Information for/from Outsiders: Chronicles from Kashmir
Nandita Dinesh holds a PhD in Drama from the University of Cape Town in South Africa and an MA in Performance Studies from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Focused on the role that theatre can play during and after violent conflict, Dinesh has conducted community-based theatre projects in India, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. She currently teaches Theatre and Literature & Performance, in addition to overseeing the juvenile justice programming, at the United World College in Montezuma, New Mexico. Nandita’s books include: Theatre & War: Notes from the Field, Memos from a Theatre Lab: Exploring What Immersive Theatre “Does”, and Scripting Detention: A Project in Theater and Autoethnography with Incarcerated Teens. In 2017 she was awarded the Elliott Hayes Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dramaturgy by Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.
THE ORAL THE WRITTEN THE LIVE THE DIGITAL
Information for/from Outsiders: Chronicles from Kashmir (IFF Kashmir) has been in development since July 2013, as a collaboration between myself and the Ensemble Kashmir Theatre Akademi (EKTA) in Srinagar, Kashmir. Using Argentine playwright Griselda Gambaro’s (1992) Information for Foreigners as its point of departure, this theatrical experience takes place in the promenade and is site-adaptive — we've staged the experience in different rooms within a two storied building in Kashmir, and in multiple spaces across a sprawling indoor/ outdoor workspace in western India. Each of the more-than-twenty fragmented scenes in this experience takes place in a different locale, and audience members walk around/ through these spaces in a pre-determined route under the supervision of two Guides — one Kashmiri and one non-Kashmiri. Audiences “live” in our theatrical Kashmir for twenty-four hours, and in so doing, experience some of the Valley's many realities: they encounter more “conventional”, dramatic renderings of questions surrounding complicity; they are asked to engage with multi-media installations that speak to the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits; they are invited to witness verbatim monologues both from former militants and from soldiers-in-training within the Indian Army; they are given occasion to experience, through an immersive and participatory aesthetic, how celebrations are conducted under curfew.
Each of the scenes that is showcased in IFF Kashmir focuses on one particular dimension to the region’s experiences of conflict, intentionally trying to cross boundaries between/ within three overarching categories: “civilian”, “militant”, and “soldier”. By heightening this transgression of lines between conflicting identity-based separations, the piece also seeks to highlight voices that, somehow, fall within a “grey zone” (inspired by Levi, 1988) -- a murky, in-between space where it is harder to pinpoint the “victim” and the “perpetrator”. Each narrative within IFF Kashmir, therefore, begins with an emphasis on lived experiences in Kashmir; each narrative begins with an emphasis on an oral transmission of narratives. Often, the impetus for a particular narrative focus emerges through informal conversations with colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and strangers; but even when the point of departure lies in an existing archive — like a newspaper article, for example — that archive only takes shape through conversations with EKTA artists and with varied individuals in the local context. By excavating experiences through storytelling — in rehearsal rooms, kitchens, living rooms, and darkened balconies – a (re)telling of stories becomes the first step in how each voice within IFF Kashmir begins its journey.
I must point out here that when I say “storytelling”, I do not mean a process in which someone is asked to sit down and tell their story. Instead, I mean for the term “storytelling” to encompass a range of processes in which stories are sometimes told via linear, spoken narratives, but where they are just as likely to be shared in silences, and communal meals, and songs, and accusations, and collective mourning. The “oral” component that I speak to here, therefore, might be better phrased as the “aural”: in that it is not so much about what is spoken, but rather, what is listened to — within and beyond spoken words. An orality and aurality of/ toward lived experience that marks the first step of a narrative’s presence in IFF Kashmir.
This engagement, of focusing on orally/ aurally gathered perspectives, is then given written shape through an eternal process of “cultural translation”.  The oral/ aural storytelling process leads me write a first draft for a scene in English; a drafting process that takes into account (a) the politics and ethics of representation, especially given my involvement in the project as a non-Kashmiri from a part of India that does not question its allegiance to the Indian nation state; (b) my commitment to the development of an immersive and durational theatrical aesthetic that is multi-sensorial, and that asks spectators to become participants through varying degrees of audience participation. With these two points of consideration as my guiding framework, the English draft of each scene that I create for IFF Kashmir is passed on to my co-author — Mr. Bhawani Bashir Yasir, the founding director of EKTA — to be culturally translated; an extensive process of adaptation that involves far more than a translation of English text into Urdu.
