In December 2019—just days after the international Playback Theatre conference in Bangalore–the Indian parliament abruptly and controversially passed a law denying citizenship for Muslim immigrants while fast-tracking it for members of other religions. Widespread protests followed. The authors compellingly describe how Playback Theatre played a role in protests by Muslim women in Bangalore. Their article presents a very current example of how Playback can contribute to a social justice cause when performances emerge organically out of political solidarity, adapting the form to the needs of the situation.
Bilal Bagh: Playback Theatre at a Historic Protest by Muslim Women
By Kavya Srinivasan, Laxmi Priya S.N. and Rashmi Ravikumar
Pictures of bodies – Muslim bodies, Muslim female bodies, standing shoulder to shoulder together – have made the headlines regularly in national and international media. These record the opposition to the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed by the Indian parliament on 11 December 2019. Demonstrations and protests against the Act, spontaneously organised by citizen groups and student communities, spread across the country1. The protests were a demonstration of growing dissent in the minority communities and among allies against a government that is anti-people and anti-dissent, even as India worked as a (non) functional democracy. Many constitutional experts have labeled the CAA non-secular in general and anti-Muslim in particular. The movement grew across the country in urban and rural spaces to include 24/7 sit-ins, protest meetings, seminars and workshops to understand one’s constitutional rights and more. More recently, they were suspended and, many times, dismantled by the State forces due to the global pandemic we are facing today.
The Islamophobia research and documentation project2 records the work of S Sayyid, the professor of Rhetoric and Decolonial Thought at the University of Leeds. It says that “…Islamophobia in India operates within what he determines to be the ‘second theater’ – when ‘Muslims are a clear minority, marginal to the national narrative, even though their presence is simultaneous to or predates the formation of the state.’” 3 Expressions of Islamophobia are often diverse and occur through a range of deployments, he emphasized. Sayyid argued that “a gesture, a speech, and a police action can all be aspects of Islamophobia reflecting not an underlying unity, but a series of overlapping similarities.” This is one of many articles documenting the complex and enduring islamophobia that colours the fabric that is India. CAA was one such legislative manifestation by the Hindu right wing party, after their re-election to power in 2019.
Who is Writing This?
It is important to note that the authors of this article are savarna people who are female-identifying and born into households that practice the majoritarian religion in India, Hinduism. While we are speaking as active dissenters, we are not speaking of or for the lived experience of the minority communities. It is only as allies and playbackers that we author this piece. The attempt is to reflectively document the playback theatre performed at the site of resistance, Bilal Bagh.The process of writing this essay has been one of un- and re-learning along with recording of a pivotal moment in India’s political history-in-making. Each writer on this team has been challenging discourses and practices of oppression and discrimination while educating themselves about the ways to show up in allyship and solidarity, accepting the long and fruitful journey for what it is.
We have been practitioners of playback theatre (playback or PBT) since 2012 (with one of us having begun practice more recently) but it was at Bilal Bagh, 4 a space of resistance in Bangalore where hundreds of Muslim women had gathered in dissent, that we encountered the possibility of playback theatre as a protest form. Preceding this, we had performed around four shows titled “An Ode to Resistance” (OTR) to create space for the dissenters, who were mobilising, demonstrating and showing up at these sites of resistance, to share their stories. These stories echoed our own experiences of acts of resistance. The sharing and stories at Bilal Bagh, however, markedly different from the lived experiences of the performers.
In an interview, Ben Rivers, a playback theatre artist and social activist who has worked in Palestine, Egypt and Kashmir, notes that playback theatre can create a space for listening, expression and empathetic playing back in locations that are seeing social and political conflict or crises. An important point in his sharing is to view playback as complementary to the demands for systematic and infrastructural changes.5 In keeping with this, we saw the protest performances at Bilal Bagh in conjunction with the ongoing protests, the protest songs, petitions and work by activists and community leaders for a more just world.
The themes of stories that came alive at Bilal Bagh had strong undercurrents of hope, helplessness, fear, loss, pain, anger and determination. Most of the stories spoke of their refusal to let a non-secular Act take away their active citizenship. We were very aware of our positionality as we went into the protest site – both as allies in the dissent and as artists. The idea that we, as members of an outgroup, would be performing stories that we had never lived or experienced, was a source of anxiety. It stemmed from our desire to hold the stories shared with us as tenderly and with as much respect as they deserved.
Protest in our Bodies
The performers’ listening has a direct impact on building connection with the teller and the audience through the performance. Listening deeply to the stories and carrying them in our bodies was our promise to the tellers. In addition to stories shared during the performance, further stories were shared privately with the performers after the performance was over. The importance of these peripheral sharings marked the urgency for these voices to be heard by the authorities as well as the larger civil society.
