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#Drama: Tackling child marriage in Bangladesh through street theatre

A dozen girls – ranging from 8 to 18 years of age and dressed in vibrant-orange floor-length robes – sing, dance and wave colourful flags under a white canopy by a primary school.

As the noise escalates, locals begin peering out their doors and through their curtains; quiet chatter breaks out among those on the street, as people watch the commotion that has erupted in the otherwise calm and quiet village.

Minutes later, swarms of locals begin making their way to the white, shaded canopy, with makeshift wooden benches, plastic chairs and platforms in tow.

They gather in clusters and people begin to spill out of the shaded canopy, encircling the stage filled with the youth performers and the back-up musicians playing local instruments and narrating the show.

For the next 30 minutes, more than 200 villagers are there to witness these sought-after performances.  Adorned by gasps, laughter and thunderous rounds of applause, the community watches as the young actors on stage illustrate the story of Moyna, a young girl who escaped an illegal child marriage through the use of her birth certificate.

While the show is cushioned with jokes and soap opera-like scenes, unbeknownst to the community, they are engaged in critical issues impacting their village and everyday life.

Learning through theatre

Led by children’s development organisation Plan International Bangladesh and local NGO partners, Theatre for Development (TFD) is an approach whereby live, in-person performances are used to convey messages and educate the community on important issues.

TFD is more than just a play and an expression of dance and movement: it’s about enabling individuals to tell their own stories and engage in dialogue on issues identified by the community.

TFD empowers the community to actively participate on issues that are normally too sensitive to discuss or too taboo to be shared in the open.

“To me, we can reach a huge number of people through the TFD show, which is not otherwise possible with a meeting, training or workshop.  In this show, we welcome people of all ages, genders and professions to come and join. Our audience accepts the diversity,” says youth mentor of the TFD programme Tulshi Chakrabarti from Plan’s partner organisation, Shomaj Unnoyon Proshikkhon Kendro (SUPK).

Critical to audience attendance are rural women, who all too-often are denied the chance to leave their homes.  Plan and its partners thus focus on arranging TFD shows in hard-to-reach locations, so rural women and their families can join the show.

“After watching the show, audience members better understand the consequences of early child marriage and the advantages of birth registration. As the performance is conducted in the local dialect, it is easily understood by everybody and we hope the messages will stay in their minds for a long time,” adds Tulshi.

Causing a stir

Once the show is complete and after plentiful thank you's, handshakes and questions, the youth are met by their TFD mentors. The young girls sit together and begin to reflect on their performance and the impact of the message they were trying to convey.

“You see, the parents tried to marry the young girl off. They requested a Kazi [a community member who is authorised by government authorities to administer legal registrations for marriage] for support, but he did not support the child marriage,” explains one of the youth actors.

The pivotal moment in the show, the children explain, is when the Kazi pulls out Moyna’s birth certificate to prove that she is too young to be married.

“He knows that child marriage is a crime and if the marriage is registered, the parents and other persons involved will be punished,” they describe.

Central to the show’s message on child marriage is educating the community about the role of a Kazi in stopping an illegal marriage and most importantly, how the Kazi can use a birth certificate to prove the child’s age.

Addressing the community in a facilitated discussion after the TFD show, Salma Sultana from Plan explains the role of Moyna: “In the show, we visualised only one Moyna, but in our society we have many Moynas who experience child marriage, but none that actually want to be married as young girls. In our portrayal of Moyna, we wanted the community, especially the parents, to understand the pain that Moyna goes through as she is dealing with child marriage and the consequences of her family’s actions.”

As Tulshi concludes, “I think the TFD show can play a huge role on the birth registration issue. This performance combines the issue of birth registration and child marriage, as they are linked. But not only did we show the birth certificate stopping a marriage, we showed how the certificate can help someone have a successful life and access all the services provided by the government.”

Plan International Bangladesh works with local partners to carry out more than 450 Theatre for Development performances on different child protection issues every year.

With 12 children per group, and on average six groups per Plan working area, the youth-led TFD groups reach more than 596 villages and communities in Bangladesh.

