Theatre as democracy: Staging south-south dialogues

A theatre form developed in Brazil takes root in rural areas of India, showing the meaningful cultural exchanges.

Performers of Forum Theatre take part in
Boal's theatre resonates so strongly in West Bengal, that his son Julian and Jana Sanskriti have become family and that thousands of villagers have appropriated this theatre in their own vibrant artistic scene [AFP]

Nothing like art to get rid of a colonial hangover. And few things get more post-colonial than Brazil’s Theatre of the Oppressed played Bengali style in the Tagore auditorium of Kolkata.

The rural actors of Jana Sanskriti tackle gender inequalities with such talent and humour that the audience often burst into laughter, and when the act pauses to invite spectators to propose alternative ways to negotiate the conflict draws many volunteers on stage.

It is encouraging to see a theatre form developed by Augusto Boal in Brazil, taking root in rural areas of West Bengal, India, as it shows the meaningful cultural exchanges that are happening within the so-called Global South without triangulating through the Global North.

It shows that knowledge production can happen without constantly referring to the authority of a hegemonic West. And, perhaps, that politics at large can be reconceived beyond the structures inherited from colonial states.

Theatre of the oppressed

When Augusto Boal developed the Theatre of the Oppressed back in the 1970s, when Rio de Janeiro’s art scene was under military surveillance, it was meant to break away from the inadequacies and monologues of Propaganda Theatre.

Instead of didactically telling people what to do and struggle for, Boal wanted to create a theatre that enabled people to discuss concerns on their own terms. His aim was to find a platform for spectators to tell their own stories.

His theatre listens to the oppressions that affect people’s daily life and offers space for debate – stage – possible solutions. He envisioned a political theatre whose fundamental premise is to let the people talk. The play becomes an interaction, a dialogical experience, in which spectators become actors juxtaposing different possibilities to see which options may best address community problems.

Jana Sanskriti has been doing just that for 27 years. The Bengali theatre company has brought the Theatre of the Oppressed to villagers across West Bengal, reaching about 40,000 spectators in 24 districts. People travel long distances, walking or biking miles at day’s end to act, sing and dance, discussing community matters as they take turns to intervene on stage well into the night. 

“Augusto Boal developed the Theatre of the Oppressed back in the 1970s, when Rio de Janeiro’s art scene was under military surveillance.”

The company has little logistical structure or financial support, operating more like a sprawling family than a business. Actors, who may be fishermen, farmers and carpenters, serve as the accountants and cooks running Jana Sanskriti in Badu, around two hours from Kolkata. 

Every other year, the Bengali company organises the “Muktadhara – International Forum Theatre Festival”, which attracts thousands of villagers to the streets of Kolkata – the city hosting the event. When Boal came in 2006, the celebration mobilised nearly 12,000 people, and subsequent events showed even more dynamism.

The festival is the occasion to gather the world in the mango gardens of Badu. In December 2012, people came from 20 countries to take part in the event.

All participants are not professional actors, but all believe in the contribution of art for social change and the possibility to tackle issues like immigration, domestic violence, or food security through theatre.

This year, the participants included Sri Lankan company, Janakaraliya, which staged ethnic violence against Tamil people and Me Toca from Guatemala, whose work enabled Quiche women with HIV/AIDS to denounce on stage the discrimination they suffer in their daily lives.


Boal’s theatre creates “spect-actors“. It is a space where the spectator has the opportunity to intervene, a space where participation is encouraged to foster critical thinking. Building on this idea, Sanjoy Ganguly, the founder of Jana Sanskriti, likes to speak of “spect-activists”.

Ganguly’s purpose is to inspire spectators – who witness their own actions on stage – to become act-ivists off stage. For him, there is no boundary between the activist and the actor. “We rehearse the revolution on stage.”

“If your theatre makes act-ivists,” says Ganguly, then it is “Theatre of the Oppressed.”

But politics must never come at the expense of aesthetics. Keeping aesthetics at the core of the Theatre of the Oppressed was a conviction for Boal, who was finishing a book on The Aesthetics of the Oppressed when he passed away in 2009. Jana Sanskriti is the epitome of this pursuit, as it is at once politically committed and aesthetically gifted.

What Ganguly is truly interested in is creating artists with creative and independent minds of their own, not performers who follow rules. Art is politics and politics is art. “It’s like the milk and its whiteness… you cannot differentiate the two,” he says.

Art has led to significant social change in rural areas. It is significant that over half of the actors in villages are women, and that 10 out of 30 satellite teams established by Jana Sanskriti are run only by women.

If women used to serve tea to men staring down at the floor in sign of subjugation, now their in-laws help with their scripts for the plays, and some graduate from college. Another direct result of Jana Sanskriti forums is the Human Rights Protection Committee created by a village in 2001, and busy ever since.

Dialogues within the global south

Although the Theatre of the Oppressed is found everywhere, providing possibilities for restorative justice from Los Angeles to Guatemala, the particular resonance of Jana Sanskriti may be unique. It is the epicentre for Theatre of the Oppressed in India and probably the largest and longest lasting such forum in the world.

Most striking is how deeply integrated in village life this theatrical activism has become. There is something unprecedentedabout its scale, giving it much international validation, albeit still under-recognised in India. 

“Modernity is not about being able to mimic the West, about achieving the same homogenising nation-state or reproducing its art.”

It’s encouraging to see the Theatre of the Oppressed gain a life of its own in West Bengal, because women and men feel powerful when they can speak. Because it acts as a home-grown stimulus to social dialogue. Because theatre can do things that Bollywood cannot, observes Nandini Rao, from Yours Truly Theatre in Bengaluru, Karnataka, offering an intimate, interactive personal experience to counter the passivity encouraged by commercial TV screens.

There are many ways to activate democracy. The question is which ones actually generate social change. Theatre forums are efficient tools to design better politics.

Perhaps, it should be no surprise that Boal’s theatre resonates so strongly in West Bengal, that his son Julian and Jana Sanskriti have become family and that thousands of villagers have appropriated this theatre in their own vibrant artistic scene.

After all, Kolkata is the cultural capital of India, home to a long heritage of street theatre and poetry and ideas. It gave the world Rabindranath Tagore, who also engaged the voices of Bengali villagers when he created Sriniketan, the rural institute twin to his art school Santiniketan.

Beyond its local impact, the best part in the story of a political theatre invented in Brazil and appropriated in India is the interaction it engenders among countries of the Global South. It means that it is possible to dialogue directly without the mediation of Western conventional knowledge.

That the Theater of the Oppressed has taken root in West Bengal to produce social change offers evidence that politics can be constructed beyond the usual hegemonic sources of power production. It embodies an exchange from south to south, within cultural periphery, in its own terms.

Modernity is not to be found in imitating Europe, warned Tagore. Modernity is not about being able to mimic the West, about achieving the same homogenising nation-state or reproducing its art. Authentic modernity is not to be imitated in its form, but requires true independence of thought and action. It requires the socially and politically committed artistry embodied in Jana Sanskriti.

Real decolonisation is about being able to contribute difference to the West, to value pre-colonial past to enable alternative ways of knowing and being. 

So, now that we are able to think without necessarily triangulating through hegemonic locations of knowledge, let’s talk. And act.

Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College.