TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. April 2010

Section VS 1 The multitude of Theatre of the Oppressed techniques: From Theory to Practice
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair:
Birgit Fritz (University of Vienna), Matthias Thonhauser (Art in Progress/Austria)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

English | Русский

The philosophycal and practical framework
of Jana Sanskriti’s work during the last 20 years in West Bengal

Sanjoy Ganguly [BIO]


Thanks a lot to all of you. I will quickly go through how our group Jana Sanskriti evolved and then I will focus my presentation only on the philosophical question of how the Theatre of the Oppressed works, through stories.

So, when I was quite connected to the largest communist party in India, I experienced the culture of monologue inside the party, because inside the party we were only asked to watch, were asked only to listen, and we were asked only to wait for the orders coming from the top, from the Central Committee. So, the monologue is something, not a theory to me, it is something that I experienced in my political life. So, later on when we decided to look at our society, we found that monologue exists at various levels in the society, between husband and wife, between teacher and student, between leader and the stuff, at various levels this monologue exists. So, in order to promote independent organization for the agricultural workers, which will not be controlled by any party, we went into the villages. And when we were in the village, the villagers did not trust us; they thought we were some extremists, or Christian priests that came to convert them, so many things and many suspicions the villagers were having on their minds. And there, at that moment, I noticed that the traditional folk art in the villages can be used for establishing a more democratic relationship between the actor and spectator than what I saw in the city theatre, where I was born.

Then I started to learn this folk art, because I thought that through the folk art I would be able to articulate my politics. Learning this folk art in a collective with a group of people, I realized there was a theatre person inside of me.

By being the spectator of my own acting, being the spectator of my own self, I discovered myself, and as Boal says, this is theatre. It was also a discovery for me.  I understood that in order to discover oneself one needs to be connected to a collective, because you can look at yourself only when you are connected to a collective. And every collective action, when you work collectively, leads to an introspective action; if it doesn’t happen then our action, our relation, is incomplete.

When we act in the collective, when I am in the collective, when I am relating to others -  that is politics, and when I come from the collective to the individual, when I am looking at myself, then it is, to  me,  spiritualism. So, it is the combination of all collective action, it is the combination of politics and spiritualism, and this spiritualism has nothing to do with any religion.

From 1985 till 1990, we were a propaganda theatre group, we used to suggest solutions; we used to guide people; we used to say: do this, do that; that was our role.  When we were doing a propaganda theatre, lots of things that were ordered to us, indeed we were learning and we realized that this propaganda theatre was not really creating a democratic space, where people could articulate their thought, where people could think. We produced a play; that was a very famous play in Jana Sanskriti, presenting a woman who got raped just before the parliament election. And that woman, after being raped, got pregnant and she decided to give birth to her baby. At that time, a lot of social forces, political parties, social institutions were acting against her. And finally with the help of an NGO, the woman got helped and fought cases and she gave birth to her child and she raised him and she was an empowered woman at the end of the play.

One day, at the end of the performance, three tribal women (none of them was educated, none of them could read or write their name, they didn’t know the alphabet) asked: “The woman in your play, she is very empowered isn’t she?” And then I said: “Yes, she is very empowered”. Then those ladies said: “We get raped every day. And it is at work, in the mines, it is an unofficial practice that the contractor calls us alone to his room and we go there and after that we go home to our families and we cook, we look after our family, we love, don’t you think that we are very empowered? And then we didn’t know what to say, because it is true, the moment that these women asked this question, we all looked at ourselves and I, personally, thought: if I were in the position of these women, could I think of doing theatre, could I think of doing politics, could I love,  so  who am I to empower them? At that moment, I came in touch with a philosopher who said: “Every human being is perfect: the only thing is that it is not manifested, every human being has lots of potentials: the only thing is that they don’t know about it. And then we realized that by doing this kind of guiding, suggestive, propaganda theatre we are violating human rights, because the human beings are capable of thinking and we are not recognizing the fact that they have their own mind and that they are also philosophers, they are people who can learn. We need to create a democratic space where they can exercise their intellect.

