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The plays that come out of Slumdog's world

The hit movie Slumdog Millionaire has introduced the lives of children living in Dharavi, one of Asia's biggest slums, to Western cinema audiences.

But there's another story taking place in Dharavi, and other slums around the world, and that's about the recycling businesses that flourish there. Satinder Kaur Chohan reports on an Indian theatre company that finances itself through slum recycling.

Slum recycling underpins the work of a unique theatre company based in the northern city of Chandigarh, Punjab.

Le Corbusier with plan for Chandigarh
Chandigarh is a model of urban planning, designed by French architect Le Corbusier in the 1950s, that's famed for its clean roads and green open spaces.


Slumdog Millionaire

BBC Radio 4 has two interviews online.
'Start the Week' interviews Vikas Swarup, author of 'Q and A', the novel on which the movie was based.
'Night Waves' interviews the Golden Globe-winning director, Danny Boyle here.

Yet over the past decade, slums have sprung up in the city's interstices. In a city of over a million inhabitants, slum dwellers number more than 300,000. In 1992 Zulfiqar Khan decided to form Theatre Age to empower and educate local slum children. Aged 47, Khan is the son of a road labourer and the only university graduate in his family.

Khan was working as a researcher in Indian Theatre at Punjab University in Chandigarh.

    'While doing theatre with children in reputable schools,' he says, 'I came across some under-privileged children scavenging waste from a huge garbage drum. Right then, it struck me that these poor children also have a right to theatre.'
During the day, many of these 'slum students', some of whom support entire families, work for small wages as shoeshine boys, domestic servants, car washers, labourers or rag pickers. Theatre Age offers a school education to 35-40 students (aged between nine and 18) in a classroom donated by a local government high school. In the evenings, professional volunteers train students in Indian and Western theatre and music traditions. After that, there's dinner. The company also provides them with clothes, shoes and books.

theatre school3
Children at Theatre Age School
A former student had an inspired idea for financing Theatre Age by the recycling of old newspapers and other discarded items from the homes of over 500 donors. Three volunteers (not students) collect the papers. Khan explains, 'They sell them off to local scrap dealers, who in turn sell them off to paper mills, who recycle these to make fresh paper.'

The children also make and sell paper envelopes, wax candles and greeting cards. Banks of books, clothes, toys and other items are also sold to raise vital funds, alongside private donations.

Theatre Age has performed over 1500 shows of around 50 plays at venues in and around Chandigarh and in open air spaces in surrounding rural villages. Alongside original Punjabi and Hindi drama, there have been adaptations of works including Luigi Pirandello's short story 'The Jar' and Moliére's 'Love is the Best Doctor'.

Through street theatre, they have also staged a number of plays about AIDS, drug addiction, female foeticide, the power of the political vote and the environment.

Last year, Theatre Age premiered 'Poly Don', a 10-minute dance drama, depicting polythene as a rampaging demon.

    'It's very difficult to control this demon', says Khan, 'Ultimately, the only way to kill the demon is to promote the use of paper bags and other methods of packaging.'
Theatre Age production
Another play, ‘Pani Bin Jeevan Soona’ highlights the need for water conservation, particularly in a state fighting its own water wars with neighbouring Rajasthan. In ‘Shamoo’, a number of misfortunes befall a poor and illiterate factory worker due to his and his wife’s inability to read. From signing an inflated loan arrangement with his deceitful employer, boarding the wrong bus on the way to hospital to taking the wrong medicine, literacy becomes an essential tool of survival for the urban poor in the play.

Since India's rural and urban poor cannot afford to go to the theatre, Khan believes 'street theatre becomes an effective and popular medium to communicate, particularly for spreading relevant messages.'

The social message is all-important but the slum lives and experiences of the students drive the work of Theatre Age. As Khan maintains, “They are the main beneficiaries of our plays and the ones who actually face the problems addressed in them.” All the plays are conceived, developed and produced in-house. After discussing initial ideas with the students, Khan deploys devising techniques or workshop methods with the group, using their creative and critical feedback to begin writing a script. Musical compositions and dance choreography, mostly based on local folk traditions, are added later. ‘Giraft’, a play about the perils of drug addiction and gambling draws heavily on the experiences of the students.

Sahil, 15, says, “I never thought I could perform in the theatre but Zulfi Sir encouraged me to take part in a play. I did so unwillingly but after that, I developed an interest in theatre. Over the past 4 years, I’ve lost count of how many plays I’ve acted in.” Khan is understandably proud of his success with the slum students. “The moment they come to us, 50% of our mission is achieved. By coming to us, they are cut off from the social rut in which they were living.” In a nation well known for its belief in the recycling of souls, the recycling of paper in Chandigarh ensures that slum children and Indian theatre are granted other incarnations.

Satinder Kaur Chohan also writes here about her play Zameen set in the Punjab.

published in 2008

'While doing theatre with children in reputable schools, I came across some under-privileged children scavenging waste from a huge garbage drum. Right then, it struck me that these poor children also have a right to theatre.'

Theatre Age director, Zulfiqar Khan

'They recycled in India way before we got into recycling. They’ve been doing it for donkeys’ years. It’s part of the culture that people throw their rubbish away, and you think, oh, that’s disgusting, but they throw it away because there’s these people who live their lives picking it up and recycling it. There’s this pattern that you begin to see about the way, what looks like dirt to begin with, there’s actually a pattern.'

Danny Boyle, director, Slumdog Millionaire

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