Theatre in Resistance: Activism, Agitation and Protest in the Performing Arts

1937 records one of humanity’s first military strikes on a defenseless civilian town by a modern aerial force. The perpetrators were the Nazi Luftwaffe and the place was the Spanish town of Guernica. Chances are that if that name seems familiar, it’s either because you are a World War II buff or you’ve heard of Picasso’s 25 ft X 12 ft masterpiece of protest art – Guernica.

Guernica, Pablo Picasso on display at the Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain

Displayed for the first time later that very year, Picasso’s Guernica was single-handedly responsible for bringing the world’s attention to Spain and the ongoing civil war. The painting managed to raise funds for Guernica’s eventual restoration and serves till this day as a disturbing reminder of both our capacity for violence and peace.

Art has always been integral to nonviolent resistance. In India, the Progressive Writers’ Movement started as a way of using literature to raise awareness in society. It attacked not only the injustices of the British rule, but also openly critiqued the caste system, communalism and patriarchal mores. And hand in hand went the burgeoning use of theatre as a tool for resistance, protest and change in society. The idea of using this momentum to create a unified people’s theatre movement is credited to a woman named Anil de Silva, a journalist from Bangalore. And thus the Indian People’s Theatre Association was born.

ipta-gandhi-collage-1Bhookha hai Bengal chorus song in Dharti ke Lal, an IPTA Production, 1946 and 
Promotion still from Gandhi - the Musical, a Silly Point/NCPA Production, 2016

In her memoirs, Zohra Sehgal states that ‘every artist who lived in Bombay between 1940 and 1950 was connected with IPTA in one capacity or the other’. And by that of course, she meant everyone from Mulk Raj Anand to Ismat Chugtai to Prithviraj Kapoor to S. D. Burman, all were a part of IPTA. From Bombay this idea spread to Calcutta and almost every other town in India more than 50 years before the invention of social media. One of IPTA’s biggest touring shows of the time was a ballet based on Nehru’s ‘Discovery of India’. And if you’ve been looking at Mumbai’s playbill recently, the fact that a musical based on the life of Gandhi was drawing audiences a few weeks ago, seems apropos in a coming-full circle kind of way.

The history of theatre in resistance is often told against the backdrop of oppression and violent reprisals. Safdar Hashmi was murdered in a mob-lynching during a performance of ‘Halla Bol’ a streetplay that spoke about wage laws for industrial workers. His company Jan Natya Manch has gone on since under the leadership of Janam president Moloyashree Hashmi to become one of India’s foremost practitioners of activist theatre. Janam has trained more than 8000 people in ways of using theatre to speak truth otherwise ignored.

sheetal-sathe-1Sheetal Sathe, one-woman revolution (Image: Youth Ki Awaaz)

Or take the example of Sheetal Sathe and Sachin Mali of the Kabir Kala Manch – two people arrested for essentially singing songs and staging street plays about Dalit rights. And while Mali still languishes at Arthur Road – an artist-activist in the company of mobsters and terrorists, Sheetal Sathe is back on the streets. She sings about women, caste oppression, Godmen and the Government. A recent article in Youth ki Awaaz rightly calls her the Government’s Worst Nightmare. Sheetal is part of Maharashtra’s tradition of Lokshahirs – people’s poets whose verse is intended to start conversations in local communities and empower them with a voice.

Activist theatre, of course, isn’t simply a compendium of left-leaning individuals and groups who form the core of citizen critiques of policy and tradition. In the past decade, HIV infections have fallen by over 50%. This has been largely due to concentrated efforts to spread awareness at the grassroots levels. A sum of those efforts have been street plays, immersive theatre experiences and invisible theatre designed to specifically tackle the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS. And performance can go beyond being simply creatives ways of disseminating information about the 4 ways HIV spreads or how to use a condom properly. Anurupa Roy founded the Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust in the year 1998. Since 2006, they have worked extensively on community health, reproductive rights and of HIV-AIDS Awareness.


