by Bindiya Vaid
Stemming from the self, the journey from “me” to “we” could be very interesting and illuminating. Some co-travellers take the reverse journey, too. It’s fascinating how the heart of the transformation, or as we say in Theater of the Oppressed, the “shift,” from where you are to where you want to be, can be so visual, visceral, and life-changing.
I do go wayward at times, and I enjoy doing that before I realign with my sense of self. This also translates in the course of this essay. Thank you for bearing with me, if the writing structure is neither linear nor conformist.
“Identity”, which, at a point, I had pegged as “categorization”, “tagging”, “references”, or “excuses” for being a particular way, has been a surprisingly active driving factor in my tryst with alternative ways of being and wanting to change the narrative, in my own way.
Stumbling upon Theater of the Oppressed (TO) and Expressive Arts (arts that are used to express; like music, art, dance, theater, storytelling, sculpting, etc.) was what eventually held me, with all my contradictions, vulnerabilities, confusion, and raging conflict. It made space for sharing, in addition to an action component, which was facilitated creatively.
Learning has taken on a very different role for me because I am now driving this process. It is also extremely active, personal, subjective, and awe/despair-inducing at the same time. Deep diving into community spaces and being a part of more circles taught me to be more considerate, patient, and non-judgemental and to extend kindness, compassion, and love toward others. A markstone of a shift within me would be when I started engaging with the Blue Ribbon Movement (BRM), in 2014.
Every check-in in a BRM space would start with “How are you feeling?” and it took me more than ample time to understand that they weren’t looking for the knee-jerk, conditional response of “I’m okay.”, and that it was a solemn invitation to look within you and allow the space to hold your truth. What began as “I’m okay” gradually morphed into “I’m feeling irritated”, “rushed”, or “grounded”. A simple, extremely basic conversation (or gesture/mode of relating) would have a monumental impact on my life and how I viewed “space” and “space-holding”. I couldn’t help but marvel at this change in energy-usually, “learning spaces” were charged with discipline, authority, fear, lecturing, and a clear distinction between “Good” and “Bad”, “Right” and “Wrong”, along with the implicit expectation of adhering to pre-decided norms, obeying rules and knowing that the adult, the teacher, is Right.
As much as academia was part of my schooling experience, social conditioning was, too.
I “learnt” way more than I bargained for, and the unlearning process is, of course, still unraveling.
Leaning too much towards the alternative sphere also taught me the value of balancing energy—be it giving/receiving, sharing/holding, unconditionality/trust, and boundaries—aspects that have greatly influenced the spaces I am able to co-create, hold, and extend, while also being present to my limitations and needs.
I’m still learning, and I’m constantly changing as a person. Experiential learning has had a huge role to play in this transformative space and is something that I highly encourage in developmental spaces from an early age.
“Theater is the art of looking at ourselves,” says Augusto Boal, the creator of Theater of the Oppressed. Somehow, it is only upon reflection that one translates past learnings into present practices. I’ve experienced that being present to the past facilitates mindfulness and holds space to walk the learning edge. Engaging in a circle and not a conference format was a way of being, and having done theater all my life, I was familiar with it, but did not hold it as a sacred process.
Expressive Arts and Theater of the Oppressed use games and other engaging methods to delve a little deeper into one’s own truth. Having that kind of clarity and alignment with one’s self, truth, identity, and agency can unlock space to transform into a more wholesome community that could extend to societies and a global village.
Children love games, especially those that present some sort of challenge, and thus, playing provides a very easy entry point into gaining and building trust, a sense of value, and also having fun, while probing tentatively into volatile topics that have a direct impact on their lives. With adults it’s no different, once the ice is broken by sharing silly spaces together, they warm up and take ownership of the space, extending honesty and exercising their agency.
In community work, one cannot overemphasize the importance of entrusting a space to lend safety. Using one’s body in the process catalyzes the power of “action” and “actually taking charge” physically, rather than just in theory. The movement, from the Stands to Court (from being observers to being players in the game) is often the hardest hurdle to jump across. Inviting an alignment of hands, heart, and head (physical, emotional, and intellectual) harmony, makes for a completely wholesome and sustainable change.
“Academic Education”, in my view, has had as many spirals as the average millennial has had existential break-downs. Especially in an Indian context, it started out as being non-existent, then highly privileged (and thus coveted), to a marker of power distribution amidst classes, to a basic right, and now, in some sections of society, a default arrangement. An arrangement that, like most traditions, could have lost its intended value to irrelevance.
Looking back at my academic path, I do accept that I enjoyed it sometimes. Being intellectually stimulated and learning new facts filled me with wonder, joy, and shock, edging me towards being curious and asking more questions, even though the answers oscillated between black and white.
If someone had shown me that it’s more important to be authentic and feel safe, rather than be polite and submissive, how different would my world be?
My desire to understand and define my identity started to come more to the forefront of conscious thought after finishing school—questions became necessary and important, as opposed to knowing the right answer before anyone else did in class.
As I went hunting for them, circle spaces such as Blue Ribbon Movement, Stone Soup, a visit to Swaraj University, and the Network of Possibilities*, started showing up in my experience of life. Most of these spaces encouraged holding on to the questioning. They encouraged and contributed to my sensitivity and cringed at the behavior that I usually only found cringe-worthy in mainstream society. The “right way of doing things” transformed into “the way you’d like to do things right now, for whatever reason.”
