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Tribal Warfare

Wednesday, March 07, 2018
By Deepa Gahlot

Dr Shankar Shesh was one of the foremost Hindi playwrights, whose popular and socially relevant plays are still performed nearly forty years later. His play,'Poster,' has been a regular fixture with inter-collegiate theatre groups, not just in Mumbai, but elsewhere in India too.

An early version of the play was directed by the late Jayadev Hattangady for the group Awishkar; it is revived often and performed with verve by a young group, with Ajit Bhagat as director.

'Poster' is a satire, but ultimately a tragedy, about the exploitation of tribals in rural India. Using music and two 'kirtankaarsas' as narrators, Shesh told the story of a village in central India, but it could have been anywhere else.

On a night when the two singers and storytellers are performing for a group of villagers, an incident that took place in the past emerges from memory. The Patel of a tribal village profits from forest produce that the poor adivasis bring to him. He also puts them to work in his factory at subsistence wages. The workers do not even realise that they are being exploited, as they sing, “Kaam karo bhai kaam karo, desh ke oonha naam karo.”  They have no clue as to what is going on outside their village, but there are hints of revolutionary activity taking place in the forests nearby, and fights going on for the rights of the tribals. A few Patels have also been murdered in retaliation for their atrocities against the poor villages.

One of the workers finds a poster on the street, which she picks up because she likes the look of it. Her fellow workers put up the poster on the wall of the factory, and the response of their employer is astonishing. He rants for some time and then raises by four annas, their pathetic wage of one rupee. The tribals are thrilled but all of them being illiterate do not know what the poster says. They request the school master to read it, and discover that it is a demand to raise workers’ wages to four rupees.

If one poster could have this impact, the oppressed tribals think, then more posters would get them more money.  For the first time, they realise their own power, and that of the mysterious poster. For the first time, a tribal man gathers the courage to refuse to send his wife to the Patel’s haveli.

The production with a bunch of young Awishkar actors, is staged with simplicity, (no props), except for a whip hung menacingly at the back of the workplace, but is energetic and sincere, accompanied by rousing music. Even though the play belongs to the time when twenty-five paise could buy something, the story could be taking place in any backward tribal village in India, where poverty, illiteracy and exploitation is rampant. In real life, it would take more than a poster to change things, but was/is perhaps a call for educating the poor and underprivileged, so that they can fight for themselves.

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