zones and keeps juggling between the insider-outsider identities and perspectives. Nandita Dinesh, a PhD holder in Drama from the University of Cape Town in South Africa and an MA in Performance Studies from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, has been conducting experimental theatre in conflict zones around the world.

An alumna of the United World Colleges’ Mahindra College, off Pune, Dinesh, hails from Coimbatore and after dreaming of becoming a CA, and having a life that we are all taught to have, had her first tryst with theatre at this undergraduate college. “This place did something to me. I knew there was more to the world than just studying, securing a job, getting married and having kids,” says Dinesh, who recently published Theatre and War: Notes from the Field.

At a reading of the book in the city on Friday, Dinesh spoke about her experiences in Kashmir, where she worked extensively for the last six years and is now performing a 24-hour play based on those. The play — Information For/From Outsiders: Chronicles of Kashmir will be staged at Kamshet near Pune, thrice between July 21 and 28 and uses the immersive theatre technique. “We plan to give the audience a 24-hour theatrical experience of Kashmir,” Dinesh explains.

After her PhD, Dinesh decided to go to Rwanda, for “what I thought would be eternity”. She wanted to use theatre for the “post-conflict reconstruction” of the conflict-torn region. This, Dinesh says, sarcastically, pointing to her own naivete of the time when she was there.

“It was difficult continuing to work there for a lot of reasons. It was my first time living outside my country as a non-student. Also, the entire concept of using theatre for ‘reconstruction’ meant a lot of work — first to become an insider to the conflict, learning the language and much more,” narrates Dinesh, as she explains her reason behind coming back to India.

From her book Theatre and War, she reads out an experience in Uganda where she was watching a play and the audience was told not to panic when people dressed as rebels enter the stage. “They are actors, we were told. But an hour into the play, the rebels entered, and all the children in the audience began to run. Yes, they were children, so maybe I shouldn’t have taken it too seriously. But it stayed with me — the instinct that children of conflict-torn regions are taught at an early age — of running the moment you see rebels. It disturbed me,” she reads.

Dinesh currently teaches Theatre Arts, in addition to serving as the Head of Arts and the Associate Director of the Bartos Institute for Constructive Engagement of Conflict, at the United World College in Montezuma, New Mexico (USA) and has been working on this play simultaneously through her various trips to Kashmir. The play casts 15 actors — most of them Kashmiri youth — and is written by Dinesh herself. The structure, she says, is inspired by an Argentinian play called Information of Foreigners. “We didn’t begin work on the play with the 24-hour format in mind. Things evolved as we brainstormed,” she says, pointing to the need for a “nuanced understanding of Kashmiris”.

Speaking of her experience in Kashmir and as a teacher, Dinesh says that she has learnt a lot from the folks she has worked with. “Also, when I became a teacher, I realised that it is okay for things to be intangible,” she says, while adding that she still remains an outsider to Kashmir.
“And it is okay like that. I will certainly never understand their pain, because I haven’t lived it. But I try to portray it as honestly as I can,” she says, stressing that “an outsider can never have ownership of the conflict”.

An actor, part of the play, adds that it is completely possible for an outsider to show the ground realities of a region. “We as Kashmiris discuss and debate every scene with Nandita before it is finalised. So the entire process is very healthy and as factually correct as possible,” he says, adding, “We are trying to thin the line between the actors and the audience through immersive theatre.”

While Dinesh urges people to come watch the play, she throws light on one particular scene in the act which is similar to the Milgram experiment based on the connections between discipline-authority-punishment-power and obedience. Coming to the future of theatre, Dinesh accepts that it may not be the best way to reach the maximum audience. “Films as a medium have more potential,” she says, but she is trying to tap into schools and colleges and hopes to light a spark in young minds.

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