This cultural translation involves a re-imagination of the English text into a framework that not only uses the language of Urdu, but that is also more applicable to the Kashmiri context in its images, in its subtext. Admittedly, there are some nuances that I still miss because of my relative lack of fluency both in Urdu and in the lived experience of what it might mean to be Kashmiri. Even after a scene passes the careful scrutiny of Mr. Yasir, further cultural translations occur when the Urdu text is put “on the floor”, when EKTA’s various artists bring their voices to the table and draw attention to elements that have escaped the attention of both Mr. Yasir and myself. Sometimes, the element we have overlooked is a particular turn of phrase. Sometimes, the element we have overlooked is the description of an image. Sometimes, what we have overlooked — or just not known to look for — leads to an entire scene having to be reconceptualized and rewritten. The written shape that results from my initial English draft, therefore, contains traces of every single member of EKTA’s ensemble.
While the different voices that compose IFF Kashmir have evolved through different workshops and performances since July 2013, after having staged the piece as a twenty four-hour experience for the first time in July 2017, the term “show” or “performance” no longer seems appropriate to describe the work. Since audience members become such an integral part of the live enactment/ exchange of IFF Kashmir’s written text; since the experience is carefully constructed to facilitate co-creation between spectator-participants and performers, many of the “conventional” elements that guide a theatrical performance do not apply: a narrative arc is harder to define; there are no curtain calls; most significantly, there is a particular blurring of lines that occurs, between actor and character, that redefines the centrality of the written text.
Actors in IFF Kashmir are called upon to be both the person (the actor) and the character, the fact and the fiction, the archive and the repertoire. They need to be themselves while also not being themselves, because how else can performers ensure that they are providing consistent reactions in response to unexpected audience interventions that might emerge over the course of the daylong experience? The written script for a piece like IFF Kashmir, therefore, is constantly re-shaped in performance: the written script is the lexicon, of course, but only when the performers augment its vocabulary in response to an ever-changing array of demands from their spectators.
Before I started working in Kashmir, I would have strongly resisted the need to digitally document and disseminate a live theatrical experience. Even now, I am painfully aware of the limitations of the video that is included with this essay: a video that can never capture the heated and impassioned discussions that define the use of every word and image in IFF Kashmir; a digital archive that cannot begin to evidence the exhaustion — and the sheer adrenaline — that one is left with after a twenty-four hour theatrical experience; a visual story that cannot bear witness to the sweat and tears that have gone into every step of this six-year-long process. And yet, despite what it admittedly cannot do, this digitization of the live — this digital manifestation of IFF Kashmir’s oral/ aural, written, and embodied acts — has become integral to the life of the work.
You see, this digital component to IFF Kashmir’s documentation and dissemination has become a safe haven; a strategy of (potential) subversion; a symbol of (future) protest. Because even when the police showed up at the experience in July 2017 to monitor the work; even when these authorities unnerved us enough to lead to the cancelation of one of the “performances”; even when these uniformed men had our insides churn with the fear of being charged with sedition and arrested, the existence of a digital archive symbolized hope. Hope that these recorded images and sounds would help us share the work even if we were/ are shut down. Hope; that these digital archives would enable IFF Kashmir to live on through different means. Hope; that this visual record would serve as a reminder that indeed, a group of Kashmiris and non-Kashmiris came together — however fleetingly — to (re)imagine each other.
 This term was first proposed to me by a student at the University of Texas at Austin, in response to my descriptions of our translation process.
Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, 2017, http://apdpkashmir.com. Accessed 14 November 2017.
Ensemble Kashmir Theatre Akademi [EKTA], 2011, http://ektakashmir.org.in. Accessed 14 November 2017.
Gambaro, Griselda. Information for Foreigners: Three Plays. Translated by Marguerite Feitlowitz, Northwestern University Press, 1992.
Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. Abacus, 1989.
Milgram, Stanley. "Behavioral Study of Obedience." The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol. 67, no. 4, 1963, pp. 371-378.
Them and Us: VI. – The Gaze. Enlace Zapatista, 2013, http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2013/02/09/them-and-us-vi-the-gaze. Accessed 14 November 2017.