A giant leap in the process – 2nd R&D trip for Partition project

A giant leap in the process – 2nd R&D trip for Partition project

Our Artistic Director, Deborah Pakkar-Hull shares her exhilarating experiences from the second research and development  trip to India for our Partition project.

Sitting at my desk in the office for the first time following two weeks in Delhi is the first breathing space I’ve had to take stock of what has been a tremendously rewarding, fruitful and exhausting trip…I’m hoping that by committing some reflections to paper (or screen) I may quieten the many thoughts roaming inside my head that have been giving the jet lag a helping hand!

The visit was the second such trip to Delhi to carry out research and development (R&D) for a new and very exciting project inspired by the Partition of India. Joining me were writer Mike Kenny, and Geoff and Anne Readman who have been working on behalf of the Blahs in Indian schools over the past five years. Once on the ground our numbers were swelled by our Indian partners, Sukhesh Arora and Simran Arneja from Yellowcat, Abha Adams and Arathi Krishna from Step by Step school.

Following the briefest of acclimatisations, our first week was spent meeting with a number of interested schools and speaking with survivors and those whose parents and grandparents experienced Partition.  These conversations proved enlightening, moving and at times beyond comprehension and we were struck by the generosity and willingness of people to share with us stories that spoke of the best and worst of humanity.

We also met with Urvashi Butalia, who wrote ‘The Other Side of Silence’, a moving and meticulously researched book of testimony from those who had lived through Partition, Kirti Jain, the former Head of the National School of Drama, who had directed a play based on three women’s stories from Urvashi’s book and Maya Krishna Rao, an acclaimed performer who spent time in Leeds in the 1980’s as a part of the Theatre in Education (TiE) Company at the West Yorkshire Play House. Hearing from artists and writers who themselves had engaged in a process of distilling and communicating stories and accounts of Partition was illuminating.

 It was during the first week that we had the first of several breakthrough moments. Prior to the visit, the project had rested on the idea of one participatory performance for small audience numbers.  However after speaking with Abha Adams it quickly became clear that there was a need for something slightly different.  The scale of Partition and the difficulty in locating an intimate audience engagement within an historical event of epic proportions presented some artistic challenges. Questions had also begun to arise about the role of writer (especially one as accomplished as Mike) in a piece that in part relied on the agency of its audience to co-create narrative.  As a result, a new model began to tentatively emerge; one based on two, hour long performances – the first an epic, storytelling piece inspired by the events of Partition with the potential to play to larger audiences of young people and their families, and the second, an immersive, participatory performance for audiences of 40, 13 to16 year olds.  As the idea began to take hold, it was decided that the immersive piece would be set in the present time to enable an active engagement with contemporary issues of difference, faith, identity and home, and that both performances would be offered to schools together, with the epic, storytelling piece providing the context for the immersive performance.

This decision was both liberating and reassuring – it safeguarded the Blahs’ participatory ethos, at the same time as reaching out to greater numbers of young people. It also offered a broader palate of artistic and narrative possibilities and gave Mike freer range to employ his considerable talents.

It was then with a sense of optimism and anticipation that we entered the second week…

This saw Mike, Sukhesh and I working with five actors – Neel Sengupta, Kriti Pant, Piyush Kumar, Anirudh Nair and Amba Suhasini Jhala – to practically explore possibilities for the two newly forged performances. Positive relationships were quickly fostered enabling a generous, playful, bilingual space to be created in which to try out ideas. Much like the interviews the week before, work was characterised by a combination of generosity and commitment.

As with any creative process there were days where work hit a metaphorical brick wall or where we were uncertain as to where the playing should go next, but these moments led us in new directions that almost always led us to fertile grounds. In fact during these times, the adage “trust the process” was frequently called to mind. By the end of the week, although tired out by the intensity of the work, we emerged with a clear sense of the storytelling form for the epic performance, together with a huge amount of possible content. We also came away with some interesting narrative and participatory leads for the immersive piece, which will take us into a final R&D later this year. Sharing the facilitation of the R&D between Sukhesh and I provided a valuable opportunity to negotiate a shared artistic directorial role, something that is essential to laying the foundations for ongoing collaboration.

Whilst we were immersed in R&D for the performances, Geoff and Anne were busy meeting senior leadership teams in schools (on one day spending nearly six hours in the car travelling) and leading workshops for teachers. Their endeavours were rewarded with a commitment from several schools to book performances and to organise their own ‘Jashn 2017’ Festival. Created by Step by Step school ‘Jashn 2017’ is a festival model, that focuses on ‘Legacies and Futures‘ of Partition, bringing together a variety of young person-led activities and work by invited artists.  The performances written by Mike will form the centre piece of these festivals and individual schools expressed their desire to set up a festival network to facilitate the sharing of ideas and expertise. Geoff and Anne were also invited by several schools to lead on curriculum development linked to the performances, working through the newly created consortium – this is something that looks likely to take place in May 2017.

So, looking back over the two weeks, it feels like so much has happened…hours of discussions, much laughter, lots of eating, travel on auto/cycle rickshaws, the metro, planes, and in the car (for hours and hours and hours…) people giving their time, expertise, stories, opinions, ideas…and lots of play – rigorous, informed, exploratory play – with teachers and actors and children…

All of this has enabled us to leave India a giant leap ahead of where we were when we arrived, with some firm foundations for the future in place and a big debt of gratitude is owed to all those who were a part of this process.


Photo Credit  Sukhesh Arora