The feeling I experienced was of immense liberty—a sense of alignment and connection that I felt only while doing theater. An explorer, a wanderer, a learner, was what I started calling myself. I was spiritually and emotionally getting stronger, more confident and creative too.
Conflicts became more visible and they shook me up—I did not know how to financially sustain myself and had an idealized understanding of family and of community support, even though I did not know how to receive even the smallest of the offerings. I felt attracted to more than one person romantically at the same time. I prided myself in my ability to hold space and contribute to the space what was most needed at the time—words, hugs, silence, gifts, massages, and laughter. When I took this away though, the “doing” for others, I did not have any identity left in my mind. It contributed severely to my Hero Complex as well as my narcissism. I wanted not only to keep performing and writing but also to contribute positively to society—putting in the work to make the present more aware and the future more inclusive.
I learned that there was always a fun way to do the same thing. Using language—one of the things I prided myself on—started to seem elitist and incomplete. I realized the importance of using “and” rather than “but”. “Image Theater”, or the shapes that one can make using their bodies to express themselves or an issue proved to be more powerful, relatable, and impactful than words ever could. It taught me more about shared experiences, cultural conditioning, societal expectations, traditions, and humanity than I’d ever had the privilege to experience.
Sharing personal stories and lived realities seemed to be more relevant and important than theoretical assumptions or predictions in textbooks. The present became more alive. Small changes ensued, which culminated in a large shift. Understanding became more important than grammar. Acceptance was now more valuable than staunch “traditionality”, (which I eventually started defining as peer pressure from dead people).
Once, during a BRM session, a participant couldn’t express what they wanted to share with the group using apt words. They went on to propose a silent drama, using different participants as characters to actually narrate their story. There was no need for verbose validation—it was witnessed, experienced, and shared in the truest sense possible. Major breakthroughs have taken place using Psychodrama or Art Therapy, for instance, vis-a-vis building the capacity to hold sensitivity, subjectivity, mutual respect, and trust.
In Theater of the Oppressed, for example, there are many activities that are to be conducted blindfolded. Quite a few reactions and responses come up immediately that lend participants a comprehensive and quick glimpse of the dynamics of the individual and of the group, in barely any time. Body language needs to be given more importance as a source of learning; the more one is in tune with it, the more one can “understand” it.
Using theater, art, music, and movement as tools, it became easier for me to explore intense and “taboo” topics like sexuality, gender identity, polyamory, pleasure, expectations, money management, and balancing the two sides of my being—mainstream and alternative, selfish and self-less, wants and needs, and a dozen more binaries. These modalities supported me greatly in coping with Bipolar, cPTSD, and other internalized issues that I didn’t know were alive in me—like being scolded and beaten for wetting the bed as a teenager, when I was already consumed by frustration, not being able to cope with the humiliation, shame, and angst of being abnormal. I came to learn, through applied arts which introduced mindfulness to me, that most of my life, I had spent disassociated because I couldn’t cope with reality, and my body was constantly in survival mode.
In the years that Awareness of Self started dawning, I realized that I already belonged to several of these “Identities” and “Communities”; an easy non-choice, like being born.
This notion made me feel grounded, welcome, proud, and a functional part of society. A notion that eventually morphed from a source of slight uneasiness into raging confusion, which eventually escalated to frustration, and desperate existentialism. It was chaotic, to say the least.
I could find out the angles of a triangle and remember tragedies of the past world. I knew how to write a formal letter to the editor of a newspaper, but I could not understand the feelings of not belonging/dysphoria/loneliness. I did not know how to recognise and distinguish between these emotions, let alone how to process or deal with them. This is where, I suppose, a different kind of learning journey began for me. A journey that is much more arduous, relatively unexplored, and mind-boggling, because here the questions asked were much more important than the answers one received; an ideal that is not quite encouraged in the average Indian academic school system. On this path, it became increasingly wondrous that a simple tool of self-inquiry, a short moment of pause, or an innocently profound question landed as an act of rebellion.
There was joy in solidarity, in not knowing, in failing, in expressing—knowing what is the absolute truth in the moment while being supported by a community.
Expressions or reflections of our world can be seen everywhere if one is really looking. They are in the graffiti on the walls of cities, the slang outside places of worship, the laws being regulated to ease gender disparity, and the lyrics of the edgy songs that historically, it would’ve been unfathomable that they be made public. They are seen in the QR codes outside tiny cigarette shops or through the way people reclaim their culture using fashion. They are in the revolutionary progress of technology, while self and mental health awareness also increase. They are in the writings of our brethren that started out softly but are reverberating throughout history and present times more strongly than what their creators might have dared to hope. We are learning to learn from every little response humankind has had to humankind, and mostly, the responses have been through our bodies, through art.
I am learning that it is inherently problematic to quietly be part of a world that declares wars and confesses love. I’d like to seed a strong intention: may we learn to learn. May we do so with integrity, compassion, and hope.
Swaraj University: https://www.swarajuniversity.org/
Network of Possibilities: https://youtube.com/@possibilities2260
Blue Ribbon Movement: www.brmworld.org
Stone Soup: sharing circle based on the folklore
Bindiya Vaid is really passionate about holding and co-creating brave spaces, experimenting with different ways of being, parenting, and mental health wellness. She has worked extensively with students, the youth, teachers, psychologists, actors, amongst people from all walks of life, as a facilitator and mentor. She is also a trainer in Theatre of the Oppressed.
Bindiya likes her coffee strong and her hugs long, and front-faced. Side hugs, she says, are too non-committal