Action needed

Bangladesh has the second-highest rate of child marriage in the world, second only to Niger.  A 2013 report commissioned by Plan demonstrates that 64% of all women aged 20–24 were married before the age of 18.

Birth registration has the potential to play a crucial role in reducing child marriage, but this is reliant on enforcement of existing laws and comprehensive systems in place to register major life events, including deaths, marriages, adoptions and births.

Child marriage, birth registration and the wider spectrum of civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) are high on the agenda of governments in Asia as they look beyond the Millennium Development Goals and towards the post-2015 agenda.

- Jessica Lomelin is Regional Online Communications Specialist at Plan International Asia.  This article first appeared on www.girlsnotbrides.org

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#UKAsianReview: ‘Dara’ at the National Theatre – Sweeping, Powerful

Ambition has long been a trait of productions at the National Theatre on London's Southbank. 

In recent months the National has been ramping up the ambition quotient with two epic productions inspired by topics that are uniquely sub-continental - first with 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' and now, 'Dara'.

'Dara' is a dramatization of the life of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the man who built the Taj Mahal, and the conflict between his two sons.

The play focuses on the insecurity of Shah Jahan and the power struggle between his sons, the religious conformist Aurangzeb and the reformist Dara.

Shah Jahan's northern Indian empire was defined by its opulence, decadence and grandeur as well as the political intrigues, greed and religious dogma. 

Directed by Nadia Fall from an Tanya Ronder adaptation of a play by Pakistani journalist and playwright Shahid Nadeem, 'Dara' replicates all of those characteristics to wonderful effect among the austere grey concrete blocks of the Southbank.

The interplay of emotions between the father and sons as well as elder sister Jahanara will keep you hanging on to the edge of your seat, savouring every moment, every dialogue and every emotion.

The sets are a sight to behold.

From the marble-effect flooring to the intricate details on the sliding doors, the attention to detail is magnificent and transports you centuries into the past. 

The performances are outstanding, in particular Zubin Varla and Sargon Yelda who play Dara and Aurangzed respectively.  Dara's anguished screams seem to reach out and tug at your heart.

The sub plot of the near-fanatical Aurangzeb and his mistress Hira Bai helps brings out the more humane side of Aurangzeb, a man widely considered a murderous tyrant. 

Aurangzeb would do anything for her, even indulge in the occasional tipple despite his religious conservatism.  She brought out his softer side, one which many thought he didn't possess.

'Dara' is resplendent in powerful scenes but one in particular stands out for me.  It takes place inside a Sharia Court where Dara is being tried for the 'crime' of polytheism.

The raging debate between the opposition lawyer and Dara really brings to light not only what it must have been like to be a reformer in a court such as that of Shah Jahan but also to be human. 

The play poses questions that are relevant in today's world and the role of hardliners in the rise of religious extremism - not least in how Dara was willing to explore the relevance and goodness inherent in all religions.

Nadia Fall's direction is excellent, never allowing the visual spectacle to distract from her primary role of providing clarity to a complex historical affair that has resonance in the present day.

Dara is not without flaws. 

Jahanara is portrayed by the servants and workers in the palace as a powerful and strong woman capable of bringing peace between her two warring brothers and yet here, she is presented as someone who is meek and submissive. 

Her character is too one-dimensional - I would have wanted to see more shades to her character.  In a bid to keep the plot alive, Fall also resorts to frequent flashbacks that can be a bit disorienting. 

These are small quibbles.  Perfection, after all, is an utopia. 

Overall, 'Dara' is a powerful, moving and illuminating work and well worth the trek in the sleet to the Southbank.

'Dara' is at the National Theatre until 4 April.

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#Moving: ‘Behind The Beautiful Forevers’ comes to the National Theatre

The National Theatre has announced dates for the stage adaptation of one of the most powerful and insightful books about India in recent years.

'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' is based American journalist Katherine Boo's extraordinary investigation into life in Mumbai's Annawadi slum and will begin its first run at the Olivier Theatre at the National beginning 10 November.

Adapted by BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning British playwright David Hare, the play - which shares the title with the book - is directed by Rufus Norris, the acclaimed young film and theatre director.

