Theatre Against Patriarchy


Author: Jale Karabekir; Translation: Feride Eralp; Editing: Jale Karabekir

SPOT: We wish to analyze society and therefore, art is our companion.

SPOT: When women become actors, join women’s teams, or become spectactors[1] , what changes first of all are their personal lives.

Nothing I’m about to say is unreal; none of it is utopist. It may be hard to believe, but there is a gigantic theatre group in India. A gigantic theatre company which, ever since 1984, has been practicing theatre in India’s rural areas, in its tiny villages, showing plays in village squares, believing in democracy, saying that the real problem is patriarchy, forming women’s teams, creating plays on women’s issues, crying out that theatre is a dialogue, not a monologue and transforming its spectators into actors: Jana Sanskriti. It is impossible for me to fit their 24 year long journey into this short piece of writing; however, the greatest proof of how the impossible is actually possible is Jana Sanskriti itself: A collective which lives and experiences involvement, collectivism and organization, aims for, and most importantly achieves, change and transformation.

Jana Sanskriti’s headquarters are in Western Bengal, Calcutta. However, it is not an urban theatre company. On the contrary, many of its theatre teams exist in India’s villages. At the moment it has more than a thousand actors and more than 150 women’s teams[2].  Every women’s team is made up of 30-35 people. They dramatize and present their own problems, their own oppression, to an audience. All, in order to create the theatre of the spectators themselves…

Jana Sanskriti is the largest theatre company practicing the Theatre of the Oppressed , in the world. In the previous issue of Amargi I had written about my own experiences on the Theatre of the Oppressed[3] and working with women. Since my area is also women and the patriarchy, Jana Sanskriti is very important to me. In a way, it is a formation which encourages me, sets an example and demonstrates the possibility of the impossible, for me. I do not remember when exactly I first heard about Jana Sanskriti. When I watched their documentary, “Playing for Change” in a Theatre of the Oppressed meeting, I had thought about how far away India was and how difficult it would be for me to actually reach them. Yet, in a short while we organized a workshop with Sanjoy Ganguly[4] , Jana Sanskriti’s artistic director, in Kyrgyzstan. We were working in Canicar, a tiny village is Kyrgyzstan; the nights were long enough to feel almost endless and thus our friendship began. There are thousands of implementers who practice the Theatre of the Oppressed in the world, but Jana Sanskriti obviously has a different meaning for me! When I first learned about the methods of the Theatre of the Oppressed, used these methods while working with women, and then decided to do my thesis on this very topic, one of the thousands of obstacles I faced was the following: Nobody even remotely understood what I wanted to do, what kind of conclusions I would reach. Or maybe they just did not wish to understand… According to them this was merely my utopia. However, Jana Sanskriti was right there, in India. And I had found them. Later on, I met many more people from the Jana Sanskriti group in Croatia; this time I had the opportunity to watch their performances and meet the magnificent actor, Shima…

From Monologue to Dialogue

One of the basic features of the Theatre of the Oppressed is its transforming of the monologue structure (its understanding of how what is narrated by actors on stage must be perceived by an audience) of theatre into dialogue (from a relationship between the acting space and the viewing place into active communication). Jana Sanskriti too, sees the monologue as one of the most important elements of oppression. However, one of the greatest differences of Jana Sanskriti is their utilization of Indian folk art. The fact that Indian dance and music has a more democratic relationship with its audience has pointed them in the path of using folk art while practicing the Theatre of the Oppressed. This has also been a helpful factor in the village visits, since not only has it encouraged the local audience to accept Jana Sanskriti more easily, but it has also given the audience the opportunity to watch the art it knows, is used to and likes.

Why the Patriarchy?

