They have been categorised as one of the denotified and nomadic tribes (DNT) and so is their language, the Bhantu. They struggle to shed their image of being members of the Chhara community, listed as notorious in police records, and branded “born criminals”. Now, some members from the community have come together not only to revive their language but also to get the children trained in theatre.
Though the tag of born criminals was removed five years after Independence, it still continues to haunt them. The community members, in a bid to shed this tag and ensure that the children do not face the same ignominy suffered by their
elders, are shifting to creative fields, one of them being theatre.
The members of the community live in Ahmedabad, Dahod and in some parts of Bhavnagar in Gujarat. The Bhantu language gives an identity to the Charas.
The theatre group has been christened Budhan, a name taken from writer-activist Mahashweta Devi’s book. It was because of the work done by her for the DNT that the theatre group too took the name of her work. The name happened by chance.
The theatre group performed a drama based on the story of Budhan by the author at least eight times and that is when she decided that they should perform under the name of her book.
The Budhan theatre is not just restricted to staging plays. It is taking steps to ensure that children of the community developed skills to speak in their language, which is on the verge of extinction, and help financially to take up studies and also look for creative fields in life. It supports workshops conducted by other theatre groups across the state. It also ensures that DNTs do not remain ostracised by the mainstream society.
Budhan, through its activities and social awareness campaigns, also ensures that DNTs get to know of the constitutional rights and how to take care of their wellbeing. The whole exercise is aimed at changing the tag from born criminals to born artistes. The group, which started in 1998, has in the last one-and-a-half decades performed in different parts of the country and the artistes have won accolades. They want to foster dialogue between a stigmatised community and the rest of the world.
“In addition to acting and staging plays, the Budhan theatre members have been making award-winning films and documenting the history, culture and
social issues of other DNT communities,’’ said Dakxin Chara of Budhan. He has been one of the members since its inception and points out that the community has moved on but it still has to fight the social stigma in certain places.
Dakxin points out that the Bhantu language is not spoken by many people. Efforts are on to ensure that it does not disappear from the list of languages
spoken in the country. Attempts are being made to promote the language and teach it to youngsters so that they can pass it on to others.
“We thought that holding classes will not serve the purpose. Hence, we hit upon an idea of theatre performance. This exercise works two ways. The performance enables them to hone their acting skills and dialogue delivery helps them to get command over the language,” said Dakxin.
Ten-year-old Suhani, one of the new entrants to the theatre group, says: “I look forward to come to the community library centre at Charanagar and rehearse for a show, which is to be staged by the end of this month.’’
It is indeed challenging to speak in the Bhantu language and deliver dialogues but it is not impossible. “Once we get into the habit of dialogue delivery, it becomes easier and you start developing the skills as well,” Suhani said. The girl is too young to understand the complex realities of belonging to the Chara community.
Yashpal Chara, who has been with the group for the last five years and has performed in many theatres, says “It feels great when you realise that people are praising your talent and performance despite knowing the community you
Yashpal has been performing even in plays like the Accidental Death of the
Anarchist. Dakxin says that the themes of the plays are loaded with social messages.
Krishnakant Chara, who is 13 and one of the powerful performers of the group, says that their dialogues are in Hindi when they perform outside the state to enable the audience to understand the play and also get national recognition. “The tag that we want to earn for our community of born actors has been established through performances by Budhan.”
The artistes are no longer burdened by the Chara surname and, in fact, with the help of Bhasha Research Foundation and Ford Foundation some of the members of the community have gone into linguistic research and achieved academic excellence as well.
The youngsters realise that it is not too easy to shed the tag but they are determined and more and more are getting into academics, research, film production and concentrating on their forte--theatre.