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Arts Visitor Spotlight: M.K. Raina

By Armine Pillikan

M.K. Raina, an international visitor and SiCa Arts Writer/Practitioner this October, is known as one of the most prominent theatre artists throughout India and Southeast Asia. He speaks 13-14 different languages, has traveled and taught from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh, and works not only with professional performance artists, but also children who’ve had very little exposure to the arts.

Recently, his work has included revitalizing theatre and visual arts in his birthplace, the Kashmir Valley—a place that has suffered from militant terror for many years. During a presentation in the Humanities Center Board Room on October 11, he discussed his creative work in folk and experimental theatre, as well as with his goals to rehabilitate orphaned Kashmiri children and to set up educational opportunities for performers.

What are some of the struggles the Kashmiri artistic community faces?

 The country has suffered through terrorism, and there has been a ban on performance arts. These people are very poor. They don’t even have land for agriculture, much less the time and venues to put on plays, so they haven’t been able to perform for 10 to 20 years. Imagine a person who couldn’t play his instrument or paint for that long! This also affects school children’s engagement with art. Violence had reached such a point that children could not go to schools. They had become victims of this violence and it impacted their minds, their imaginations. They don’t really know what it’s like to have a normal day, to go to school, play, come home—it’s not there. But I believe that through education and culture, I can break this frozen situation.

Describe some of your work with the Kashmiri folk performance group Bhand Pather.

I’m not letting the tradition of performing arts die out under the current circumstances. Recently I helped direct and make possible three different plays: two traditional plays, and King Lear. Five thousand to ten thousand people attended the plays, sat on hills and watched the performances.

How did the group engage with Shakespeare?

King Lear was definitely a challenge, since the performers do not read or write. I had to tell them the story, and then together we discovered the subtext and interpretation of the story. I began to see that they completely understood the depth of the play. We merely adapted it to our language and traditions. When the performers compose the dialogue, they are fantastic. They made it their own King Lear. It was Shakespeare, yes, but the way they see it, the way they experience it.

In the storm scene, when King Lear realizes what he’s done, the performers felt as though Lear reached a stage where he realizes what life is all about, what the world is all about, what people are all about. They saw this as Lear taking this first step into the Sufi traditions, and so he sings a Sufi song.

Tell us about your work with Kashmiri youth.

My goal is to reclaim cultural space, to intervene through culture. So I organized a group of people: child psychologists, educators, painters, film-people, artists, creative writers, and we started helping children through the arts. We did four or five creative workshops.

How did the workshops start?

I gave them a lot of colors to paint with, but at the beginning, they painted only using one color, someone only green, another only brown. They couldn’t see the colors in front of them, even though they live in such a colorful valley! So I had to devise new exercises, new methodologies, to get them to start enjoying culture, to teach them to see color.

What did the children create as a result of these new ways of thinking?

They shared a scroll many feet long to create their paintings. It took them almost all day to paint it, and then we held it up and all the kids stood there with their eyes wide open. There were all kinds of things: peacocks, boars, and huge lions. It was a wonderful mural painting. I told them to find stories in their painting. Out of one scroll they came up with 10 different stories. We weren’t telling them anything; it was all their imagination! And then we said: now enact a play out of this. And then they started to write songs for the play. There was one girl who by the end of the program was writing poetry and then singing those poems.

Tags: Arts News