When Jana Sanskriti first began working in villages women did not join their group, choose to exist as actors. Actually, women did not even come to the plays they stage. Upon seeing this, they incorporated their spouses, mothers, women friends and relatives to enter a different creative process. Jana Sanskriti thus began its struggle with the issue of patriarchy, through its own experiences. The fact that the feudal structure is powerful in the rural areas of Western Bengal, that the father figure, as a concentration of power, owns all possessions indicates that the sovereignty of the father has social, cultural and economic aspects. The most important standpoint of Jana Sanskriti in its years of trying to understand and struggle against the patriarchy is the following: With a more democratic theatre, it is possible for women to gain strength. In this sense the Theatre of the Oppressed is their most important tool. Topics like alcoholism, violence towards women, economic dependence, forced marriages, not giving girls a right to education are those which they work on quite often. They see the patriarchy, from a political and societal perspective, as the root of the problem. Even though they do not define themselves as a feminist group, I can easily say that their approach and the path they are following is a feminist one. In villages where they demonstrate their plays they actually change the dynamics of the village, while transforming both the spectators and their actors. Within their 24-year-long journey they have come to be known by and also know all the inhabitants of villages, through their women’s teams in the villages of Western Bengal, and the plays which they have displayed. When women become actors, join women’s teams, or become spectactors[5] , what changes first of all are their personal lives. First of all, they see that they can intervene in the oppression they see displayed in the acting space, take active roles in order to find solutions and form strategies. The have the opportunity to see that the solution is not one and only, but that there are many alternatives as well. Secondly, since the issue portrayed is one they already face within the village, after this theatrical experience they can actually approach the issue in a different manner or women can unite against common problems they have.

Sanjoy Ganguly has a saying which I give great importance to. First of all, they do not -notedly, especially- call any of their works, projects:
“We call these missions. Projects are short. For instance, if we say that we want to empower women, this can not come true within two years. We work on long term issues. The patriarchy is a common problem. If we do not battle with it, we can not achieve anything. We must mention education and the empowerment of women in order to reach democracy. Instead of pitying women, it is crucial to realize that they have such capacities and capabilities, and only need areas to demonstrate them. We are trying to create these with the usage of theatre.[6]”

Jana Sanskriti’s Special Methods

Jana Sanskriti has different methods of applying the Theatre of the Oppressed. One of these is acting out the same play multiple times, within the same village. This is so because they believe that transformation is no easy feat. After displaying the play for the first time and receiving a certain amount of involvement by the spectators, they let a couple of months pass and then return to the same village to present the same play once again. This has the following dynamic: When the play is first displayed you include the spectators within a social event. You present them with an oppression/coercion situation which they can interfere with. You experience different perspectives, solutions and strategies with the involvement of spectactors. Once the play is over the spectators return to their normal lives, but these experiences make impressions upon them, remain in their minds. They try to externalize the experiences they have had within the acting space. When you confront the audience with the same play 1-2 months later they find an opportunity to realize what they have thought about since the first performance, in the acting space. The interventions of the spectactors change, different solutions and strategies come to be attempted from the stage. Jana Sanskriti’s practices of the Theatre of the Oppressed follow a circular structure, from reality to fiction, from fiction to reality and then once again from reality into fiction. They believe that transformation can become active, operational and circular in this manner only.

Jana Sanskriti differs from the Theatre of the Oppressed in that it allows the spectactors to exchange places with the oppressor during performances. This aspect is especially important in understanding what kind of a transformation they are aiming at. The aim of the Theatre of the Oppressed is, generally, to empower the oppressed spectactor and this is only possible when the spectactor replaces the oppressed, who is watched in the acting area. In other words, we can not find a solution by humanizing the boss or the father; we must investigate on how we can find a strategy within the struggle as a worker or a daughter. However, Jana Sanskriti changes this because they know their audience in rural areas quite well. Based on the experience of having worked in the same villages for many years, they allow their spectators to sometimes take the place of the oppressor as well. For instance, if a man is replacing the oppressor and humanizing them, then this means that a promise has occurred within that small community. Therefore, when that man acts differently from what he has portrayed in the acting area as a spectator, in real life, the villagers may remind of the situation he faced within the play. In this way a different kind of oppression, pressure (!) is utilized. Also, replacing the oppressor enables the person to actually realize instances of oppression too. This itself, serves to create personal transformation.