'Goodness Gracious Me' star Meera Syal leads an impressive and eclectic cast with roots from across South Asia, including Hiran Abeysekera, Esh Alladi, Nathalie Armin, Pal Aron, Tia-Lana Chinapyel, Vincent Ebrahim, Sartaj Garewal, Mariam Haque, Thusitha Jayasundera, Muzz Khan, Ranjit Krishnamma, Manjeet Mann, Nikita Mehta, Anjli Mohindra, Tia Palamathanan, Bharti Patel, Ronak Patani, Chook Sibtain, Anneika Rose, Gavi Singh Chera, Stephanie Street, Anjana Vasan, Assad Zaman and Shane Zaza.

Syal plays Zehrunisa, a mother who embarks on a mission with her son Abdul to recycle enough rubbish to fund the building of their own dwelling. 

Zehrunisa's is but one of the myriad stories carefully collected and magnificently evoked by Katherine Boo in her National Award-winning book.

Boo, also a Pulitzer Prize winner and former South Asia correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, spent four years inside the slum and was praised for her unflinching portrayal of the poverty, degradation as well as the unique sense of community that pervades slum life in India's bustling commercial and cultural capital.

The name of the book was inspired by a billboard advertising one of Mumbai's innumerable new luxury residential developments with the catch phrase: "Beautiful Forever.  Forever Beautiful". 

Boo was inspired not by the city's upwardly-mobile Middle Classes snapping up shiny new apartments but by the millions who lived among the rotting sewage and despair of the temporary dwellings behind the billboard, in places such as the sprawling Dharavi and Annawadi. 

Built in the early 1990's, Annawadi is said to have grown out of a squatter camp set up by labourers working to build Mumbai's international airport. 

The book is a riveting journey through the mountains of waste and the unbearable squalor in which three thousand people live, in alarmingly close proximity and a startling look at not only the growing inequities that continue to blight the 'India Growth Story' but also the hope and sense-of-purpose that abounds among the least fortunate in Indian society. 

"Behind The Beautiful Forevers gives the audience an important insight into the complex world of slum politics and power struggles that blight and affect so many lives. 

"What is so often forgotten is that behind the slum walls, there are some highly aspirational individuals with inspiring stories of achievement and success, and this is something that must be celebrated.

"All of our roles are inspired by the people Katherine Boo so beautifully honoured in her book and we hope as a company to bring the same passionate commitment and truth to their stories.

"Zehrunisa Husain is a loving powerful mother who had to fight unimaginable struggles to keep her family together and it is a privilege to be given the opportunity as an actress to recreate her experience in this amazing play."

Given the multitude of stories in Boo's book, a theatre adaptation - as opposed one for film or TV - would certainly have posed a not-inconsiderable number of challenges.

Director Norris, said: “It was not only a creative challenge but also a physical one.

"Trying to get the enterprise, chaos and humanity of a slum onto the stage in a way that honours the reality has been a fascinating task.

"They are a wonderful cast and crew, David Hare has scripted the production brilliantly and I’m looking forward to the opening night.  I hope that everyone who comes feels we have done justice to the original book by Katherine Boo.”

'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' is at the National Theatre from 10 November.  For tickets, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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Kali Theatre rustles up familiar feuds in “Behna”

 It is Ladies Sangeet Night in the Cheema household. The guests are dancing to Bhangra and Bollywood tunes. In the kitchen elder sister, Daljit is slaving over a hot stove, while her younger sibling Simran flirts outrageously with Jagjit – her brother-in-law. Meanwhile, Mum and Masi Ji (maternal aunt), entertain …

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Watford Palace Theatre to re-imagine Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’

Watford Palace Theatre and the English Touring Theatre have announced plans to stage a unique new version of the Charles Dickens classic ‘Great Expectations’; setting the epic novel in the bustling streets of 19th Century Calcutta. Based on an adaptation by playwright Tanika Gupta, Dickens’ coming-of-age story of Pip and his ambition of becoming a gentleman, will be transported straight to the very heart of British India. 


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