One such sharing was by a young Muslim woman who was having tea at the same shop as some performers late at night. She wanted to share anonymously that she felt like she was being pushed out of a house (India), a house that her ancestors had also worked towards building and lost lives doing that. Upon being asked if she would like for us to play it back to her the next evening, she said that she just needed to share it.
Meanwhile, during the performance another woman shared that when Hindus (the religion of the majoritarian population) and Muslims stand together, an authoritarian government will become powerless. This could have possibly stemmed from the recognition that all performers were non-Muslim. The performances were a testament to possible allyship from the community that otherwise treated the minority religious community as the ‘foreigner’.6 The playback performers, therefore, might have represented solidarity from across communities and corners of Bangalore.
The performances challenged our conventional preparation. Addressing the following key aspects allowed the stories to emerge:
1. The language: While the conductors spoke the primary language of the audience, most of the performers did not. The audience spoke a mixture of Hindi/Urdu and the performers primarily spoke English and a smattering of other Indian languages. Similarly, with minor exceptions, before the protest performances most of our audiences had also been English-speaking. We have discussed often the linguistic divide informally but this was an instance of clearly seeing the audiences our playback had never engaged with before. It meant that the performers shifted their primary tool of expression from text to their bodies. We would break the fourth wall, walk into the audience, run to the ends of the protest site in order to make our point. The body language was loud and exaggerated in its political stance and when we chose to speak, it was at top volume. The quiet, contained energy of our closed-room shows – with monologues that had wordplay, and formats that relied on shared cultural understandings – could not survive the asks of a protest space.
2. The space: Our previous performance experience primarily had been in intimate, indoor settings. These were often ticketed shows for an average of 45 attendees per show, who might or might not have watched playback theatre performance(s) before. The agreement between the playbackers and the audience in such a setting was one evening of story sharing.
The protest site at which we performed was about 200 square metres, and stood in the shadow of a mosque, where the daily call to prayer would proudly ring five times, responded to by the gathered protestors. It was on a busy road in North Bangalore, with hundreds of protestors sitting in attendance. As we performed, food and water would be passed around, children would play, tea would be served. Crowds would thin in the performances around midnight. People would be in conversation – about our show and otherwise. We had to give ourselves many permissions as we performed. To let our political stance show. To invite the interested and curious kids to explore the musical instruments. The foundational permission was to put the gift of these stories at the centre of the playing back and navigate the “ought to’s” of playback theatre around this.
3. The emotional charge of the resistance: Playback theatre, initially, did not seem like the obvious choice for expressing protest in a theatrical manner. Even as we pondered the possibility of other forms, we were aware of the space for sharing we could create through a series of playback theatre performances at Bilal Bagh. Also, playback is what we do well together. The series of performances unfolded even as violence had broken out at other 24/7 protest sites across the country . There was the constant threat of government surveillance. However, the space was also a celebration of dissent. A friend remarked about the festivity of atmosphere, the sense of being at a family event and a sense of unconditional welcome to allies. This sense of many realities of dissent made the playback performances travel the landscape of tender resolve. The performatively artistic elements became less important than the authenticity and present listening of the performers and the conductor.
Nick Rowe, in his book Playing the Other, describes playback as (a form that) “..provides a space in which the processes of representing experiences can be made visible and thus seen to be contingent and provisional”.7 Describing the possibility of playback theatre as a tool for empathy and expression in conflict-ridden zones, Ben Rivers, in the previously mentioned interview, outlines the space of playing back as a space that holds a mirror to the social stories that the community and the individual members trust the players with. To build on these conceptual notions of playback as a space, witnessing and embodying the stories of the women at Bilal Bagh gave us a way to reflect upon the moment of history we were experiencing under an authoritarian State mechanism. Being able to hold the stories and play them back asserted the possibility of shared experiences, collective and community healing. The evening and nights of performance were telling us that the stories of grit and persistence co-exist with the stories of mocking and satirising the oppressive forces.
When Stories Hold a Mirror to Propaganda
The stories that were enacted and shared in the OTR space came from people who were closer to our identities – folks who were constantly showing up at protests, having difficult conversations with their families about why the right to dissent is one written into the constitution and cannot be deemed criminal, etc. The audience was invited to the performance space. The procedure of posters, social media, RSVP-ing were all followed so that we could hear their stories of dissent in a closed room away from the traffic and the slogans. A space to breathe.