Anurupa Roy, manipulating a puppet in About Ram, 2014 (Image:


Katkatha used puppetry to work with children living with HIV/AIDS. These children went on to create stories about stigma and discrimination that were combined together in a puppetry performance – Virus ka Tamashah. The show has been performed over 200 hundred times – building empathy in a society that has misunderstood sexual health for a long, long time.

The values of the Feminist Movement are increasingly making their presence felt in the work of contemporary artists. We can talk about the significant work that many across the country are doing with community theatre – using drama processes to collect and share stories of abuse, assault and agency. Or we can talk about individuals – boldly going where no man has gone before. Mallika Taneja whose seminal piece Thoda Dhyaan se uses nudity to tackle the patriarchal gaze. Kalyanee Mulay who responds to historical sexism through her performance UnSeen. Or feminist theatremaker Mangai’s collection of essays on staging gender in India, which released just last month.

Kalyanee Mulay, A. Mangai and Mallika Taneja

Theatre is becoming many things in today’s world. But at the end of the day, one thing it will always remain is a people’s art-form – one that innately and inherently draws from the society it subsists in. Our understanding of India’s theatre, art and literature gives us an intimate look at what culture struggles with. But more than that, it tells us how we can go about addressing the imbalances that have sustained through India’s history.

Further Reading: 


Acting Up: Gender and Theatre in India, 1979 Onwards by A. Mangai (LeftWord Books, 2016)

Stages: The Art and Adventures of Zohra Segal by Joan L. Erdman and Zohra Segal (Kali for Women, 1996)

The Playful Revolution: Theatre & Liberation in Asia Jul by E. Van Erven (John Wiley & Sons, 1995)

– Written by Hina Siddiqui

Hina is a writer and theatremaker. She manages communication and branding for the Theatre Professionals, Mumbai


Gaurav Karmakar- Talks about his time as part of the first batch of the One Year Certificate Course



To put it simply, that is the first word that comes to my mind when I look back at the past one year, the year of my studies at “The Drama School Mumbai”.

Each and every moment has offered me some new food for thought or something new to learn.

The superb design of the course has helped even me, an IT professional earlier, to make a steady and strong transformation over the duration. The 5 months of intensive practical classroom training, with every week concluding with a students’ performance, were the steps for me to reach to a point where I could deserve to be a part of the team that devised one of the two productions of this batch.

Getting to learn from teachers from all over India and abroad, working in different theatre styles, alongside batch mates from different places and with different backgrounds under one roof, was in it self, quite overwhelming.

Every time I thought the best part of the course was over the school offered me something even better. The classroom trainings followed by a month of devising a play and then the performances along with being part of the production teams, research papers and internships. Each and every bit has given me a lot to learn and cherish.

Chirag Lobo - Talks about his time as part of the first batch of the One Year Certificate Course


