The train leaving the platform
Possibly the most dangerous and certainly the most challenging foray in workshop theatre. At least 10 international seminar presentations and invited talks have been made by Sanjay around this work and the play Offtrack (2012), scripted and directed by him, staged in Delhi and then in New York has been culled out of this experience.
Living in shelter “homes” across India, they are all drug abusers and mostly drug peddlers, they are sexually “experienced” (gay and “bisexual”), flaunting their promiscuity and invariably into sex-work. Along with colleagues and volunteers from pandies, Sanjay has worked closely with over 600 platform boys, often living in their shelters as part of the rehab programme. Pandies has done a lot of workshop theatre with a lot of abandoned young in different shelters. But a concentrated mode of doing it with ‘rescued’ platform children (what rescued, almost all would give their arms to be rescued back to the platform from their shelters and jails) but the closest interaction that challenges NGO formulations, Government policy and international donor stress happened from 2008 to 2012.
What is a platform child?
In India, the extensive railway system, that covers every corner, provides a haven for children who run away from home. They board trains and travel all over, some at times settle at a platform for some time, graduating to become ‘bhais’ (dons) of that space and then again move on. They travel without ticket, hanging on to windows outside the coaches, perched on the roofs of trains, they dwell together in a shared a zone of poverty. Aged between seven and fifteen, pandies’ has done residential workshop theatre with over 600 (all boys) of them incarcerated in state reformatories and NGO-run shelters. An extremely marginalised sector, it exists in a refusal of development programmes including radical ones. The platform child is alone and rootless in a way that is difficult to fathom.
We can work with platform children only in incarceration in ‘homes,’ temporary shelters run by NGOs in different cities or in State-run reformatories (juvenile jails). We do theatre with them in ‘de-addiction’ camps, undergoing some mode or another of ‘Home-placement therapy.’ They exist in an underbelly of our ‘civilised world’ and workshop theatre blows the certitudes of our world – family, marriage, myths of bourgeois success – to smithereens. The biggest challenge is to our middle class, including the radical segment, as it seeks to assimilate this experience in some corner of its canvas.
For Sanjay, the graph was sharp, starting from a conference in 2007 organised at a resort in Hyderabad by a leading child rights NGO with shelters across the country. Invited because of the stellar work done for Child Rights with the British Council and in Kashmir, this visit was a precursor to a series of workshops conducted across the country in shelters being run by Child Rights NGOs and Government agencies. The results exposed the plight of these kids in the shelters (and even on restoration to their “homes”), how the entire exercise was becoming a travesty and violation of the very rights that they were to protect. In 2011, the results of the work were presented in another seminar by the same organisation. Not getting the desired results here, the attempt was to go international and raise opinions against the exploitation of children that do not belong.
The work with platform children has been necessarily sporadic, these performances have not been “performed.” There have been few public performances as often the involved NGOs and the Police have baulked seeing the raw, critical content of the plays created. And the highlight is the process. Young, trained middle-class facilitators from pandies enable impoverished boys – rescued from India’s railway platforms and incarcerated – to create theatre from their stories, perform their lives. The resulting performances – sagas of violence, rape, drug abuse, prostitution and death – question the very premises of social amelioration processes.
Distilling these experiences, pandies presented its internationally successful play Offtrack in 2012. The facilitators performing both their own stories and those of the participants they worked with.
Apart from his under publication book Exploring Play, The pandies’ Way: Performing, teaching and writing theatre in Delhi, contemporary India. Two articles, with different focus, have been written by Sanjay Kumar that illustrate the experience of workshopping in this sector with a build up towards the Offtrack experience:
Kumar, Sanjay. 2013. “Performing on the Platform”. TDR: The Drama Review 57:4 (T220). (95-119). New York: New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Kumar, Sanjay. 2013. “Can failed theatre enable consciousness?”. Consciousness, Theatre, Literature and the Arts, 2013. Ed. Daniel Meyer-Dinkgrafe. (55-82). Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.