One of Jana Sanskriti’s most amazing successes has been its proving that art is an indispensable part of life. In the rural part of Western Bengal art, namely theatre, is now a necessity. It is a necessity just as much as food, water and taking a bath are.

New Projects

While Jana Sanskriti works on many different topics, at the moment it is focusing on the quality of education and basic sanitary services in villages. They say that the demand for such a project has come from the women who are questioning why they themselves and their children can not receive a better education. Upon this request Jana Sanskriti has created ten different teams and begun performing plays in the villages about the quality of education. They take care to document all spectactor involvement and intervention. Later, they collect all these interventions and all the solution methods the spectactors have acted out into a newspaper and present it to the same audience. As I have stated above: While the play is periodically presented to more than one audience, at the same time, with this small newspaper-like format, they ensure that the spectactors’ involvement in the play will be able to remain accessible on an intellectual level until the same audience watches the same play once again. This project encompasses a one and a half year period up until the September of 2008 and at the end, Jana Sanskriti aims to create a report comprised of the demands of the public.

Toward the III. Mukthadara Festival…

Jana Sanskriti will be guest to an enormous festival which happens once in two years. Thousands of people will come from India and all over the world. Actually, rumours go that in the last spectactor march there were more than 12000 people! On some of the posters held by the spectactors the following could be read: “We want to analyze the society and therefore art is our friend. Ever since the beginning of civilization art has been with us, the people. Who has estranged this fact from us?
Is art only for the elite? We, the workers, are being deprived of art because we can not enter the realm of thought.[7]”

The Forum Theatre Festival, of which the third is happening this year, will take place in Calcutta between the 25th of November and the 8th of December. It has a very rich program, composed of marches, workshops, shows and visits to certain villages. Who knows, maybe some of your paths may take you there…To the possibility of the impossible!


[1] The term spectactor, derived from the word ‘spectator’ used for audience, is specific to the Theatre of the Oppressed. Spect means to watch and with a wordplay this is transformed into spect-actor, meaning the person who watches and acts. Spectactor is the name given to the spectator who actively participates in a play of the Theatre of the Oppressed, who gets up on stage and acts.

[2] Jana Sanskriti calls the groups formed in villages, teams. Within this piece I also remain faithful to this team description used by Jana Sanskriti, so that their collective method of organisation is continued and the democratic structure of their working system is preserved.

[3]The Theatre of the Oppressed aims to use the terms pressure and oppression to eventually change the existing form of theatre and create a new understanding and methodology of theatre in which the public can speak, the public can create change. The purpose of the Theatre of the Oppressed is to create the theatre of the audience. In Forum Theatre, first of all a workshop is organized with a certain group. In this workshop, the term ‘oppression’ is processed through certain special games and exercises; then the common issue of that group is focused upon and this issue is converted into a short play by improvisational methods. However, the dramatic structure of the play is different from any other existing form of theatre. The play ends right at the moment this issue builds up into a crisis. Now, the play can be opened to the audience and they may be asked whether there is anything within the play they wish to change. From now on, it is the audience’s turn to speak; the power to act and to change is within the hands of the audience. The theatre of the audience begins at this moment. For further information of the Theatre of the Oppressed: Books translated into Turkish: Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” and “Games for Actors and Non-Actors”, Bosphorus University Press.

[4] You may read the interview I conducted with Sanjoy Ganguly in the 6. issue of Oyun Dergisi, dated March, 2008.

[5] The term spectactor, derived from the word ‘spectator’ used for audience, is specific to the Theatre of the Oppressed. Spect means to watch and with a wordplay this is transformed into spect-actor, meaning the person who watches and acts. Spectactor is the name given to the spectator who actively participates in a play of the Theatre of the Oppressed, who gets up on stage and acts.

[6] Quoted from Oyun Dergisi, March 2008, issue 6.

[7] You may read Birgit Fritz’s experiences about this march in her article called “Imagining Means Seeing” from Oyun Dergisi, March 2008, 6. issue. For the English version, check Volume 24 of “Under Pressure” from

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