Then we started looking for a democratic theatre where this monologue between actor and spectator would disappear and there would be a dialogue between actor and spectator, the politics would be democratized; we were searching for such forms. Then I came in touch with Augusto Boal. He asked: “What do you want?” I said: “I want to democratize politics.” And then he asked: “What do you see in me?” I said:  “I see that your theatre is a statement that protects human rights because it acknowledges the intellectual ability of all people. We had a discussion about dogma versus debate. And it was that Boal said: “I am by your side and I will be by your side. We are now friends; we have a very good relationship, Boal and me. My younger brother is sitting here, Julian. And I am sure he is very proud of his elder brother, his borda, aren’t you?

OK, now I will just substantiate why I see that introspection is a main aspect of the process: when you look at yourself as your own spectator you are a theatre. Why this is a main aspect of the theatre of the oppressed?

I am just telling you a story: it was a singer called Alaudin, he was singing a song very nicely and then the listeners were all thinking, oh, what, he is so wonderful. It was really wonderful for all, at the moment when the listeners were really enjoying it, they started singing.  Alaudin stopped his singing and he said: “I cannot sing, today I am unable to sing.”  And he said I can see that I am not singing well. If you consider this whole issue, you will think: who told Alaudin that he was not singing well, because the listeners were enjoying the songs, so who said it?  The singer Alaudin looked at himself as the listener Alaudin and discovered that he was not singing well, this is in the human nature, we are always looking at ourselves.

And the crisis of this civilization is in the fact that the political forces don’t want to recognize this human character, this human nature, they don’t want you to discover this, because they want to make of you their blind followers.

It is through introspection that we discover our talent. For example, I am telling you another story, it is not a fact but it is a fiction. One day one tigress was about to kill a herd of sheep, she jumped to catch one of the lambs and at that point a hunter shoot his arrow, killing her, and she died on the spot but before dying she deliverd her a baby.

The baby tiger was growing up with a group of sheep, and he used to act like a sheep, if someone chases him, he runs and he eats grass and he was like a sheep, he was not like a tiger, he was like a sheep.  One day one big tiger noticed and asked: “What is happening, what a tiger doing there?” Then one day the tiger attacked the group of sheep and picked up the small tiger and took him near a pond with very transparent water. And he asked the baby tiger: “Look at yourself in this pond, who are you?” Are you not like a tiger, are you not like me? Then the baby tiger discovered: “Yes I am a tiger.” For me, this is theatre: when we discover our enormous potential, we are enormously powerful but we don’t know much about ourselves, we know lots of things about our external reality but we know very little about ourselves, the fact that we are enormously powerful. I am always talking about a journey inward, in such a journey inward you are discovering your potential, you are discovering your talent and, at the same time, we can see, we have oppressors in ourselves.

When an agricultural worker, a poor man (who works in the field and is exploited by his contractor), goes back to his house, he  beats up his wife, he is drunk, he doesn’t look after his children, the same oppressed guy in the field is an oppressor in his house. So this dichotomy can be found if anyone who is able to look at oneself. That’s the reason why Boal doesn’t stop, by saying to us: “You should be a theatre, because you are the spectator of your own actor, you have to make theatre because you have to go to people.”

To be able to look at ourselves, we need a collective action. And the theatre of the oppressed is a collective action in a workshop, when we collectively write a play, and it is a collective action when we perform a play in front of the spectators, because we construct a relation with the spectactors.

When we go to perform a forum play or any other technique, the rainbow of desire, legislative theatre, or something else, we are going to construct a sincere collective relation with the spectators, and in order to construct this relation we need to have a real political attitude. In the absence of this attitude, your relation will not work, it will not be established. When we say that each individual is enourmously powerful, we know that we are all powerful human beings. It should not be a theoretical decision, it should come from your heart, the connection between head and heart constructs the attitude.

For example, my friend, who is a psychiatrist, told me a story. “Once, at two o clock p.m., in India, he received a phone-call. On the other end of the line, there was a woman. The woman said: ‘Doctor, I am going to commit suicide, in one hand I have the receiver, in the other hand the bottle of poison, this is the last phonecall in my life, I will talk to you, and then I will drink the poison, I will commit suicide, I don’t want to live.’ And he said to himself:  I don’t want to listen to a drama, it is a patient doing a melodrama. Still, he said to her: ‘Nonsense, you don’t know anything about it. Ok, let me listen to your story.’” He said to me:  “Look, I talked for two hours to her, from two o’ clock until 4 o’ clock; I wanted to prevent her from doing that, because I knew the patient would commit suicide.

