by Bindiya Vaid
Stemming from the self, the journey of “me” to “we” could be very interesting and knowledgeable. Some co-travellers take the reverse journey, too., Aand it’s fascinating how the heart of the transformation, or as we say in Theater of the Oppressed, the “shift”, from where you are towards where you want to be, can be so visual, visceral, and life-changing.
I do go waywards at times, and I enjoy it before I realign with my sense of self, it also translates in the course of this essay. Thank you for bearing with me, if the writing structure is non-conformist.
“Identity” which, at a point, I had pegged as “categorization”, “tagging”, “references”, or “excuses” for being a particular way, has surprisingly been an 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 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, adding to it 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, being a part of more circles taught me to be more considerate, patient, and non-judgemental and to extend kindness, compassion and love towards others. A markstone of a shift within me would be when I started engaging with 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 started off as “I’m okay.” as a standard, gradually morphed into “I’m feeling irritated.”, “rushed”, or “grounded.”. A simple, extremely basic conversation (or gesture/ mode of relating) which had 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, and 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, the 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. Something I highly encourage in developmental spaces right from an early age.
“Theater is the art of looking at ourselves,” says Augusto Boal, the creator of Theater of the Oppressed. Somehow, only upon reflection does one translate the past learnings into present practices. I’ve experienced 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 sacredly as a process.
Expressive Arts and Theater of the Oppressed use games and engaging methods to delve a little deeper into one’s own truth, and having that kind of clarity/alignment with one’s self, truth, identity, and agency could unlock space to transform into a more wholesome community, that could extend to societies and a global village.
Children love games, especially those that lend some sort of challenge, and thus playing provides for 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. Adults, too, once the ice is broken by sharing silly spaces together, 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 Stand to Court (being observers, to 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 completely wholesome and sustainable change.
“Academic Education”, in my view, has had as many spirals as an 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 intentional value to irrelevance.
Looking back at my academic walk, I do accept that I enjoyed it sometimes. Being intellectually stimulated, being, learning new facts filled me with wonder, joy, and shock, that edged me to be more curious and ask more questions, even though the answers oscillated between black and white. If this sounds tedious, and not quite to the point,- that’s how it feels like to me, in retrospect.; If it doesn’t, maybe you’re ambivalent and politely listening, like I thought good girls were supposed to, in school.
If someone had shown me 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 passing out from school—
Questions became necessary and important, as opposed to knowing the right answer before anyone in class.
Circle spaces such as BRM, Stone Soup, a visit to Swaraj University, the network of Possibilities, etc. started showing up in my experience of life, as I went hunting for them. Most of these spaces encouraged holding to questioning. They encouraged and contributed to my sensitivity and cringed at the behavior usually only I found cringe-worthy, in 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 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, creative, too, maybe.
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 back then. I felt attracted to more than one person romantically at the same time. I prided myself on my ability to hold space and offer 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 and also 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 learnt 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 stories and lived realities seemed to become way more relevant and important than theoretical suppositions 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 break-throughs have taken place using Psychodrama or Art Therapy, for instance, vis-a-vis building 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 markedly to explore intense and “taboo” topics like sexuality, gender identity, polyamory, pleasure, expectations, money management, and balancing the two sides of your 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 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 I already belonged to several of these “Identities” and “Communities”; an easy non-choice, like being born.
A notion that made me feel grounded, welcome, proud, and a functional part of society. A notion that moving on in my life journey”, was the source of slight uneasiness that grew 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, and knew how to write a formal letter to the editor of a newspaper, but I could not understand the feeling 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 much more ardent, relatively unexplored, and mind-boggling, because here the questions one asked were much more important than the answers one received; an ideal that is not quite encouraged in the average Indian schooling system of academia. On this road, it became increasingly wondrous that a simple tool of self-enquiry, 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 the graffiti on the walls of cities, the slangs outside places of worship, the laws being regulated to ease gender disparity, or the lyrics of the edgy songs that at one point in history would’ve been unfathomable to 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 increases. They are in the writings of our brethren that started out softly but are reverberating throughout history and present times more stronger than what their creators might have dared to hope. Learning to learn from every little response humankind has had to humankind, and mostly, the responses have been through our bodies, through art.
Seeding a strong intention of learning that is inherently problematic to quietly be part of a world that declares wars and confesses love. May we learn to learn. May we do so with integrity, compassion, and hope.
Bindiya Vaid is an applied theatre practitioner and an in-training expressive arts therapist. Having trained in Theatre of the Oppressed, she is really passionate about holding and creating safe spaces, experimenting with different ways of being, parenting, and mental health wellness. She has worked extensively with people across age groups and spectrums as a facilitator and mentor.
The theatre life chose her 23 years ago, and has still not let go.
Bindiya likes her coffee dark and her hugs warm, and front-faced. Side hugs, she says, are too non-committal.