Over the past 8 months I have learnt so much from the Drama School Mumbai. I remember how I was so desperate to be a part of this course, when I applied in April. And today I look back at everything I have experienced and I thank the Almighty for this opportunity. My main aim was to gain more depth as an actor and that search with The Drama School, helped me learn so much more about myself.
The faculty is like a buffet. Serving such varieties…For instance,
Prabhat, who helped me realise how strong or how far you can push your body and understand that your mind has more strength than your muscle.
Yuki, through her work with the neutral masks helped me discover how your body can express various emotions. It was during her time that the ensemble of boys created a short performance on the dalits based on Namdeo Dhasals Cruelty. A piece that I will continue to cherish for life. It is through that very piece we formed a brotherhood and galvanised all our skills to potray the harsh realities of the Dalits.
Deepal, a man who will keep pushing you and may sometimes get on your nerves, but you can be certain its his way of getting the best out of you.
Deshik is probably the one I have learnt the most from. An actor himself, he simplifies all your road blocks with such ease. A real gem.
Ben Samuels, this man never gave up on me. It was during the rehearsals for our play Cutter Chee I was hospitalised for dengue. He made sure that I would still be part of his play which is something that I am really thankful for.
To have someone of Geetanjali’s caliber who is so established in Indian Theatre is a major plus point as It helped me learn so much from her through my one on one meetings as well as through her directions and constant guidance.
And last but not the least I would like to thank Jehan Manekshaw without whom this wouldn’t be possible. He has bestowed me with the opportunity to intern with Theatre Professionals and has also given me a lot of exposure with concern to various established institutions.
The TML’s were a major driving force in challenging yourself to create new art. This process not only helps you overcome various insecurities but also prepares you to dawn a stage for your final production with ease.
I am so proud of the fact that I am a part of ‘The Curious Climb Of Cutter Chee’ a completely devised play guided by Ben Samuels. The process of recreating Brecht’s Arthuro Ui in 1970’s gangster Mumbai was truly, an enlightening experience.
Based on all my experiences I hope to give back to The Drama School Mumbai something equivalent to the efforts vested in us. When I think about it today, there are a lot of emotions I feel towards the drama school but the most dominant one is gratitude. For helping me reach heights, I didn’t think were possible and giving me experiences which I don’t think I will ever forget.



Mikhail Sen - Talks about his time as part of the first batch of the One Year Certificate Course

My experience at the Drama School, Mumbai over the last 9 months has been nothing short of amazing. That being said, it was never easy and there were days where one would come back wondering why one was putting oneself through such a tough process. Which me brings me to my first big learning at the Drama School, the ability to find new energy. This is something that I learnt quite early (week 4 or 5) during our work with Prabhat.

When you’re firing on all cylinders and slowly losing steam, you’ve got to push yourself and if you do you’ll find what you need to reach your goal. It’s funny how you can use anything as a metaphor because what I’ve just said I realize rings true about life.  Which brings me to another realization that I had. It’s important to be able to see things from as many different perspectives as possible. Having said your own way of seeing or the one you identify most closely with is also really important. It’s sort of like understanding the self (where one’s coming from) as well as the other.

There has been a great deal of learning at various different points. The Theatre Making Lab process was a fantastic way to get us as students into the routine of constantly creating and performing, week after week for 20 weeks.  New tasks brought new challenges and new solutions had to be found. The learning also came from working with each other as well as watching each other’s work. This leads to new ways of working, new ideas – new ways of seeing.

The course for me in terms of structure and content was also quite brilliant. While it was always emphasized that each actor/ performer/ practitioner has a method of work, by studying or using his or her methods and exercises we were encouraged to find our own way of working. The different techniques and subjects ranging from Stanislavsky to Commedia Delle Arte, Greek Chorus to Kalaripayattu improved one’s understanding and broadened the range of both the actor’s mind and body.

The six weeks of rehearsal, which led to the creation of the Curious Climb of Cutter Chee, was an experience in itself. Having never devised an entire 2 hour-long piece, one was exposed to an entirely new way of working. There was great deal of learning and the importance of improvisation was brought home to me.

The rigour and discipline that the Drama School gave me is something that I believe will stay with me for life. The idea that it’s the approach to work and the work itself, which is most important.

Kalki Koechlin talks about Theatre Professionals

Kalki Koechlin, Actor, Writer, Director, Participant, Intensive Drama Program 2009Kalki Koechlin

“The chance to work with the likes of Anamika Haksar Sankar Venkateswaran would never have been possible if it weren’t for Theatre Professionals. I cannot think of any other theatre centric teaching facility in the city that is as consistent and reliable in terms of professional practitioners and quality of work.

The workshops and especially IDP helped me keep in touch with the craft and sharpen my tools as an actor. In a busy city we often forget the value of Riyaaz, of keeping the body in regular practice, and Theatre Professionals gave me the chance to do that.I also feel there is an immediate need for a theatre school in Mumbai, as most of our acting schools only focus on Bollywood and film and look forward to Theatre Professionals evolving into the kind of drama school that trains actors for the stage.”