Then he said that when the patient on the other hand put down the receiver, he was sure she would commit suicide, and he was very sad. And he went to sleep. And the next day when he was sitting in his clinic and he saw the woman coming, he was delighted and said: “Please come; come sit here.” Then he said to her: Look, my talk to you, for two hours night, worked, you changed your decision, how nice,” he said. And the patient said: “No, doctor, it is not your words at all.”

Then he asked what was it that helped her to change her decision. “It is not your words, it is your attitude”, she said. “Because the kind of dialogue we had; a lot of my friends and relatives they said the same things, this kind of things, why are you so depressed, the world is so beautiful and this kind of things, that I should feel happy; this kind of things I have been listening for the last five years, but now they have been saying it from here”, she said pointing at her head. “And you were saying it from here,” she said, pointing at her heart.

Very often people ask me: how do you make jokers. I say jokers cannot be made - jokers cannot be made through modules. A joker needs a special attitude when he is approaching the spectators, he should have this belief “from here” and “from here” – “that I am talking to philosophers when I am talking to people, I am here to connect the actors and spectators.” When he has that sort of respect, that approach to people, his intervention will be automatic.

In a relation, we need a right attitude and then we can have a dialogue, debates, exchange, and through a dialogue, through debate, we can have an argumentative culture as a foundation, and that helps us to learn, we learn jointly, we learn together.

If you look at the development of the human society, if you look at the development of human thought, you see that the human thought progressed through a dialogue, through debate; you see that human thought is dialectic, that human thought developed through exchange, thought is dynamic.

Again I will mention the human civilization: when men freed their hands, why they did so. You know, we were just four footed animals and then we felt like freeing our hands and in the process of freeing our hands we were able to see a lot of things, a big horizon was opened. And when the big horizon was opened, the human brain started getting information from outside. And this information from outside and the information they have inside became conflicting. And this conflict resulted as the advancement of the human civilization. Humans discovered fire, they discovered agriculture, they sculpted on the walls of their caves, they painted; all this started because the human being had this intellectual need. They wanted to receive information. They saw things, they shared together them in a collective, there was a collective society formed, they thought together and then they discovered the law of the nature and they started to make use of the nature. Their intellectual need, their need for information, the need to fight between thesis and anthitheses, the information that I get from outside, the information that I have inside, the need to have a conflict was a very human need from the very beginning of the civilization, and therefore we need a dialogue.

Because in a dialogue we get more information, we get more ideas and those ideas get in conflict and that results into the advancement of the civilization. And the dialogue also helps us to go on a journey where an individual is going towards a collective. Scientifically, when on the stage everybody is thinking the same, then the problem is not an individual problem - it is the problem of a collective. So we, the actors, we are relating to the group of spectactors, and this is a collective action, it is going from individual to the collective, it is a political action and when something comes from the collective then I call it spiritualism. For example, there was a girl called Mary, she was a housemaid in a family. And she cleaned the floor, she cleaned the toilet, she cooked the food, she made the children ready to go to the school, she cleaned everything, she did everything and everything is being done in the family but nobody knew who was doing all this work.

Then one day Mary was performing in a forum theatre and after the performance was over, Mary went to the green room and in front of the big mirror she started crying. Then her co-actor said:  “Why are you crying?” And she said: “For the first time in my life today I was made visible, lights, costumes, everybody was looking at me and even my master, my master’s wife and all his family came, everybody was looking at me, I was made visible.” And then the co-actor said:  “So what, you were made visible, so what is the point of crying?” Then, she said: “Normally in the house where I work I am not asked to be visible, sometimes when these people, my owners, they talk about something, I know, I can say something but I have to pretend as if I was not listening to them. I am asked to be visible today, it is a discovery for me. “ Then the co-actor said: ” What did you discover?”  She said: “I discovered that I am a woman, I discovered that I am a human being.” The co-actor said: “Then yesterday, you were not a woman, yesterday you were not a human being then?” She said:  “Yesterday I was a housemaid and today I am a woman, I am a human being.” So, this is how the collective action helps us to discover ourselves, Mary discovered herself as a woman, as a human being, it is a great discovery. And that’s the reason why Boal has said that one can become human by discovering theatre.

