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When Indian and African students came together for the sake of art

On African Liberation Day, writer and activist Hartman de Souza recalls an Afro-Indian theatre group from the 1980s

Hartman de Souza. Photo Courtesy Hartman de Souza
Hartman de Souza. Photo Courtesy Hartman de Souza

This, man. Antigone. In New Brighton. St Stephen’s Hall. The place was packed, man! All the big people. Front row. . .dignitaries. Shit, those were the days."

This is how the character of John, a Bantu prisoner, recalls the vignettes of a performance of Antigone within the confines of his cell in the anti-apartheid play The Island, written in 1972 by South African playwright Athol Fugard. John’s sense of yearning can easily be transposed to the person of Goa-based writer and activist Hartman de Souza, who co-founded the Afro-Indian theatre group Ukombozi (Kiswahili for “liberation") in 1986. The same year, it staged The Island on 25 May (which is celebrated as African Liberation Day) in Delhi as its very first production.

De Souza, now 67, worked for a newspaper called The Patriot in Delhi before he formed Ukombozi with an African law student from Delhi University (DU), Kimamo Kuria. De Souza, who once did theatre full-time, wistfully looks back to a time when Indian and African students in India would share the proscenium for the sake of art and a good time. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What led you to form Ukombozi?

It was the times we were living in, I guess. People have forgotten that India was always at the forefront of opposing apartheid.

I had an invitation to a reception by the Liberian ambassador to Delhi. African students in Delhi were going to do a short piece on apartheid there. The director was a Kenyan, Kimamo Kuria, a Gikuyu guy doing his last year of law in 1986 at Delhi University. We got friendly because I stole a charcoal drawing of (Nelson) Mandela that he had pinned on the stage and forgotten to take—it was a drawing of Mandela, so it wasn’t robbery! He gave me a lift back, and on the way, almost burst into tears because he had forgotten the drawing! I gave him the drawing. He was a little tipsy. He kissed me on both cheeks...we just became friends...

He had a play, The Island, by this guy called Athol Fugard, whom I had never heard of. It was an amazing play, it changed my life. I loved Fugard, still do.

What was ‘The Island’ about? Where was it performed?

It was about two prisoners on the infamous Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned. The two prisoners stage an excerpt of Antigone.

We got a bit of money from the Africa Fund and did things through the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. We did three performances for the public—one where we collaborated with students of the Delhi College of Art, who designed the open-air venue and stage; one for students in the male hostel at Kirori Mal College; and one posh performance at Azad Bhavan—and also did lots of small performances at friends’ barsatis (rooftop apartments).

Did you know of other Afro-Indian theatre groups at the time?

Much before this, Valentino Gasper—I had done theatre with him in Pune after college—started a theatre group. He called it Centre Punch! He met up with a young Kenyan called Jimmy Odero, studying at Fergusson College in Pune, in 1981. They got talking theatre and ended up doing an African play, Muntu, by the poet, writer and academic from Ghana Joe de Graft. Jimmy had studied it in Pune. It had a huge cast. Valentino brought the Indians and Jimmy brought the African delegation.

What was your experience of performing in DU colleges back then?

It was fabulous! Our performance of The Island at Kirori Mal College was amazing. The mess was packed for this performance before lunch. After the play, I remember students sitting around asking us questions about apartheid...about Africa...the discussion was longer than the play. I’d love to meet some of the students who saw this production and tell them how important they were in our lives.

On African Liberation Day, a thespian recalls an Afro-Indian theatre group from the 1980s

Were there reviews of the play ‘The Island’?

We got very good reviews. Our performance at the Delhi College of Art was reviewed in The Statesman by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, and the other at Azad Bhavan, reviewed by Kavita Nagpal in the Hindustan Times and Suneet Tandon in The Sunday Observer. It may have been the first time that an African play was reviewed in India.

We don’t really hear of African-Indian theatre groups in college campuses. Wouldn’t such collaborations effectively channelize the sense of alienation African students in India feel?

Good question! Sure, it would alleviate the alienation African students feel in India, but then again how many Indian college students or their teachers have read some of Africa’s foremost playwrights who’ve been writing in English from the late 1950s? We’re happy reading the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe said when he attended the first Indira Gandhi Memorial Seminar in Delhi, Indians are happy with colonialism coming to us via the back door.

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