Manasi Racch talks about Theatre Professionals

Manasi Racch, Actor


Every time I’ve done a workshop with Theatre Professionals, I have always learnt, improved and evolved as an actor. The idea of a theatre school sounds really exciting. Coming from Jehan and his talented team, one can expect a kind of training that will take any actor a long way. I think a school like this in Mumbai is good news for all aspiring and professional actors in the city. Wishing Jehan and team lots of luck and good wishes.

Quasar Thakore Padamsee talks about Theatre Professionals

Quasar Thakore Padamsee
Artistic Director, Q Theatre Productions.
Founder, Thespo


Theatre in Bombay has gone through many phases. Each phase building upon the last. The Chabbildas Movement, Prithvi, Thespo are all chapters in the city’s theatre landscape. The work the TPPL is doing looks certain to be the next BIG phase for Bombay theatre. For too many years, groups and directors have had to ‘invent it as they go along’. With a proper training programme and drama school, TPPL is serving the community at large by creating prepared actors. This will not only lift the level of work, but free creators to spend less time ‘teaching’ and more time building shows in rehearsal.
Today a career as an actor, and particularly a theatre actor is no longer an oddity. It is a viable option for scores of young enthusiasts. The proper training will equip them with the tools to be ready for that first audition or rehearsal.
I think the Drama School is a necessity in today’s cultural landscape. I wish it all the best. And wait eagerly to work with the graduates of the first batch.

Sanjna Kapoor talks about Theatre Professionals

Sanjna Kapoor
Co-founder, Junoon Theatre Group


“We are at a curious time in Bombay today. I believe it is a time of great hope. Where the theatre community seems to feel a need for training and bettering its skills, where the audience is willing to pay more for theatre tickets and where the corporate world is looking at developing means to value the arts (like awards etc). It is more than timely that Theatre Professionals sets out to begin it’s Drama School to impact the ecosystem and offer a valuable opportunity for theatre artists to gain skills and experiences that will impact the world of theatre to come. We need more independent organisations like Theatre Professionals to contribute to building the factors of infrastructure that are so lacking – and is so necessary to see a vibrant Indian theatre. I wish this Drama School endeavour all the very best!”


Gulshan Devaiah talks about his experience at TPPL's IDP

Gulshan Devaiah, Actor
Participant, Intensive Drama Program 2009


“I generally consider myself a film actor (because i love it) although my foundation is theatre. I believe that actors must expose themselves to all kinds of art . An active mind creates an active imagination.
The IDP workshop (2009 batch ) was very critical in my development as an actor because I realized during the course of the two weeks how I could channelize things I knew and was learning there to help me prepare better and perform with confidence in front of the camera. I had the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the masters of the craft . I became more aware of my body and my senses . My concentration improved . I began to use my voice better and discovered some techniques from traditional theatre like the use of breath and posture .its amazing when you discover how you can use a kudiyatam technique on film and it looks amazing and nobody knows what you did . It was fun to learn about music and rhythm , learn moves from various martial arts and folk theatre and sometimes generally play the fool ….. Inspiration can come from anywhere . I was certainly inspired after my IDP workshop.”

Kunal Kapoor talks about his experience at TPPL's Intensive Drama Program

Kunal Kapoor, Actor
Participant, Intensive Drama Program 2011

Kunal Kapoor

“I think what I got most from the workshop was awareness. Whether it was awareness of my physical self or my surroundings, awareness of my voice and the sounds around me, and awareness of the possibilities available to me as a performer. The whole workshop for me was a sort of a mind stretch, the opening up of various doors as a performer. I think i have come out of it with greater ability to focus, concentrate and more importantly with a renewed enthusiasm for the craft of acting.”