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Reviving Mumbai through theatre

By chriscal

Section: Features

March 27, 2009

REVIVE MUMBAI:  Revive Mumbai summer program particpants. Clockwise from top: Roxy Bischoff '11, Wajida Syed '12,  Shibani Pandya '11<br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

REVIVE MUMBAI: Revive Mumbai summer program particpants. Clockwise from top: Roxy Bischoff '11, Wajida Syed '12, Shibani Pandya '11
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Where were you when you first heard about the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai, India? More importantly, where were you after?

Did you read the newspapers or watch the nightly news to get a sense of how the events transpired? Did you attend a lecture or a peace vigil in support of the lives that were lost?

Did you get caught up in the subsequent “Slumdog Millionaire” phenomenon and think that since you forked over $10.50 for a movie ticket that you knew the “real” Indian culture?

Many people might feel like watching a movie or reading an article fulfills their role as a global citizen, but a group of Brandeis students and their organization Revive: Mumbai are seeking to go beyond accepting what is floating out there and see for themselves.

In May, these Brandeis students will embark on a five-week-long summer journey that is sure to change their lives. During the trip, these members of Revive: Mumbai will see and hear the real story for themselves.

Revive: Mumbai was formed the weekend after the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai. So far, all of their efforts have centered around raising awareness and money on the Brandeis campus.

At a candle vigil hosted the Monday after the attacks, members of the Brandeis community gathered around a peace circle in solidarity to commemorate the lives lost. Others attended a dinner with presentations on the attacks or purchased t-shirts sold by the club.

But seeing will become understanding this summer for a group of four students. In an effort to understand the various causes of conflict, including a lack of economic and social empowerment, Revive: Mumbai has partnered with the Experimental Theatre Foundation and the Parivartan school in India.

Founded in 1992, ETF is an organization that uses theatre as a means for social change. The Parivartan school is a school for underprivileged children living in the Wadala slum in Mumbai.

By combining the two outlets, Sahay said they’re “mixing the two groups together and having Brandeis students be the bridge between the two.”

These four students will start the five-week program by learning about the local families and children through informal meetings. Throughout the program, the students will also participate in workshops with ETF and Parivartan to discover the potential and social relevance of performing a play to deal with social conflicts. The experience will culminate in the writing and production of a play to be performed with Parivartan children and their families.

Participants in the program will keep track of their experience and present it to members of the Brandeis community in the fall.

“We believe that a direct and a grassroots level work is required to make a difference. One of our goals is to promote social harmony and in order to do that one needs to understand the root causes of terrorism [and] the root causes of conflict,” Revive: Mumbai member and summer program organizer Richa Sahay ‘09 said. “Going to the grassroots level and really speaking to these people and learning about their lives is the first step towards that goal.”

Though Revive: Mumbai is a small group of 10-12 students and there are only four taking part in the summer program, Sahay believes that what can be seen as shortcomings are actually assets.

“We cannot give back that much, so much that their lives can be changed, but… that same kind of feeling could keep us from [doing] anything,” she said. “We wanted to do something about it, we wanted to take the first step of even trying to make a difference if we can.”

Sahay has lived in India and the Philippines and now, like the four students participating in the program, finds herself in the United States as an outsider looking back on a distant situation. Sahay won’t be going to Mumbai herself but says this outsider status will actually help the group of four gain perspective over the five weeks.

“Somehow it takes an outsider to kind of see what’s going on back home…sometimes what you see everyday desensitizes you and you don’t feel the need to do anything about it because it’s just part of life,” she said. “[Members of Revive: Mumbai] have stepped out of that daily humdrum of poverty and want to do something about it.”

When she first heard about the summer program, Zohar Fuller ‘10 knew it was perfect for her. An independent interdisciplinary major in theatre for social change, Fuller is no stranger to the power of art to facilitate self expression and is looking forward to viewing this dynamic in Mumbai.

In an email message from Ecuador, where she’s currently studying abroad, Fuller expressed her excitement for further exploring her subject area this summer.

“I am looking forward to watching the children, and all those involved in the process of creating this production, grow over time,” she wrote. “I have experienced in the past how effective art is in terms of allowing for easier expression, and I hope to witness the same this summer.”

For program participant Wajida Syed ’12, an artist herself, the combination of art and social justice offered in this program seemed ideal.

“This is the only program [at Brandeis] that I know of that can effectively bring the two together,” she said.

Syed hopes combining the two will help her in possibly designing an independent interdisciplinary major when she returns to Brandeis in the fall.

Syed hopes this summer experience will help her gain perspective as an outsider looking in.

“I’m really interested to see what the students do for art, besides the theatre part. I want to see how they see their neighborhood,” she said. “When you go there you only see it comparing to where you’re coming from which may not be how things actually are.”

Roxy Bischoff’ 11, a sociology and philosophy double major with a minor in peace, conflict and coexistence studies, is excited to see the situation in India for herself versus accepting what she reads about it in the news.

The unpaid aspect of the program doesn’t faze Bischoff, and she’s most interested in what she can both take out of the program and give back to the community.

“I think it’s an amazing opportunity to not only help the people in the area that need it, but to help yourself and to gain such incredible experience. There’s nothing like working hands on within a community,” she said.

Remembering why she’s going there in the first place is something Bischoff plans to keep in the back of her mind.

“I think it’s important to realize too that we’re not going into the community to do our own thing,” Bischoff said. “And it’s important to understand that they aren’t these miserable people living in the slums. They face adversity, but they’re not depressed.”

The Revive: Mumbai program hits close to home for Shibani Pandya ’11, who’s lived in Mumbai her whole life and hopes to return there in the future to work with marginalized communities. Pandya is most excited to use art to “liberate people and help them use it to express themselves in a way that they can’t usually do in a mainstream culture.”

If the program is successful, she believes it could be an important first step towards peace-building.

Like Bischoff, Pandya doesn’t feel the need to be paid for doing what she really loves, and says she’ll get as much out of the program as the community she’s working in will.

“We’re not just going to help them,” she said. “We’re going to learn from them.”

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