Theatre of Witness and Resistance

Devika Ranjan

Devika Ranjan is a first-generation Indian-American. Born in Nashik, Maharashtra and raised all over the United States, Devika found her roots in her family as they moved from the mountains, to the prairies, to the shining sea. Her first forays on stage were jugalbandis, entwined performances of Bollywood dance and classic American musical theatre to interpret her identities and cultural crossings. Devika studies Culture and Politics at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service with a self-designed concentration in “Human Rights in Crisis”; during her undergraduate years, she has conducted research on the India-Pakistan and Israel-Palestine borders to understand the nuances of human rights in these zones of exception. She performed in Amrika Chalo (Destination: USA) and Generation (Wh)Y: Global Voices on Stage as part of The Lab’s Myriad Voices Festival. After translating in a medical clinic for refugees in Germany and conducting theatre workshops for women displaced by border violence in Jammu and Kashmir, Devika’s interest in expression and displacement has led her to an interdisciplinary focus on theatre and international migration. In the fall of 2017, Devika plans to read Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University as a Marshall Scholar. She will then continue to study theater in the UK.

doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.27

When I facilitated a theatre workshop in Manguchak, a village on the India–Pakistan border, I was surprised that the 27 female participants did not know each other’s names. Despite living in a tiny village, the women were mostly confined to their homes by their overwhelming work and family expectations. Prior to the workshop, they had only interacted with each other through the flea-like gossip that jumped from house to house.

So we begun, as many theatre workshops do, with name games. As we gathered daily under the shady canopy of a jaamun tree, our only respite from the sweltering mid-afternoon heat, name games transformed into intimate discussions. Friendships were forged and secrets revealed under a confidentiality pact. Despite the previous gossip, they protected each other—empathizing with each other’s stories as their own.

Women on the India-Pakistan border do not only perform “every day” duties—childcare, cooking, cleaning, maintaining the house and the property—but also endure the random and often fatal cross-border shellings that pockmark the region. The women also toil in the fields to compensate for lost income since the men of Manguchak drink heavily to cope with chronic stress and instability.

The workshop participants decided to create plays about the men’s alcoholism; but as they staged the performances, a pattern became clear. Each of the five plays began with an inebriated husband and inevitably ended with a battered woman. Slowly, the women admitted that every household in Manguchak contains this inebriated husband and this battered woman. They exposed the hypocrisy of gossip through their performances and began to brainstorm solutions.

In the safety of the workshop, the women acted out possible options to resist domestic violence. Sachita1 beat up the husband; Paro asked the village chief to intervene; Sneha took the husband to the hospital; Madhuri called Prime Minister Modi to ban liquor in the entire country. Their energy rose as they tested out each possibility, but none of these options seemed feasible. How can theatre hold up to such extreme and daily violence? What was the point?

In situations of oppression, theatre allows us to bear witness. It forces us to engage with instances of complex injustice. Previously in Manguchak, domestic violence was never discussed except within the malicious whispers of gossip. The plays, based on collective stories, bypass euphemism, social taboo, and self-incrimination. By watching others’ stories, the women felt emboldened to share their own and defy their sense of internalized violence. And through this act of witness, the women of Manguchak took the first step in healing their community.


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Despite staunch resistance from their husbands, fathers, and government officials who were suspicious of the all-female organization, the women banded together in order to improve their village. After the workshop, the women lobbied for a greater police presence to monitor drug abuse; they pooled money to report instances of domestic abuse at the District Commissioner’s office; they advocated for infrastructural and educational improvements in the local school. Their courage to resist, to defy expectation, stemmed from the trust and camaraderie that was built through witnessing their common experience.

International theatre also navigates sensitive and specific instances of violence. For example, Yael Farber’s Nirbhaya, which premiered at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and highlighted sexual violence worldwide through reference to the New Delhi bus rape. But whether there are thousands of witnesses or 27, testimony through performance allows each individual to process violence, understand perspectives, and sift truths in a visceral and intimate way.

And for me, a facilitator and a foreigner, the theatre in Manguchak is also a call to action. Witnessing cannot be voyeurism, gawking at a suffering or vulnerable “other”. I recognize that gender-based violence is not confined to Manguchak or New Delhi; it plagues my American campus and sleepy suburb with similar ferocity. Theatrical witness, therefore, cannot exist in isolation; it must be contextualized constantly, explored and applied as the witness understands their call to action.


  1. All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the workshop participants.