by Margaret DeRitter

An 11-day trip to India in July left a Kalamazoo College theatre group feeling sweaty, tired, and acutely aware of cultural differences. But it also provided fertile ground for thinking and made the weary travelers grateful for their experiences on stage and in the bustling streets of Varanasi.

The 10 students on this adventure—a joint undertaking of K’s Theatre Arts Department, Center for International Programs and Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership—were members of a spring-quarter class that devised a drama called Kahani (“Story”), based on their reading of Geetanjali Shree’s novel Mai (“Mother”) and other Indian women’s writings. They presented Kahani in May at K’s Nelda K. Balch Playhouse, then three more times in India.
The play, which focuses on gender and power dynamics in an Indian family, culminated a season of K theatre with a social-justice theme. It was directed by guest faculty member Irfana Majumdar, of the Nirman school in Varanasi (a K study abroad site), who also taught the classes in which the students studied and explicated Indian literature.

The students—accompanied on their trip by Majumdar, two theatre professors, and the executive director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership—had some misgivings once they arrived in India, worrying that their production might seem a presumptuous effort by Americans to portray Indians and Indian culture, said actor and 2012 graduate Sam Bertken. But their director reassured them.

“She told us we didn’t come here to tell them what being Indian is like,” Bertken said. “We were trying to show this family and the different levels of power within it, not beat anyone over the head with a political message.”

The students’ fears were further relieved by the audience responses, Bertken said. After one of the presentations, he noted, a man in the audience asked: “How do you know so much about us?”

“It was cool because we were trying to bridge very disparate cultures with this production,” said Bertken. “Most of the feedback was that we had portrayed people in their own lives.”

“That was a really nice exchange,” agreed Ed Menta, professor of theatre arts and director of theatre at K. “It restored your faith in performance. It really showed that you can communicate things across cultures.”

The students’ first performance in India was for staff members of Nirman and invited guests, the second for the general public, and the third for Nirman middle school and high school students.

In some ways the students felt more at home performing Kahani in India than in Kalamazoo, said Menta. “In the States, audiences had a hard time reading some of the key moments in the play because of unfamiliar gestures and other cultural differences. In India, these moments were immediately legible to the audience,” he said. “The performance was greeted with great respect.”

“I think in India people's first response to the work was often of relating the family onstage to their own — 'You walk just like my dada (grandfather)!' or 'I was so sad when dadi (grandmother) died,' or 'My own mai jokes just like that,'” wrote student actress Fiona Carey ’14 on a Kahani blog set up by Professor of Theatre Arts Lanny Potts.

The aesthetics of the production also gained a new dimension for Carey in India: “All of a sudden, the fabric and the bricks and the props made sense. It was like they had come home. All the colors and textures fit a little better than they had fit on the stage of Balch [Playhouse].”

A particular aesthetic highlight mentioned by several participants was the staging of the second performance in a courtyard filled with columns and statuary of Indian gods. The courtyard was located within an 18th-century temple near the Ganges River that is now the private residence of a wealthy Indian citizen.

“Lanny Potts rigged up this beautiful, warm lighting so the courtyard was bathed in this beautiful, warm glow,” Menta said. “Seeing Kahani performed in that environment was really stunning.”

“It was totally gorgeous,” agreed Bertken. “It was a rare treat to perform in a venue like that.”

“The performance was so effulgent, so sweet and apt and luminous that it would have been worth taking us there just for that,” wrote Carey.

One damper on the evening was the extreme heat, which probably accounted for the audience numbering less than 100, said Menta. “We brought in fans, but we had to turn off some of them because people couldn’t hear the actors.”

Another challenge was the temporary loss of one of the lead actors. “One of our actors was feeling very ill and couldn’t perform, and I was distracted by that,” said Bertken. “The student who played Bhondu filled in for him so there was no Bhondu character that night.”

It was a valuable experience, however, for the students to face these challenges, Majumdar said. “The remarkable thing about theatre is that each performance is different, and performers have to adapt to different situations, and even emergencies,” she wrote in an e-mail from India.

The rest of the trip was also filled with challenges and rewards, for both students and faculty.

For Jaime Grant, executive director of the Arcus Center, the trip sparked thoughts about race, class, and gender, particularly because she was traveling with her “African-American, gender-queer partner,” M’Bwende.

“When I leave the hotel every morning, a group of rickshaw drivers instantly recognizes me and engages,” wrote Grant on the Kahani blog. “When she leaves the hotel without me, no one notices her or offers. Whiteness, as always, is the magnet for help, service, and consideration.”

On matters of gender, Grant found herself “slow on the uptake” regarding dangers M’Bwende might face because of her non-conformity. Yet it was a relief when M’Bwende was perceived as an African male
"The courtyard was bathed in this beautiful warm glow."
when they walked the streets because this meant they were seen less as Westerners and thus felt more free to enjoy the everyday life in this rich city, said Grant.

For Bertken, the trip produced profound feelings of cultural dislocation. Although he had previously studied in Japan and traveled with his family to China and Europe, “this was the most intense cultural divide I’d ever experienced,” he said.

“Everything is very, very different,” he continued. “I had to get used to certain things. There was a very large spider the size of my hand living in the bathroom (of the hotel), and that’s just how it was. After the monsoons, the street would be flooded and you couldn’t go anywhere. And I don’t think I was dry the whole time. It was very, very hot and very, very humid. There were nights when the electricity would go out, and I’d wake up in a film of sweat.”

On a nearby street, “there were cars zooming past, people cooking on the streets, store owners shouting at you to buy something as you pass by,” Bertken said. “There was a well near our place where people would wash themselves, and monkeys and cows and donkeys were walking around in the streets.”

Jane Huffmann ’15 said she tried to rely on her intellect to feel grounded amid the frenzy, the mosquitoes, the monsoons. But she soon found that India rejected her “tendency to neatly place mind over matter. I was unable to compartmentalize all of the things I was seeing and feeling and smelling and tasting,” she wrote on the Kahani blog.

Eventually, she gained a new perspective: “As soon as my gaze extended beyond my comfort zone, I saw a city full of vibrancy and a group of my peers with a brilliant knack for improvisation. ... In this country you cannot look down. It is too alive. It is always changing.”
By the end of the trip, Huffman found herself wanting to “do things that are universally meaningful,” to “find the fine, transparent, but unfathomably strong threads that connect all of us.”

Grant’s head was spinning. “I know it will take me many months to sift through all of the layers of race, gender, class, and culture that I’ve been coursing through in my time here; I’m truly grateful for it,” concluded her blog post.

Upon his return to the States, Bertken, too, said he was still mulling over what he gained from the trip. But one lesson he certainly drew from the Kahani staging, he said, is that if you have good intentions, people of another culture will open up to you.

“What we were trying to do,” he said, “was not comment on a culture but just present certain things and let the audience ... draw conclusions for themselves about what was good, what was bad, what needs to be done. I think this is a much more effective way to effect change.”

Photo by Lanny Potts. See more photos and read the Kahani troupe’s blog posts at http://kzookahani.blogspot.com.

Photo - Kahani creators and cast members did three performances of the original play in Varanasi, India.

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