The Documentary Theatre Festival Connecting Realities as a Site of Crossing between social communities and artistic practices
Is there a crisis of humanities?
On the first day of the in-person sessions, Martin reported that only 8% of the new students enrolling at Harvard will study in the field of Humanities. Colleagues at other universities (liberal arts colleges excepted) also reported similarly low enrollments in the humanities. There was then disagreement in the discussions of the following days about whether this should be interpreted as a symptom of a general "crisis in the humanities."
The consensus was that, given the economic conditions at especially private universities, which too often force students and their families into debt, a decision to study humanities makes professions in the humanities seem unattractive because they don't pay off.
Interestingly, there was also a consensus among colleagues that this crisis is, to a not insignificant extent, caused by us. We, who teach and research in the humanities, represent our actions inadequately and poorly to the outside world. There is a somewhat dysfunctional connection between the questions we ask ourselves inside the university and the people living outside the university. So, how can we turn this outside and make it an inside of what we do in academia? In the following, I would like to explore this question—based on my own curatorial-dramaturgical experiences—by presenting the documentary theatre festival Connecting Realities.
The location of meaning: Connecting Realities – A festival on documentary theatre in India
This festival, held from December 18 to December 20, 2019, in Goa (India), has been designed and realized through myself and my longtime collaborator Anuja Ghosalkar, a theatre-maker from Bangalore and the founder of the theatre company Drama Queen. Our curatorial question for Connecting Realities was: From where within Indian and Asian performance practices, both traditional and contemporary, could one connect to or iterate the traditions of documentary theatre? We invited performers, scholars of performance, and theatre artists, but also lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, and educators to engage with our audience and us.
The starting point was our assumption that any meaning-making within curatorial practices should derive from concretely existing social groups: on groups that hold our questions. To engage especially with different groups within the spectrum of civic society, we hosted a series of nine workshops all over India, starting from mid-2018. Amongst them, we reached out to the Alternative Law Forum (ALF) representatives in Bangalore, the Ambedkarite music group Yalgar Sanskrutik Manch in Mumbai, and the Point of View organization that advocates gender equality. Through these workshops, we produced networks of audiences, change-makers, academics, and artists.
To record the experiences of this festival and make them accessible, we established the following website, which documents how the festival has been developed in close cooperation with these groups (especially the Starting Realities- section of the website)- and not at least how these cooperations were crucial for eventually situating documentary practices in contemporary Indian society:
Documentary theatre and the perverse documentary theatre of the state
Here I can only briefly hint at what this specific situatedness and relevance of documentary forms in the Indian present consists of. It was Soumyabrata Choudhury who, in his closing lecture, offered a resolute substantiation of the term "documentary theatre", by pointing to the Indian society, which is stratified with the "document" being the privilege of the moneyed and few. Choudhury's talk bears testimony to the fact that our symposium coincided with the onset of the biggest people's protests in recent Indian history––against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which forces individuals in India to document their ancestry. Internal migration, and natural and manufactured disasters particularly affect and target marginalized and displaced populations who will struggle to produce documents as evidence of ancestry and exposes them to the threat of deportation. This circumstance became the dominant backdrop of our festival—that our opening speaker Rustom Bharucha called "a perverse documentary theatre of the State". Which thence informed our attempt of revisioning the aesthetics and histories of documentary theatre, that under this condition turn into a protest against the state use of documents.
Making the outside an inside
In Connecting Realities I see a practice that tries to deal with the problem of the dysfunctional relationship between the inside and the outside of the university mentioned at the beginning.
A particular role in this regard is assigned to our website, which is as an open-access resource in which all the contributions to our festival are published in film and transcript form. Since 2020, we have presented this website to many theater faculties in India (and outside). We hope that in this way, our artistic knowledge of the specific situatedness of documentary forms, created in close cooperation with social groups outside the academia, can find its way into research in the humanities.