Week Three of my stay in Bangalore took me and my motley band of traveling classmates outside the city for a three-day Theatre of the Oppressed workshop. Theatre of the Oppressed, or TO, stems from the philosophy of Paolo Freire, who created empowering pedagogical methods of teaching to oppressed communities. TO continues Freire's teaching philosophy with the idea that abstract thought is only one way to process knowledge and that equally useful learning can come through physical movement and theatrical performance.
The TO form we worked with most is called forum theatre. In forum theatre, the audience members have the chance to become active participants in the struggle playing out before them by taking the place of the oppressed or conflicted character in the scene. In our workshop, we began the exercise with the audience seated in a circle around two actors - Ben, the oppressed, and me, the oppressor. In the scene, I could generate force radiating out of the palm of my hand, and my job was to push Ben to the floor with that force. At first, he turned away from me and covered his eyes, but eventually I was able to get in his face and overpower him. Next, our classmates took turns standing in Ben's place, each trying a different strategy to stop me. Amy smiled and refused to move, Ruby pulled my hands away from her face to try to get me to see her, and Nur ignored me and walked around the room outside of the circle, just trying to get on with what she was doing in spite of me. It was exhausting - each time, I had to insistently shove my palm at my classmate's face, sometimes running around the room to keep up with them. It was also really emotionally draining to be the symbol of coercion to a group of people I respect so highly and care about so much. Finally, Steph got up from the circle, headed straight for me, flung her arms around me and held me tightly, repeating "stop, just stop." She had pinned my arms to my sides, so I couldn't physically overpower her as I had before, but she also completely changed the dynamic of the play - from adversaries trying to overpower each other, she transformed the two characters into beings that could coexist in mutual respect. I started the workshop skeptical of TO's potential to create knowledge, but the feeling of security that came over me as Steph hugged me after more than an hour of fighting others showed me the power of TO on a visceral level.
Forum theatre combined the ideas of all my classmates to solve the broad problem of oppression. In addition to encouraging creativity and collaboration, this form is also emphatically inclusive. To participate in the place of the oppressed, a spectator doesn't have to have a solution in mind or even have experienced oppression before; rather, he or she just needs to understand the problem of oppression. This understanding may come from personal experience, or it may come from the difference between one's personal experience and the situation at hand. No one is expected to solve the problem, but everyone is invited to empathize and engage. Paolo Freire said that solidarity means running the same risks - willingingly placing yourself in the midst of the struggle, not swooping down from on high to save the "victims" of the oppressor.
Two more energy-packed days later, we headed back into the city. Mr. Malesh, a long-time collaborator with ESG and a farmer who migrated to Bangalore more than twenty years ago, took the group on a walking tour of City Railway Station and KR Market, one of the most frenetic scenes in the city. City Railway Station is one of the major transportation hubs in Bangalore. In addition to trains, you can catch buses, taxis, rickshaws, and soon, the city metro. But the station is not simply a point of entry and exit; many people also live and work here. We passed street people sleeping on railway platforms, vendors selling everything from handmade drums to phone batteries, and even a man who was selling tattoos from a blanket on the sidewalk - we stopped and watch him work ink into the arm of a stoic customer, oblivious to the hubbub around him. There's no One Bus Away in India, and navigating public transportation requires much more time and energy than in the US as well as an understanding of the unique neighborhoods that have sprung up around stations like the City Railway Station.
Next, we walked a couple of kilometers to KR Market, an entirely different neighborhood but no less chaotic. Walking through the market was like being in a drunken Pike Place: it seemed like there was one person per square foot, all the vendors cry out advertising their wares, and produce and flower sellers arrange their goods in beautiful patterns just because they are beautiful. After an hour of taking in the sights, sounds, and smells, we drank coconut water with our eyes glazed over and headed home for the night.
The next day, we met back up with Indhu and Usha of HHS for a day of unpacking our experiences so far. My poor roommate, Ruby, got sick (all our tummies are feeling a little strange lately), so I caught a rickshaw to HHS's offices myself. I was a little nervous to go on my own, but I found a rickshaw right away and the driver got me there early. I bought a tiny cup of coffee from a cart and stood on the sidewalk, sipping it and feeling like a local. I'm still exhausted at the end of every day and I don't know if my digestion will ever figure out how to work properly here, but little moments like this tell me that I'm slowly getting better and better at functioning in this new place.
Once the rest of the group arrived, we chatted with Anu and Amy for a few hours about our first two and a half weeks. Many people expressed a question that's been nagging me: am I really learning anything? I've felt a lot, seen a lot, and listened a lot, but when people asked me what I learned on my trip to India, I don't know what I'm going to say. Anu set us at ease, explaining that this question is exactly why we will have a class in the fall - to be around people who understand exactly what this month is like and to learn how to communicate it to others. For now, she said, my job is to be a sponge, just absorbing all the craziness and confusion and not trying to make sense of it just yet. I was reminded of something a friend who has lived in India told me when I called him last week, completely overwhelmed: sometimes the easiest thing to do here is just to embrace the crazy. So, that's what I'm doing - letting my hair dry in the wind from rickshaws, crossing my fingers every time I buy chai on the street, and absorbing everything I possibly can for the final two weeks of this program.
Our conversation with Indhu and Usha that afternoon was a great extension of this discussion. From talking about a biography of a nineteenth-century female performing artist, we digressed to asking a barrage of questions about the caste system to analyzing the role of regional migration in Bangalore's economy to dancing to Bollywood music videos, all in an unrelenting search for context for what we're seeing in the city each day.
On Saturday, the group performed the forum plays we created in our TO workshop at a theatre festival. The audience was great - everyone wanted to participate, and their ideas were always creative and sometimes hilarious. After learning the theory behind TO, it was exciting to take it outside the bubble of our group and use it to have conversations with people across cultures.
Since Saturday morning, I've been taking the weekend to relax and recharge, drinking tea, visiting the National Gallery of Modern Art, and getting an ayurvedic massage this evening. The fast-paced days are flying by - the program is more than halfway through! In the next week, I'll attend a poetry workshop, a concert with traditional tumri singing, and a traditional dance class. I'll also be traveling five hours outside of Bangalore to visit the Belur and Halabid temples, which I'm really excited about. Until next week!