Snatches of torchlight roll off ripples around lotus leaves. The summer evening is dank with the fragrance of mahua flowers, acrid whiffs of hariya, a local liquor, and leaves rotting along the edges of the pond, “jol” to the residents of Borotolpada, a village in West Midnapore, West Bengal. Some 70 villagers have descended on the grassy field that ends at the pond. As 10-year-old Surajmuni Hansda potters down to the banks, a voice breaks out of the restive murmur. “Not that far, come three steps back. Look how far my light travels. You have to stay within it,” shouts 45-year-old Motilal Hansda.
Surajmuni takes off the earphones of an MP3 player, walks back a few steps and looks at ‘Jon da’ for approval. Thirty-two-year-old Jean Frederic Chevallier, busy directing a clutch of men in lungis and loose shirts to focus the torches they have in hand at various points of the shallow pond and its bank, looks up briefly and nods in approval. Borotolpada and theatre professional Chevallier are busy setting up a “stage” for an impromptu performance of Monsoon Night’s Dream, a play by Chevallier and the Santhal residents of the area.
As the minutes tick by, the crowd swells — farmers, daily wage workers, men, women and children — join in, and move around swiftly, testing errant torches, checking for tricky stones in the sand bed and helping a young man get his pose right as he reclines in the ankle-deep water.
Four years ago, Borotolpada was just another village, drowned in the myths and realities of the name “Junglemahal”, given to West Midnapore, a Maoist stronghold, on the border with Orissa. But that didn’t deter Chevallier who, on a trip to Baligeria, a village neighbouring Borotolpada, with a Kolkata-based NGO for aid work, ran into Girish Soren, a Santhal, who brought him to Borotolpada. The Santhals are a shy but hospitable tribe, and when they welcomed Chevallier with their traditional song-and-dance ritual, he got hooked. “There was an urban conception about the place I went with. There might have been an unspoken apprehension somewhere, but these people had not stopped living their lives because of the conflict. The adivasi performance arts is a celebration of their own lives — their joys, their fears, even their work,” says Chevallier, a French scholar and theatre professional, who taught contemporary philosophy and theatre studies in Mexico for six years, before setting up base in Kolkata three years ago.
After several travels to Borotolpada, and stays at the villager’s homes, in order to understand their culture, Chevallier started Trimukhi Platform, a Santhal theatre group a year and a half ago. So far, they have staged three plays, such as Monsoon Night’s Dream, with little resources, where torches make up for arc and spotlights, and where a speaker, if Chevallier can get one from Kolkata, for music. Despite such constraints, they have acted in a few shows in Kolkata, and pulled off a theatre festival in February, when 300 villagers organised the “Fifth Night of Theatre”, in which Spanish, French and Mexican theatre groups joined hands with Chavellier and the villagers for two nights of plays.
Trimukhi Platform is thriving despite Naxal presence — the way to Borotolpada is still considered unsafe in the night, and it’s not uncommon to spot paramilitary jawans posted along the road. But nobody wants to talk about the threat. Soren, Jean’s assistant and translator, says the theatre activities of Borotolpada “were under the rebels’ scanner but they must have figured out that we were not up to any disruptive plan, so there hasn’t been any direct run-in.”
For now, the villagers are cheering the new theatre movement, and how it has transformed some of their lives. Raimuni Hansda, widowed years back, at first had dismissed Chevallier’s interest in their art and lives. “A lot of the women and men in the village were talking about how this man from outside our country was interested in our songs and dance. I didn’t pay much attention to it. I make a living out of working in the fields, collecting sal leaves and selling them in the weekly market. Such things didn’t attract me,” she says. However, when a few of Hansda’s neighbours came back one day after meeting Chevallier, excited and confused at his interest in their festival dances, Hansda yielded to curiosity. “I used to like dancing as a girl. I knew all the local dances very well. When Jon da said I could take part in his play, I was overwhelmed and a little scared,” she says.
A few months later, Hansda, who had only stepped out of her village to go to the nearby markets, visited Kolkata and performed to an applauding audience in Jadavpur University and the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre, a theatre hub. Her happiness — as her eyes light up and pursed lips give way to a broad smile — is stripped of the rhetoric of formality. “I had never thought I would mingle with people like this, step out of my village at this age,” she says, twiddling with the stray end of her aanchal.
Hansda, along with fellow villagers and Chevallier, also takes turns to help with the construction of the Borotolpada Cultural Centre — an earth and bamboo structure, roughly like a big Santhal home, which will house artefacts made by local villagers and people from the tribal belt of West Bengal. The construction began a year ago, and villagers don’t charge money for working on it. Thirty-five-year-old Falguni Hansda, a Santhal, has given her land for free for the centre. Once completed, Chevallier wants to get a computer, train the locals to use it, facilitate documentation and research, and stage plays.
The plays of Borotolpada defy tested conventions of theatre. They don’t have a story — only snatches of situations, songs, dances and mimetic acting that with the setting, invite the audience into an intellectual dialogue. “We have some hundred different ritualistic dances — for harvest times, for mahul puja, for weddings, etc. At first, I had difficulties understanding what Jean wanted. But later, I realised he wanted us to react to a given situation in the dance form or music we know,” explains Soren.
“Once, he asked us to do just this movement, like when you are thirsty and want water, without saying it,” says Molina Hembrom, a 20-year-old student in a nearby village, running her palm down to her abdomen from her throat in a slow motion, “I almost laughed and ran away. But then I realised that in our dances, we too act out feelings, almost like this.” Molina, in a salwar kameez and tightly pulled back hair, is the quietest in the gaggle of women around her. “Once we started spending time together on this play, we also started taking more interest in each other. I knew my neighbour Tibru all my life as a mostly reclusive, serious man. He wasn’t very approving of this play acting at first. But when we finally roped him in, he turned out to be such a fantastic madol (a dhol-like instrument) player,” says Molina. Tibru looks up briefly from feeding his ducks and smiles apologetically. “I’m not all that great. But I wouldn’t play the madol before this with so much joy. Way too much work ...,” he trails off. “There is no one way of development, or one idiom of art. There’s progress only when disparate philosophies converge,” Chavellier sums it up best.
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