My name is Kaustubh Naik. I am a playwright and doctoral student from India, currently based in Philadelphia, USA. I would like to thank the Segal Centre for putting up this marathon and Tanvi and Abhishek for asking me to speak here. Back in India, I oversee a 71-year-old theatre company called the Hauns Sangeet Natya Mandal, founded by my grandfather Vishwanath Naik, in the year 1950. Before the pandemic, we were gearing up to celebrate the 70th year anniversary of our theatre company and were in the process of putting together a theatre festival back in Goa, where we primarily work. That, however, did not materialize. We had to suspend our operations. However, when things opened up in India for some time, we managed to put together a production of my second play, Bhawaal, which had a brief run of 3 shows before we got shut again. This production was perhaps not the best to be produced amidst a global pandemic as it had almost 22 actors on stage. I don’t know when we will be able to perform it again.
In the meanwhile, we watched India plunge further into the moral and social abyss that it has become over the last few years. Not that India was a democratic utopia before 2014, i.e. the year when the fascist BJP govt under the leadership of Narendra Modi took charge of affairs. But even the most pessimistic people like me will agree that the overall fabric of India’s political life has changed since then. Beginning from the killing of Muslim men over suspicions of carrying beef, till the most recent revelation that India has been using Israeli surveillance software to snoop on its own people, a list that includes high profile politicians, businessmen, political activists and even a virologist. We’ve stood trying to hold our communities as the ground beneath us turns into quicksand. Prominent political activists such as Sudha Bharadwaj, academics like Anand Teltumbde, Hany Babu, are in prison and so are two of the students from my former university ie JNU, Sharjeel Imam and Umar Khalid. All of them have been framed under the draconian laws that claim to seek preventive interventions against terror but are used to incarcerate young and marginalised dissenters.
While the political gloom is writ large, the pandemic and its effects have pushed the country into one of its harshest phases. We’ve seen migrant workers walking miles to reach their native homes, people resting near the train track being run over, people dying not only due to lack of medical facilities but also for the sheer mismanagement and apathy of the Govt’s side. And just today, the ruling class is blatantly lying in the parliament that there have been no deaths due to lack of oxygen. Each death has been reduced to a mere data point for the government, not accounting for the magnitude of the crisis.
When the covid crisis was at its peak in India, the ruling dispensation was asking people to remain positive, share the good news, feel better as if almost gaslighting the entire nation into toxic positivity. Our memories and our emotions were being erased in this sorry state of a republic that India has been turned into. And this is where I think theatre needs to intervene from hereon. At the core of theatre, it involves people coming together to participate in a collective emotional experience. Pandemic has robbed us of that. When we go back to theatres, and we will, we must address these erasures and restore the emotions that we’ve not been afforded to possess in the public consciousness. Families have lost their dear ones without being able to grieve. People have been subjected to violence and injustice but are deprived to feel enraged about it. Our emotions and memories are sovereign too. We cannot let a fascist government tell us how to feel and what to remember. Theatre will have to restore our emotional spectrum. Not just with positivity but also with the rage that would create radical solidarities for a fight that is yet to come. In one of Abhishek’s plays, a character says “people come to the theatre to watch what they already know, what they are afraid of forgetting”. For Abhishek, and for many of us, theatre is a repertoire of public memory and thus when we go back to the theatres, it is important that we remember and remind everyone what all has happened. Amir Aziz, a young poet from India, during the protests in India against a discriminatory citizenship act, fiercely wrote “Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega” – everything will be remembered. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd recited the same poem in London and relayed the solidarities. I think we theatremakers in India should heed Amir’s call to remember, document, and remind our public what all has happened and create experiences where we can feel all those emotions that we have either deferred or were not allowed to experience.
The second and perhaps a larger virus we are facing in India, and elsewhere, concerns how truth is being manipulated. We have seen post-truth become a colloquial word globally in the last few years. In India especially, we are witnessing a shift in the media which sides not with people but with the fascist regime. What it has effectively done is to deny people of their experiences, run media trials, and in the course of it, deface truth. We are constantly bombarded with state propaganda while people who are injured by this state are struggling to relay their side. The media is participating in the abetment of violence, gaslighting the population and becoming the vehicle for the megalomania of India’s political leadership. Theatre has a very curious relationship with the truth. As theatremakers, we routinely incur great debt to the truth. By staging a lie, we are effectively honing people’s ability to tell the truth from untruth. Digital media is effectively eroding people’s ability to discern truth from untruth. Therefore, as theatre makers, I think we should work towards restoring that ability and help our communities become more aware and argumentative. Susan Sontag writes that in a society that works and enriches itself by means of organized hallucination, artists should be less devoted to creating new forms of hallucination and more devoted to piercing through the hallucinations that nowadays pass for reality. The current regime in India is marked with a perverse theatricality. People who uphold and support this regime are in a perpetual suspension of disbelief. It is therefore contingent that we step up and mount works that effectively counter these mass hallucinations and create more democratic and inclusive spaces of truth through theatre.