The India Social Forum (ISF) (New Delhi; November 9-13) was a seamless coming together of color, music and drama with seminars and conferences on issues such as health, communalism and gender violence. Cultural activists from tribal, rural and urban areas of India expressed their creative visions, as did participants from other parts of Asia, as well as Africa. There was, all told, a strong assertion of plurality - multicolored threads of life and spirit expressing hope and the power of the powerless.
At the opening session of the ISF, African poet Chirikure Chirikure, Urdu poet Shahriyar and Raghu Dixit's Indo World Folk Rocks expressed protest in evocative language through lyric and rhythm. Rukma Manganiar sang - her high-pitched voice carrying in the evening air, the very act of singing an act of courage, since her community does not endorse public singing by women. C J Kuttappan from Kerala belted out a lively folk number, while Prahlad Singh Tipaniya and group gave a spirited rendition of Kabir and other Bhakti movement poets. Dr Ramdayal Munda and troupe, from Jharkhand, performed a dance using traditional forms with a modern, political content.
The ISF saw a number of colorful protests - by Ekta Parishad opposing destructive development, 'Women in Black' opposing war, Right to Information activists making hypocritical electoral speeches in a 'Ghotala Rath Yatra', Dalit activists protesting exploitation, schoolchildren demanding universal access to education and so on. Multiple sexual identities were asserted by 'Rainbow Planet' - demanding rights and acceptance even as many added to the drama of the occasion by cross-dressing, or wearing distinctive makeup. Tribals and ryots from remote regions of Himachal Pradesh, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and other states sported distinctive costumes - each uniquely beautiful.
The hundreds of stalls put up by NGOs and people's movements displayed a strong sense of aesthetics in their meticulously crafted journals and books, exhibitions (for instance promoting the cycle rickshaw, or children's art in tsunami areas), and posters (such as one depicting Aung Saan Suu Kyi, grande dame of Myanmar, fearless in her strong resistance to military dictatorship). Slogans, too, indicated creative protest - examples being 'One Solution Revolution', 'Dry Fields, Empty Bellies, Betrayed Voters' and 'Dilli Hamari Aapki, Nahin Kisi ke Baap ki' (Delhi is yours and mine, not anybody's patrimony).
Plays were put up at all hours of the day, as were song and dance performances. Kui tribals from Orissa, brought by the NGO Odaan (Orissa Adivasi Action Network), mesmerized the audience with their drumbeats, men sporting long curved horns and carrying axes, women wearing silver bands and feathers in their hair. It was a rare privilege to see their dance, for they explained, "We are sharing our traditional dance. It has a very important place in our lives. If we have less food, we survive. But if our culture suffers, we will suffer. We do not dance to entertain others, we dance to express our own joy and pain. We come all the way from our home in the hills to express solidarity with ISF. Here we represent 300 tribal groups of Orissa - all struggling for land rights, human rights."
The capital city was transformed into a vibrant space, the dancers' movements showing pounding of rice, tending seeds and aiming arrows at an aggressor. Santhali, Oraon, Munda and Ho dances from Jharkhand, Lamani, Siddhi and Gowli dances from Karnataka, Bihu from Assam, Parai Attam by Dalits, Thudi dance from Kerala, Kottam martial art form from Andhra Pradesh... all attracted attention with their energy, grace and buoyancy.
The venue had been thoughtfully prepared with five open-air and one proscenium stage. The proscenium stage was called 'Stage Govind Vidyarthi' after the erstwhile general secretary of IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association), and the one large open-air stage 'Stage Paul Robeson' after the noted American singer and civil rights activist. The other four stages were named after renowned popular artistes - Bulle Shah, the Sufi poet from Punjab; Safdar Hashmi who was killed by ruling vested interests during a factory-gate performance in Sahibabad in 1989; Panu Pal, pioneer of street plays in Bengal; and Ghulam Farid, mystic poet in Urdu, Siraiki, Sindhi, Punjabi, Persian and Braj bhasha languages.
Proscenium performances included 'Shambukvadh' directed by Sudhanva Deshpande and 'Buhe Barian' by M K Raina, while street plays included 'Alien' by Sethati (Pondicherry), 'Hum Lenge Aisa Badla' by Vikalp (Haryana), 'Water and Water' by Jasul Theatre Group (Tamil Nadu), 'Haram Rajya' by Samudaya (Karnataka), 'Channel Change Karo Yaar' by BGVS (Lucknow), 'It's All Lies' by Pattan Lok Natak (Islamabad, Pakistan), 'Vendam! Vendam! Vendam!' by Sangamam (Chennai), and a skit by sex workers of Dimapur, Nagaland.
Most of the plays portrayed exploitation and protest - by Dalit and adivasi activists, women and other marginalized groups. Artistry resonated with politics as the people exposed the intricacies of issues such as sexual exploitation, police atrocities, denial of basic rights, water and food, and struggles for resolution and justice.
An imaginatively designed 'Public ka Multiplex' screened documentary films throughout the day. With three screens fully employed, hundred-odd films were shown during the festival. The films, put together by the Delhi Film Archive of Films for Freedom, included 35 recent films classified as 'New Images'. Amongst these powerful films that gripped audience attention, were 'AFPSA - 1958' by Haobam Paban Kumar about people's protests in Manipur; 'Health Matter' by Shikha Jhingan; 'Fistful of Steel' by Leena Nazray, Nidhi Singh and Sabir Haque (about concrete structures along the Yamuna river that will further displace the poor); and 'Many People Many Desires' by T Jayashree (exploring lives of gay, lesbian and transgendered persons through personal narratives).
The section 'Working Lives' had 22 films on labor in the era of globalization. These use various devices to enter the inner space of people's struggles, expose the lies of the propaganda machines of governments and industrial empires, examine conditions of labor and the lives and thoughts of laboring people. They provided insights into workers' struggle for managing companies in Venezuela; the politics of fiercely independent working women in Juchtian, Mexico; betrayal of 700 workers by a Korean company; ship-breaking in coastal Gujarat; sweatshop workers in China; murder of hundreds of union workers by MNCs and the paramilitary in Colombia; Taiwanese employees' fight against retrenchment; and so on.
Participants heard urban folk music by Susmit Bose, evocative Sufi numbers by Swarn Noora and Ghulam Mohammad Saz Nawaz, folk music by Ganesh Jogi and Teju Behan (from Gujarat and Rajasthan), Roshan Singh (from Chamba), Harpal Singh Pala (from Punjab), and - at the closing ceremony - by Maya Rani, a Baul singer from Bangladesh. The closing function also featured Rewben Mashangva from Manipur performing Naga folk blues accompanied by a tribal violin, and a cultural troupe from Kenya who narrated Africa's history of resistance to slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. Nepathya, a band from Nepal, played songs of peace combining traditional Nepali folk music with rock. It was a fitting tribute indeed, to mark the closure of five days of solidarity and commitment to a truly democratic world order - expressed through fusion, song and dance.