At Bilal Bagh, however, the performers were invited into the space of continuous protest and this gave rise to stories from the communities that were directly facing the danger of disenfranchisement. We were invited to perform as an extension of our regular presence at the protest site. Many of us were involved in singing protest songs, sloganeering, and facilitating play space for the children at the site already. We were graciously welcomed into the performance space next by the organizers of Bilal Bagh. There were regular ongoing speeches, performances and candle light vigils to celebrate and honour the resistance. The invitation to these events, including ours, were open to the public and shared on social media.
At Bilal Bagh, we had to abandon many ideas of what we thought playback ought to look like. The ritual of playback wasn’t strictly adhered to, as outlined in conversations about the zone of good playback. Art and social interaction took precedence. We bent the rules – when we interacted with the audience during a fluid sculpture performance, when we supported each other through the language barriers, when we drummed on chairs to add music, and when a conductor had to sit out during a particularly vulnerable sharing as they were emotionally moved- and a new conductor took their place. As performers, we felt that the audience was looking for a space to share stories and their truth more than engage with critical dissection of a performance. This spirit was obvious in the ways sharings would emerge even before the previous playing back reached a frozen ending.
The story that had prompted the conductor change came from a middle aged woman who was sharing her emotional response to a story from the Delhi pogrom that had taken place recently. It was carried out against Muslims by armed Hindu mobs. The story involved a young man being killed by the mob. He had only recently been married and his mother was distraught. The teller shared with us that her heart breaks as she thinks of the mother who must have saved money her whole life to hold a good wedding for her son. The teller was visibly shaken and tearing up as she shared this story with us. The conductor, upon hearing the story, was also visibly shaken and requested another performer to take over the conducting. We played the story back in a free form using words, movements and metaphors, ensuring that we do not re-traumatize the teller.
The pogrom had taken place in the capital city of India, Delhi, and had resulted in the death of at least 40 individuals and injury to around 200 people. Popular media has showcased this incident as a result of riot between communal sections. However the stories emerging from the areas by independent sources spoke of loss of lives and destruction of property being disproportionately heavier on the Muslim side. These killings had taken place due to complicity of the police and state authorities to diffuse the situation and arrest the guilty. This semantic difference between perceiving the killings as pogrom or as riots is also the difference between seeking news beyond propaganda and being complicit in consuming propaganda.
Writing on “good” playback theatre, Jo Salas, co-founder of PBT, notes, “There is always an interplay between what is actually offered by the artists, on the one hand, and what the audience brings to it, on the other. The same is true of non-performance art forms such as literature, or painting. Value is ultimately a co-creation of artist and perceiver, which accounts for the genuine artistic meaning found at every point along the spectrum of actual accomplishment”. The stories from Bilal Bagh reinforced the idea that real life stories will be the true counter narrative to the propaganda spread by partisan media houses. Their stories of everyday living, upholding the ideas of secularism and facing the threat to their dignified existence with strong determination directly exposed the lies behind the propaganda that labeled the women as ‘ill-informed’ and motivated by ill reasons.
A Space for More Questions
While closing this essay, we wanted to leave you, the reader, with our independent voices. We were each left with something to reflect upon. Bilal Bagh was disbanded in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the police also targeted protestors at other protest sites . The disproportionate police action and intimidation against dissenters continues . What was only earlier this year feels like a much longer time.
When I look back at this time, I am primarily left with deep awareness and clarity about my various identities. Much reflective writing does not acknowledge that bodies in a space have multiple overlapping identities. I would go so far as to say they are not only overlapping, but competing and complex, in the way they emerge. My body in Bilal Bagh was a playbacker, a musician, a woman, a Hindu, upper caste, English speaking, left liberal – identities that are complex and nuanced. Each identity has relative precedences, taking priority at different moments. My identity as a performer was tied to authenticity and speaking the truth of the stories I heard. My identity as a protestor was tied to signaling dissent and amplifying the voices of the women who were sitting there all day and all night. These key identities found their intersection in protest specific playback performances.
My strongest memory of performing in Bilal Bagh was being so aware of how my choices as a performer were political. I was the musician for our show, and there was a sharing about a sense of solidarity that was larger than all faiths. I chose to perform “Hallelujah”, by Leonard Cohen, as the music for the fluid. And I remember clearly the split second where I was hyper aware of how I was a Hindu, performing a song with clearly Christian overtones, for an audience of primarily Muslim women. It was our reality of being in the protest. We needed everyone we could get.
