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Prof. Shayoni Mitra studies activism through community-based theatre in rural India

In March, theatre professor Shayoni Mitra will travel to Mumbai, India, to participate in Barnard’s fourth annual global symposium, “Women Changing India.” While there, she and Barnard’s six Global Symposia fellows will visit Sangli, a rural community on the border of India’s Maharashtra province, to spend a day with a collective of sex workers who use theatre to help women assert their rights.

The collective is called Veshya AIDS Mukabala Parishad, meaning “Organization to Combat Prostitute AIDS.” VAMP is a subset of SANGRAM, an organization fighting the AIDS epidemic in India by empowering sex workers, rural women and girls, women widowed by the disease, and other marginalized groups, to advocate for their rights.

For Mitra, whose research examines how performance works as a social and political communication device, VAMP’s work represents an important function of theatre.

“By using theatre as a tool for spreading awareness about AIDS, this organization is allowing these women to take ownership of their own stories, and effect change within their communities,” she explains, noting that theatre can serve as an important gateway into any culture.

“We often think of theatre with a capital ‘T,’ with significant resources attached to it through PR and advertising,” says Mitra. “But smaller scale theatre—theatre that is of the people—also plays an important role in any democratic culture. It’s an exciting and concrete way to see what popular culture in India is about.”

The Barnard contingent will watch a performance by VAMP, devised in collaboration with well-known Marathi theatre professional Sushama Deshpande. They will also participate in a discussion about its creation and the broader context of activism through performing arts. Later in the day, the students will have the opportunity to visit other branches of SANGRAM and meet some of the peer educators and community organizers, who are working to promote condom use, increase availability of birth control, provide vocational training, and implement policy changes at the local level.

Prof. Mitra studies the intersection of theatre and politics, both on the stage and on the street. Much of her work has centered on Delhi and other parts of northern and eastern India. She is among a group of six faculty members who will attend this year’s global symposium.

Photos of VAMP courtesy of Shantilal.