You know, Julian has told me a story, once when I am talking about journey... I must mention this story. Some people from Mars came to the Earth and they were in Bishkek and they were discovering the city. And then they noticed then when there is a red light the cars stop and when it is green, they start moving. After observing this, they discovered that it is a rule, in front of the red you have to stop, in front of the green you can go, it’s a rule. Then one of them said: “Yes, I understand it is a rule, but who made this rule? You know this is why the journey is important.”

Like, for example, one day, we were playing a play in which the bride was seen in a very ugly manner by the family of the bridegroom. The man came and he started looking at the girl, like so, oh yes it is ok, her eyes, her hands yes, it is ok, before the marriage he wanted to see whom he was going to get married to. And then the joker said: “Who wants to replace the girl?” and the people started replacing the woman and they said: “Please don’t touch me, don’t look at me like that, I don’t like that way of looking at a girl, this is not ok, this is not politeness.” And then it was going on like this: one woman raised her hand and she had a child on her breast and she was illiterate, she didn’t know how to read and write and she looked very poor, coming from a very poor family.

Then she came and replaced the girl. And the moment that the man came to examine her, she said: “Look. My point is not how politely you can look at me, my point is why should there be a system in which a man is allowed to look at a woman like this, and a woman is not allowed to see a man in the same way, why should there be such a system.” And this is what we call journey, when we are in a forum theatre, when we are constructing relation we are going on a journey, the problem on the stage is not an individual problem, it is not a problem of a family all the time, people start from an individual problem to understand the system.

So the spectators go from the experience to theory, from the result to the reason, from the effect to the cause, from the particular to the general, so this journey is an intellectual journey and this journey is called empowerment.

I am concluding my speech with this that, in theatre, we essentially create a relation and that relation is based on dialogue. And to have a dialogue, you need to recognize the intellectual ability of the people. Then this journey takes you from the individual to the collective and from the collective to the individual. The journey takes you to understand a broader system, a broader political world, the journey takes you from a particular to the general. And this relation, this dialogue, this debate, results in two revolutions. When Mary discovered herself as a human being, it was an internal revolution, and when our village women question the system in order to change it, then it is the question of external revolution.

When we act in Jana Sanskriti for a forum performance, our intention is to create a debate among the people, the people will be returning home with some ideas, with some conflicts to be solved, they will be debating the way how to solve it – “Do I behave this way in the family,” they will think.

Some problem cannot be solved on the stage. Theatre on the stage is not enough. Acting on stage is not enough. If people start thinking, then they experience an incompleteness, they try to bring the change in their real life too.  So, theatre never ends after the performance, it only begins then. Boal has called it “rehearsal for change”. So we rehearse as to how to change our external oppressive reality, we think together in a collective. Then it is quite natural that all of us feel responsible to act outside the stage as actors. When we act outside the stage we are activists. And when we act on the stage we are actors. And to be activists, and to be organized so that we can bring change to our social reality, first of all we need to think very critically to understand all the dimensions of the problem.

Last time when I met Boal, last time when we were jointly working in Paris with the same group of people, I said: “My experience is that your theatre is not a rehearsal of revolution, which you said in your book The Theatre of the Oppressed. It is not a rehearsal of revolution only. It is a rehearsal of total revolution.”“What do you mean by total revolution,” he asked.  I see, there is an internal revolution, because the people first experience this internal revolution and  then they go to change their reality, so it is a total revolution.

And so for me, for us, the Theatre of the Oppressed is the rehearsal of total change, of total revolution. When we actors feel that they are one with the spectactors, we are one, and for us this is an internal revolution. When we go together, when we intend to bring a change in social reality, for us - that is the external revolution. And you know that I am talking to you not in order to project what I think, but I want to make you understand some things.

As actors, if we genuinely want to construct a relationship with the spectators, we have to go beyond this identity as “I”. And when we have to go to the spectators, we should not think that we know everything. I think the most couragous men is the one who can say: “I know nothing.”

Our essential goal is to construct a relation for a joint learning. And this is what I call the combination of politics and spirituality. Now you are liberated.

