NEW DELHI: In a narrow residential lane in west Delhi, a woman calls out in Hindi for people to come and watch, banging harder than normal on the drum she carries to shoo away a stray cow.
Within minutes, a curious crowd collects and boys and girls make themselves comfortable on the dusty ground in front of her, in the warm, humid air as they wait for the street play to start.
Street theatre, an art form with its roots in 1970s leftwing activism, has now evolved into a direct marketing tool to take both civic and corporate messages to poor audiences and is thriving in the streets and alleys of India’s slums, spreading messages from free schooling to responsible drinking.
“It’s cheap and effective, and nothing hits like a visual medium,” said Saumya Baijal, a 26-year-old advertising executive who produces street plays with Ankita Anand, a friend.
The venerable pioneer of Indian street theatre is Jana Natya Manch – People’s Theatre Front, or Janam – which was created nearly 40 years ago and popularised street theatre as activism.
In 1973, just two years before political unrest caused the Indian government to declare a state of emergency, the troupe began performing highly politicised leftist theatre that was viewed as radical.
The group was propelled into the limelight in 1989 when its leader, Safdar Hashmi, was murdered at a performance on the outskirts of Delhi.
The art form now is used less as a counter-culture tactic, with many new groups – inspired by Janam – taking up street plays as a way of addressing current Indian social issues.
Anand and Baijal began performing together at university and continue today as young professionals. Both enjoy the spontaneity of street theatre, just turning up unannounced and performing, and the ability to stop people in their tracks as they go about their daily lives.
Their troupe Aatish, or Fire, recently performed a play on voting in a densely populated lower-class neighbourhood in north Delhi, where the street is an extension of the home due to a lack of space.
In such neighbourhoods, it’s not uncommon to see people bathing, preparing meals and socialising out in the open.
“You can’t just go and keep on talking to people forever and literature isn’t available to everyone and not everyone can read in India. That’s why street plays work,” Anand said.
Student Siddhant Nakhat leads another group, larger and younger than Aatish. The aim of his troupe’s latest play is to inform parents that India’s landmark right to education act, which came into force only two years ago, gives every child between the age of six and 14 the right to free schooling.
The 19-year-old believes he’s doing a positive thing and is having fun, using slapstick and verbal humour to engage with his audiences.
“I really enjoy it. Seeing the reactions, the responses. People are always telling us to come back and perform again with different issues,” he said.
Where Nakhat uses humour, other groups use drama.
Days after a young mother said she was gang-raped on the outskirts of Delhi, a theatre group took up the issue in a performance in the area where the attack took place.
“We know it, we read it, we understand it, but we don’t react against it (rape),” screamed Shilpi Marwaha, the play’s narrator, at the top of her voice. She went on to list facts and figures on attacks on women from the previous year, her performance so intense that sweat rose on her face as her audience listened intently.
Recognising the possibilities, corporate giants have jumped on the bandwagon, using street theatre to burnish their social responsibility credentials.
Beer company SABMiller, which owns the Foster’s and Peroni brands, has supported street plays addressing responsible drinking, while several Vodafone India employees received training to perform in public as part of a volunteer programme.
“It’s infotainment. There’s a lot of comedy and humour, but the end result should be leaving some food for thought in the mind of the person who has just seen a street play,” said Shikha Mittal, who runs a charity that encourages volunteering.
Safdar Hashmi’s widow, Moloyashree, who continues to perform with Janam, says she is “very happy” that street theatre continues to thrive in the age of the Internet.
“We’ve been around and active and relentless,” she said.