Historicizing knowledge - a theatrical effort

During the workshop - Kids mull on Pralayan's observations

Two things have been quite close to my heart: one is my belief in education, particularly school education and its role in transforming students in becoming reflective, empathetic and importantly where they become active and critical subjects and not merely moronic consumers. Secondly I believe in history's (as a subject) pivotal role in achieving such goals.

All my efforts in the classroom is geared towards this end and I constantly strive (not always successfully) to put across history in a way that goes beyond the obvious markers with which history is associated - dates, names, events etc.
Rather, to all those following my entries on this website will know, my approach is to help students make connections between seemingly unrelated events and process. This non-empiricist approach to history teaching is not easy - for various reasons about which i have dwelt before and would like to dwell with further but some other time.

Sweating it out - Muthu, our Tamil department head, proved to be the backbone of both the workshop and presentation - handling script, dialogues, coordinating scenes, roles, costumes...phew!! Here she is engrossed in writing the script following a heady discussion with Pralayan even as children continue with their practice during the workshop

To put across history in such a framework, theatre comes in handy ( or so I would like to imagine). Theatre makes history learning experiential. Particularly the kind of theatre that Tamil theatre doyen Pralayan seeks to do is well suited for the kind of framework I'm myself trying to put across in history.

This year theatre's presentation at TVS Academy, Hosur saw us working on a new theme with high school students. The theme was knowledge and how knowledge gets obscured, manufactured and sanctioned by powers that be. For this Pralayan used Bertolt Brecht's Galileo Galilee as one narrative and interwove it with another narrative which evolved over the three week workshop leading to the final presentation on November 4, 2007. While Brecht's Galilee dealt with problems of scientific truth, our own narrative had a group of students visiting a village who then arrive at certain social truths. Through both the narratives, we sought to raise questions pertaining to knowledge creation, knowledge control and knowledge dissemination. What is knowledge? Is knowledge all about truth? Who decides what is knowledge? While it was the church in Galileo's time that determined knowledge, who decides what is knowledge now?

All these dialoguing can become too tiresome guys!

In this play which was titled Tholainokki (telescope) ( the telescope used by Galileo to observe the stars with which he established new knowledge systems was used as a metaphor in our narrative to 'telescope' into contemporary social practices, mindsets and norms)we tried bringing closer to people how similar powers are further sanctioning, and shaping contemporary knowledges. In the process we show how certain forms of knowledge or to be precise only certain kinds of sciences gets privileged. For example computer sciences and information technology domain alone appear to be worth pursuing today both in research and as a career. As a result other sciences like for example traditional knowledge systems which exist as a living tradition among much of the rural masses in India even today, gets marginalized. These days, as we show in one of the scenes of the play, certain aspects of traditional farming practices i.e. use of neem as bio-repellant and insecticide are falling by the way side what with agriculture itself becoming “unproductive” and people leaving it for more lucrative and “successful” careers in cities.

Pralayan floored - But actually leading from the front

Boo-hoo-hoo - A student breaks down trying to measure up to the demands of the play

While it is true that scientific truths are accepted these days, when will society accept certain social realities as truth? As a group of children discover in the play, caste discrimination, gender divide racks much of rural India. But this is a reality which nobody wants to see and what is unfortunate is our schools and colleges makes no attempt to help children to take cognizance of the social realities. Now here while no overt references were made in the play, Pralayan rather insidiously made an indirect case for the social sciences (something which I'm constantly seek to do- close to my heart!). History and geography which are as such meant to equip one with the ability to perceive and fathom social, economic, cultural and political realities fails to offer any kind of insights into contemporary social realities. Without even giving a chance for certain disciplines to mature or nurture we seek to seal the fate of certain knowledge systems i.e. non-conventional sciences (as opposed to the laboratory science managed by state and now increasingly in the hands of private capital) and social sciences by declaring it non-relevant.

Rajesh, our drama educator does a brilliant job with make up

The powers that be has a vested interest in stifling certain knowledge and skill sets in the same way vested interests tried to sabotage Galileo’s new discoveries and insights. Our education systems highlights or privileges certain domains of knowledge which has the approval and backing of the powers that be. Ultimately education has become another commodity to be peddled in the market. The market, as the registrar argues with Galileo in the first scene, should determine knowledge. Knowledge that does not have takers in the market is useless knowledge. But then when certain modes of enquiry or knowledges are thus stifled (by the powers that be or the market) can education truly claim to be pursuit of truth?? Therefore is it also not legitimate to ask whether the so called scientific truths also in which we all believe today and which our education ‘markets’ as ‘objective truths’ are perhaps socially determined truths?

Vettipodovoum!! - kids essaying the characters of caste warriors pose for my camera

Their holiness - the Pope and the Cardinal - the lords of all they survey

So when will such education emerge in India which highlights the very problematic nature of knowledge – let it be scientific or even social knowledge?

Perhaps a very conscious effort is to be made where we need to reorient our education –an education which lays threadbare the manner in which knowledge gets manufactured, how and why certain knowledges become ‘relevant’ or ‘irrelevant’ and what knowledge or skills would really help the society at large.

In fact this is the personal understanding that the character Siddharth, a high school boy in the play, is able to arrive at and hence decides to become a school teacher. This is much to the disgust of his parents who otherwise want to make him more market worthy by providing him dominant knowledge skills of IT and management.

The play alternated between Brechts Galileo where one group of students are rehearsing the play and another group of students visit a village. Through both these experiences students arrive at some understanding of the world and manner in which knowledge gets formed.

Galileo - an intellectual snob? a hero? or a traitor??

As with Pralayan’s productions the narrative was replete with songs, costumes and dialogues all of which acted much more than props. They added more substance and context to our play. The character of Siddharth was intelligently scripted. Through him Pralayan sought to highlight the transformative possibilities of education and that of a teacher (the other idea close to my heart!) The penultimate scene
where a parent couple is making a spectacle of their young kid in the name of encouragement and nurturing of his 'talents' (this scene was received with guffaws from the audiences) was well contrasted to Siddharth's solemn proclamation of becoming a government school teacher.

Strike a pose - In many scenes the choreography was conceived by the students themselves

My colleague Ashok's art work as reflected in the props he and his team of both teachers and students made for the play was excellent

Now I'm not too sure whether students would have figured and internalised all this, despite all the dialoguing we had in the course of the workshop. Whether this theatre workshop and presentation helped in making non-empirical, contextual and processual history more experiential and understandable, I have my doubts. I'm actually struggling trying to establish things less complex and more linear in my class room to largely discouraging results. Nevertheless I guess I need to revisit the issues raised in the play repeatedly in my classroom interactions. Well actually as my students would vouch I'm always doing it but having been involved physically, emotionally in the play I hope the students ( at least certain percentage of them) would find much quicker resonance to the historical issues (caste, class, religion, power and as in this play, knowledge) that I continously raise in my class. It is only then we can say this theatrical workshop and presentation was complete.

Another plus of the play was the skillful use of lighting by my colleague Rajesh. This snap should say it all

The production undoubtedly came out very well and the children helped by team of teachers did an excellent job.

Siddharth proclaims to the world about his (laudable) intentions. For Rohein (who played Siddharth) this play turned out to be a metamorphosis - through the course of the play he evolved from an nervous wreck wrought with stage fright to someone confident and empathetic who delivered a fairly competent performance. Theatre did prove to be therapeutic for him and many more