Jana Sanskriti is spread in ten different states in India, so we perform in ten different languages, but we are based in West Bengal where we use Bengali, and we have been practicing the Theatre of the Oppressed for 21 years already, we still have no website, but we are going to make it soon, so you will get a lot of information of what is happening there, but meanwhile you can access through google “Jana Sanskriti Centre for Theatre of the Oppressed,” you will find a lot of information, many groups all over the world are talking about us.

Question:  “You have worked with citizens of Kyrgyzstan, I would like you to say a few words about your experience here, because you wanted very much to find yourself in the post-socialist space, how do you find our participants, what was your impression?”

Answer: It is too early for me to say anything about it, but I should confess the fact that I quite loved the Soviet system. I understand that the Soviet system did not consider the whole aspect of internal revolution. People found an external change but they could not respond to this external change properly because they were not changed from the inside. So I think that, it doesn’t mean that I always see Augusto Boal or the Theatre of the Oppressed from a Marxist point of view, you have heard me, I don’t search any Marxist in Boal, I always try to see him as a composition of many ideas.

What I believe for Kyrgyzstan, as very often I said, that the reminiscence of social values are still there within the people but at the same time they are facing a very different reality now, they find themselves in a different system and that conflict has not been resolved yet. And I don’t think perhaps it is too early to say the Kyrgyz society is still not that individualized, like what I very often see in Europe. Because, in European society, people think they are independent but they are actually not free. For them, the independence means to consume more things. When a society even the Kyrgyz society has to face this, when the consumerism is the essence of a society, then individualism is inevitable because everybody will try to consume more than others. But freedom means to feel as an individual when I feel as collective, when I feel that everybody’s power is my power - then I am free. Because in no way we can restrict ourselves, like if I restrict myself as a speaker, I will have less power, but if I think we are together and discussing, everybody is together, the collective power is my power.

When we see the construction of the yurta, the yurta is the construction of various sticks, that are carrying the yurta so one yurta is the composition of a collective, it is the manifestation of a collective. So, it is the togetherness, it is the freedom, togetherness is the source of creativity.  Now in Kyrgyz society they have experienced some togetherness and they are going to face something that will slowly, slowly individualize them. And this individualisation will be interpreted by media, television, newspapers - they will interprete this as freedom. A lot of us will internalize it, we will feel as if we are free, because we were told by the system, but we don’t know, because it is the idea given by the system. So I would ask you, if the old system is a traditional one and if the new system is a modern one. This modernity and the traditionalism - can we create a conflict between the two, in order to create a human society through the theatre? Can we bring up stories?  You script plays, can you bring facts from the real life, which will question the tradition and question the modernity. And can you bring up these questions, these plays in front of the people? Then the people have the opportunity to question modernity in relation to their tradition and in the process we can perhaps visualize the structure of a new society.

You can believe me, I am neither traditionalist nor modernist. If bride-kidnapping is a tradition, for example, we have to throw it out. In the 18th century, in India there was a rule: if husband dies, his wife has to die at the same time. Then there was a reform movement that acted againgst this rule, then they changed the law, the women did not have to die with their husbands. So when I look at my tradition, then my tradition is something where the women had to die with their husbands. My tradition is also a protest against this rule. Now I have to decide which one will I protect and which one I will reject.

When we are talking about argument and dialogue, it is not only in modernity that we see this question of dialogue and debate and argument, it was there in our tradition. For example Indian tradition was so reactionary, so inhuman. At the same time, the interesting part of this tradition was that it was backed by a very strong argumentation. We have to take things; if I give you a fish, maybe you will to cut the end part, cut the head and maybe take the middle, whatever you want you take. The good thing from some tradition should be protected and the good thing from modernity should be accepted. I think this should be the dialectical, scientific way of looking at the model of a society.

Modernisation is also creating racism, modernisation is also responsible for very bloody wars, for the Irak war, for example, and modernisation is a cultural imposition, cultural uniformization. We will all think the same then - we will all follow the consumer line. Modern society is not so democratic, indeed. Therefore, we must not neglect the conflict between tradition and modernity. But do not have to be traditionalists either. And the Kyrgyz society can deal with this big conflict and we will be looking forward to your success.

VS 1 The multitude of Theatre of the Oppressed techniques: From Theory to Practice

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For quotation purposes:
Sanjoy Ganguly: The philosophycal and practical framework of Jana Sanskriti’s work during the last 20 years in West Bengal - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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