I frequently think about my work as an artist as a kind of service to my community. To communities in general. And it is in this capacity that I frame the experience of performing at Bilal Bagh as the only kind of service I know. I believe deeply that we performed at the protest sites with complete presence, sensitivity and authenticity, to stories that were deep, immediate, and hard to share. I can only hope that our performances became containers that the women at Bilal Bagh could draw some strength from.
The moment I stepped onto the stage at Bilal Bagh to playback, it was like all my other identities within me froze for those few moments and in that sense I was a playbacker, a conduit only. But I do know, outside of me, that can never be true. I was still an upper middle class, English speaking woman, with caste and religion privilege performing for a community I shared very little common ground with.
Right now, I am still unable to comprehend the nature of experiencing me as a performer to the audience at Bilal Bagh. I do realize, I will not really know until we have a conversation with the audience. But, because playback in a way is a much more of a consensual form of theatre than any other form of theatre (because our storytellers are right there and are telling us their lived experiences and giving us permission to perform them) and because I have at times chosen a white man to play me and felt the emotional core of the story still remained true, I am hoping the tellers and the audience have felt heard.
We weren’t doing “art for art’s sake” anymore, we were doing art as a language to reach out, to show up and to honor the lived experiences. I feel the non ‘well made-ness’, so to speak, where the rituals of playback weren’t perfectly followed, is what made the playing back so sincere.Because we were honoring the rawness of the space and I think our audience too, gave us permission for that. Not once did it feel like they were looking for a “performance” but it was a space for stories to be shared. It felt much like a circle of people just coming together around a fire and wanting to be heard and being heard. If anything, listening and holding space for acknowledgement felt like what we did there, more than a performance. It felt like playback was finally home, with the community where building bridges was the need of the hour.
The scope of this article is to enquire about the place of playback theatre in the realm of social justice movement in general and protest sites in particular through reflective documentation of events. There are more questions which deserve to be unpacked in this moment of history as a playback practitioner doing a community form of theatre under an authoritarian regime. Would it require a different kind of playback theatre that addresses the needs of a resistance site? Are playback theatre and protest sites an unlikely fit? How much of the fulfillment of playback theatre can be subject to the organic community that is formed between the performers and the sharers at the site of performance – protests, based on trust and authentic listening – and how much on the non-negotiables like rituals and agreements of the form? The conception of playback theatre as a tool for community-making is ever evolving. It was our privilege to use a form we have loved and nurtured for over a decade in creating a space of common citizenry, relative safety and a container for listening and artistic expressive mirroring. The experience has also put into forefront my identities of privilege and my relationship with them as I playback stories of the “other”. It also, during the times of active, outdoors protesting, gave me a tool in addition to performing protest songs, sloganeering and sending postcards of dissent to the authorities. Most importantly, it taught me to not speak over voices with assumptions, especially in “good faith”.
 Reading about the citizen mobilization can aid in understanding this article better: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizenship_(Amendment)_Act,_2019
 Excerpted from a footnote in the section entitled “Measuring Islamophobia”. Source: https://irdproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Islamophobia-in-India-Web-Spread.pdf
 The performers for the series of playback theatre performances were Angela, Sangeeta, Winnu, Riya, Laxmi, Kavya, Akash, Rashmi, Deepak, Sannidhi. Almost all perform with the playback group ‘citylamps’
 Playback Theatre Talks, #6, 4th June 2020 https://open.spotify.com/episode/44iyVuXNId81O1B6XNrsBF?si=MklztkyHQGmQW0HZozR8kw
About the Authors
Kavya has been working with spontaneous theatre for the last three years, and with scripted work for over ten years, as an actor, playwright and storyteller. Her work has been published in an anthology of plays by Bangalore Little Theatre entitled “History of Ideas”, and in the Economic and Political Weekly. In her spare time, she can be found reading, singing and daydreaming. Reach her at: email@example.com
Laxmi Priya S.N.
Laxmi has engaged with Playback Theatre in various stages of her life and, thus, Playback theatre has become her yardstick to see all the people she was, is, and is in the process of becoming. As a conductor, performer and someone who likes to be an imperfect ally rather than a silent spectator, she is interested in the spaces that writing on playback theatre can take her and the community. She is part of a Bangalore-based team called citylamps and knows that the little dot above a lowercase ‘i’ and ‘j’ is called a tittle.
Reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rashmi has been doing playback for 8 years now and dabbles with acting, conducting and facilitation in the space. Writing, performance and research is an intersection she loves to engage with. She has trained at NSD, Rangashankara and works with theatre in facilitation for corporates with Navgati. While not scheduling rehearsals and meetings, Rashmi likes to lay in her bed with her favorite pink comforter and some crispy snacks.