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“Kultar’s Mime”: A Play About Four Children in the Aftermath of the 1984 Anti-Sikh Delhi Pogroms

March 26, 2015 | By

Kultar Mime

A still from Kultar Mime – Source: India.Com

After 26 critically acclaimed performances worldwide,“Kultar’s Mime” came to the Roone Auditorium at Columbia University on Feb. 15, 2015.

Before watching the play, I have to admit, I knew nothing about the 1984 Anti-Sikh Delhi Pogroms, and that in India, this narrative is rarely spoken or heard about. It has largely been erased from India’s media coverage.

“Kultar’s Mime,” launched by the Sikh Research Institute, is an immersive theater experience in which each member of the audience is brought into the auditorium into small groups. Walking onto the stage, the first thing you see is a collection of striking and vibrant paintings depicting somber and raw images. The four actors sit or stand in silence near a painting as the alaap in “Raag Tilang” plays in the background. The paintings, created by Smith College student Evanleigh Davis, set the mood for the story that is to unfold.

On Oct. 31, 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. In retaliation, more than 3,000 Sikhs living in Delhi faced murder, rape, arson and unspeakable violence.“Kultar’s Mime” gives a voice to that violence and a message that transcends culture, language, geography, race and religion.

The play, set in New York City, features a group of young Jewish artists gathered to commemorate organized violence in the 1903 Anti-Jewish Kishinev Pogroms. They choose to honor the suffering endured by victims by giving awareness to another instance of such violence that has largely been erased from the world’s narrative: the anti-Sikh Delhi Pogroms.

Boston-based writer and commentator Sarbpreet Singh wrote the poem, “Kultar’s Mime” in 1984. With partnership from the Sikh Research Institute in 2013, Singh’s daughter and theater director J. Mehr Kaur brought the poem to life on stage.

Acted out through the eyes of a group of the Delhi Pogroms survivors, the play is intense at every turn as the young artists use the poem to take the audience to the low-income Delhi community of Tilak Vihar as the massacre ensues.

The play draws inspiration from both Singh’s poem and Hebrew poet Hamim Nahman Bialik’s “In The City of Slaughter” to juxtapose the similarities between the two events. Both the Kishinev and Delhi Pogroms targeted minority communities and used state-sanctioned propaganda to incite fear, hatred, and violence of a particular group of people.

Three seminal works that depict the Delhi massacres through different lenses inspired Singh’s original poem. The first was the report, “Who are the Guilty,” which depicted the atrocities committed during the massacres. This report was commissioned by an Indian-based civil rights organization called the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.

The second work was Madhu Kishwar’s article, “Gangster Rule,” published in the progressive Indian magazine, Manushi. The article sharply contrasted the depiction of the events by Indian mainstream media with bold truth-telling during a media blackout.

The third piece of work was by renowned Johns Hopkins-based anthropologist Veena Das. The essay called “Voices of Children” gave an ethnographic account of young survivors of the massacres. One such story, which featured a young deaf and mute boy, became the  inspiration for the play’s title. Ten-year-old, Kultar (Ross Magnant), who cannot speak, deals with the trauma of seeing his father’s lynching by regularly mimicking the act. It is his only way of expressing the insurmountable violence he has suffered through.

Kultar Mime

Kultar Mime Poster | Source: India.Com

The other children, Biloo (Christine Scherer), Angad (Addison Williams), and Rano (Cat Roberts) reenact their own stories of violence, fear, rape, and arson after something triggers their memories of the trauma.

The narrator (Allison Matteodo) does a wonderful job of reminding us throughout the work that these four children are real people. In contrasting the children’s seemingly normal and often playful attitudes with their deep pain, “Kultar’s Mime” humanizes the children while showcasing how horrific their experiences truly were.

The play, performed by an all white cast, does a phenomenal job of showing through theater, music, and art how human suffering and pain are universal. And while sitting in the audience, it was clear that human compassion is also ubiquitous.

Ferguson, Eric Garner and the recent shootings at Chapel Hill continue to show us how violence on a structural level is ever-present on our own soil. Singh has positioned “Kultar’s Mime” as a commentary on violence and human suffering that can be used as inspiration for other works of art and action.

Shows of “Kultar’s Mime” are free, but donations and support are appreciated because it continues to provide a platform for a much-needed narrative on a worldwide level, traveling from New York to Delhi and beyond. To support the play, please visit their Website.

For an ethnographic account and analysis of the anti-Sikh massacres and other instances of State violence, read Veena Das’s “Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary and Violence and Subjectivity.”


About Author: Vaidehi Mujumdar (Vuhydaihee Moojoomdar) @veeMuj is an aspiring physician, clinical advocate, activist, and writer who strongly believes health and social justice are part of the same story.

Please Note: Above write-up was originally published by India.Com, under title: “Kultar’s Mime”: A Play About Four Children in the Aftermath of the 1984 Anti-Sikh Delhi Pogroms at source url: Its reproduced as above with due permissions of author and previous publisher of the write-up.

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