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Searching for the Historical Truth:
The 1984 Pogroms





A review of "Kultar's Mime", a play directed by Mehr Kaur. Based on a poem by Sarbpreet Singh. Two Paths Productions.



They say history is written by the victors.

History books tell “truths” skewed by patriotism, by idealism, by naiveté, or by a design intended to cover up something ugly.

Thankfully, humanity doesn't solely rely on writers of history books to reveal the truth about the world; sometimes, we rely on artists. Of course artists are no more objective than anyone else, and in fact, are under less obligation to be so.

But often, they are the people telling the other side of the “official narrative” - and the glimpse they provide of another reality is often enough to get the reader, the viewer and an audience to look for the truth themselves. Sometimes the artist's job is simply that: to put something in a space where a gaping hole has been and use his or her skill to compel people to look at that new thing, which, previously, they didn't even know existed.

Such a revelation is the work done by Two Paths Productions, a group of young Hopkington, Massachusetts, theater artists and Sarbpreet Singh, the poet/playwright whose poem -- also titled “Kultar's Mime” -- they interpreted.

The gaping hole here, the other side of the story brought to light, is the Sikh view of what happened in Delhi and elsewhere in India after Indira Gandhi's assassination by her bodyguards -- who happened to be Sikhs -- in 1984. 

Pogrom is the word used; wholesale slaughter of thousands of innocent Sikhs -- men, women and children -- by mobs organized by India's ruling Congress Party.

This is a story perhaps familiar to many in the Sikh community. To me, a non-Sikh member of the audience during the stage performance of “Kultar's Mime”, I'd never heard of it before in my life. 

The artists provide a stark and compelling introduction.

Kultar's Mime” is director Mehr Kaur's adaptation of her father Sarbpreet Singh's poem by the same name. In the play, five actors -- two men, three women -- bring to life the characters of the poem, all child victims of the onslaught against Sikhs following the Indira Gandhi assassination.

Some characters witness the brutal murder of their loved ones, others are assaulted themselves, gang raped; all are scared, confused, caught in the chaos as members of their religious community are massacred in an organized fashion in horribly brutal ways.

The play is successful in a number of levels.

The first is that the direction by Mehr Kaur, assisted by company co-founder Leah Raczynski, is excellent.

Crimes against these children and their families are not re-enacted. Instead, we get impressionistic scenes of crying out, of hiding, of hunkering down, of reaction, of trying to tear free. The imagination is left to take over with just enough guidance to get us to share in the shock and the terror.

Mehr Kaur's use of the full space of the auditorium, of variations of heights, of light, images -– a rain of paperwork when the government signs off on the pogroms --  the entire “immersive experience” serves the dual purpose of keeping the play moving and the audience engaged.

It's very well done.

The second thing powering the play on the night I saw it was the intensity and conviction of the acting.

Raczynski, who played the narrator of sorts, led a cast including Aidan Connolly, Ali Weinstein, Evelyn Oliver and William Blanchette. All are young, college-aged, all were solid in multiple roles from which they transitioned back and forth without a problem. 

This cast, knowingly or not, added two meta elements to the play through their interpretation. The first was a feeling this was personal -- that these people weren't just acting: they were actively standing witness, they were protesting, they were presenting fiction in a way that demanded attention be paid to a very real thing.

Secondly, that this cast was entirely caucasian brought to mind the important reality of extreme violence: it was Sikhs this time, but it could be Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists; the minute the “us vs. them”  argument comes up, let alone the moment being manipulated by people in power, no one is safe. Everyone has the potential to end up as “them”.

The play tells a specific story, unmistakably in a specific context, but the fact the actors weren't Sikhs and Indians playing Sikhs and Indians reminded us that hatred-born violence can happen anywhere, to any group.

The poem on which the troupe ably builds provides a strong foundation. Like the actors, the words take us to the streets, into the homes of the pogrom's victims.  The use of children as main characters speaks to the horrific no-holds-barred violence that took place. No one was left unscathed, not even the most innocent.

The play doesn't stray too far from the consequences of the pogrom, but does concisely explain the politics behind it – content which is necessary. This is not just a play about who was hurt, but who did the hurting – and how, and why, and how they got away with it.  It's about what didn't happen as much as what did.

It could be argued that the rhyme of the poetry doesn't always serve the story (the best word seems sometimes rejected for a word that rhymes; some sentences are awkwardly constructed to fit the scheme ...). It could also be argued that the script is, in places, too dense and delivered too rapid-fire; some of the content gets lost on an audience who can't entirely keep up. There is room for some editing by the company.

But the writing is for the most part filled with evocative language, strong imagery, sadness, and flashes of rage that transport and hit home. And the cadence of the poetry is close enough to that of the poems children hear and recite that it is well-coupled with this story about children. 

Another small criticism about the performance I attended was the rather cryptic pre-show exhibit which included original art work thematically connected to the show, but also the presence of the cast members placed on and around the stage.

Each was talking to him or herself, then periodically getting up to dust off his or her seat. There was an eeriness to their blank looks and lack of engagement with the passers-by, yes, but the meaning was too vague, at least to me. They may want to re-imagine their prelude if they bring this show back to the stage.

Overall, what is perhaps most impressive about the whole work is that it was done at all. As a playwright, I know too well the tendency we theater people in the U.S. have towards obsessing on middle-class American problems, especially the caucasian ones.

Part of that is self-absorption, part of that is because it's what sells. Here is a young theater group taking on – as it's first project – a tragedy-filled human rights story that takes place a world away, thirty years in the past. And they do so with
skill and with, again, total conviction.

We need more artists like this.

Put another way: going to see college kids in a high school auditorium doing a poem-play written by one of their dads? The last thing I expected was to be challenged as an artist to up my own game.

But I was. And I'm grateful for it.

And I'm also grateful I'm not a writer of  Indian history books, because, there is a rather formidable enemy waiting for them in Hopkington, Massachusetts.

[The author is a playwright and heads The All Stories Theater Company in Foxboro, Massachusetts, USA.]

July 9, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Valerie von Rosenvinge (Needham, Massachusetts, USA), July 10, 2013, 8:35 AM.

I am/was the high school drama teacher for these students and I am so very proud of their commitment to the piece and to each other. I just want to clarify that while three of the actors are now on their way to college, two of them are still in high school.

2: Sarbpreet Singh (Hopkinton, Massachusetts, USA), July 10, 2013, 9:17 AM.

Beth Danesco, herself a playwright, has written an incisive review. The young actors did indeed do a brilliant job. The overwhelming feedback from the audience was that it would be a travesty for the play to be seen only once in Hopkinton, a small Massachusetts town. It needs to play in New York, New Jersey, California, Toronto, Vancouver and other places where Sikhs live. Our ultimate goal is to stage it in Delhi, the site of the carnage, twenty-nine long years ago.

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The 1984 Pogroms"

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