Nandita Dinesh is the most radical, intelligent and progressive theater professional you've never heard of.
Born in India, she attended United World College in her home country in the early aughts. From there, with a keen interest in acting and human rights, she pursued a masters in performance at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and earned a practice-based research doctorate degree in drama from the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
That's about where it got wild.
Motivated to do more than just act and be an activist, during her PhD program, she decided to combine the two, exploring how theater can both work within a context of trauma and explore societal ills. But not through conventional means like playwriting or even experimental performances; Dinesh wanted to actually get inside her audiences' thoughts via durational performances that could last up to 24 hours. She blended politics, education, critical empathy and unconventional activism to explore how experiences—not just sitting in a seat and staring at a stage—can actually change the lives and brains of audiences, whether she was working with genocide survivors or rich Indians, incarcerated juveniles or middle-class Santa Feans.
Dinesh started her groundbreaking work in Rwanda and has worked and researched in Kenya, Northern Ireland, Guatemala and many other locales around the world. Her seminal piece was Chronicles from Kashmir, a highly controversial project presented in her home region in 2013. She began teaching at the New Mexico branch of her alma mater, UWC in Montezuma, in 2016, but realized last year that she needed to strike out on her own and pursue her experimental passion full-time through her own organization Theatre. Immersion. Education. (theatreandjustice.org).
That brings us to 2019. Dinesh has built You & Distant Wars, an educational installation in downtown Santa Fe—opening Friday May 10 and available to visit weekends through May 31—which explores the conflict in the region of Jammu and Kashmir, on the borders of India, Pakistan and China. She discussed with SFR what led to its creation.
The installation presents Santa Fe with a unique opportunity to explore the unknown in many ways: Meet Dinesh, who's flown under our radar for too long; experience an educational installation, the likes of which we've never seen; learn about a region likely few of us could point out on a map; and explore why the conflict in South Asia might matter to us in the Southwest.
How did you come to this very specific field of experiential theater in conflict zones?
For my bachelor's, I did theater and economics. … As a former United World College student myself, part of the notion of that education is asking you to see how everything can serve a larger purpose. So when I discovered my passion for theater, it became a case of, 'Okay, where can it be more useful? Where can it intervene?' And one thing leads to another, and spaces of conflict are where many artists want to intervene, or where not many people think there is art, because it's a war. And then you go there and you realize there are people still making art; they see it as a need, not as a luxury. That drive kept pushing me forward.
You consider Chronicles from Kashmir, which you started in 2013, your seminal work.
It's been my most ambitious project to date; the notion of creating a 24-hour performance and living with audience members—and the censorship that came as a result. We thought of ourselves as a group of small-time people doing a small-time project, and to see the establishment react to that in such a severe way—that, in both positive and negative ways, taught me a lot about the world and censorship and art.
Okay, so first, give us a quick crash course about the conflict in Kashmir.
The shortest way to describe it is that it's a struggle for control of land between India, Pakistan, China and Kashmir. What you'll often hear is that it's a struggle between India and Pakistan, and that's the narrative in which I grew up, but the reality is there's a strong independence movement in Kashmir.
Historically, Jammu and Kashmir encapsulated three regions that are currently under India and two regions that are under Pakistan. Of the three regions that are currently under India, one of them is Hindu-dominated, one of them is Muslim-dominated, and one of them is Buddhist majority, called Ladakh. And there's an area on the Ladakh border that is in dispute with China. … What used to be Jammu and Kashmir is now three nation-states, and not only is it a question of which nation-state is staking claim, but groups of people within those areas want autonomy.
So what was Chronicles from Kashmir, in a nutshell?
I wanted to explore the gray zones of the conflict. A lot of times in the mainstream media, especially in the Indian subcontinent, depending on where you are in the country or where on the political spectrum, you hear a very polarized narrative; Indian army good, Indian army bad. Civilians victims, or civilians terrorists.
Yeah. So what I was interested in was, what are the spaces within these groups where it's really hard to tell who's victim and who's perpetrator—but at the same time, without downplaying the fact that it's civilians who face the brunt of it? … [During the 24-hour performance,] the audience goes from one space to another, and in each space, they encounter a different narrative. … But you can't inundate them with information. The information has to be presented in different ways. So we did a lot of research into adult learning; what are the time intervals in which people learn best? When do you have to start moving them because they've been sitting for too long? What are some cases in which you want them to feel bored?
Every vignette within the 24 hours is curated to show different perspectives, but also to invoke different pedagogies. In some, they're watching; … in some, they're in the action. And some of the spaces are exactly like what I'm going to set up in the Oxygen Bar, which are far more immersive installations. There are various exhibits that you can interact with in different ways. You can choose not to interact with them; you can choose to spend hours in them, you can choose to leave early. It's up to you.
How does that project inform what you're presenting in Santa Fe this month?
I'm obsessed with immersive aesthetics, and how those aesthetics get people to personalize things that would otherwise not be personal. In a city like Santa Fe, where there's clearly a difference between more privileged and less privileged people, and the people who are in positions of privilege have a ridiculous amount of privilege—and I count myself among them—how do we channel our resources and our empathy and our agency in ways that are truly critical and helpful and poignant?
So the larger question is: Why should what is happening in Kashmir matter to us here? One of the things that we discovered in looking at adult learning pedagogy is that adults learn best when they know why they're learning what they're learning. If you show them something about Kashmir and don't say why they might want to consider it in the context of Santa Fe, they're less likely to parse that information and store it. But if you say, 'This is why it's personal and these are ways in which you might remain engaged with this'—it's an interesting balance between indulging the self of the spectator but focusing on the other. …
We have a spreadsheet [of Chronicles from Kashmir] where we've analyzed, 'There are X number of scenes in which the civilians are being seen as victims, so I need to have at least one scene where the army is shown as a victim, because if I don't show that, Indians are never going to listen.' But if you read just one scene from the play and get pissed off by it, that's all it needs for me to get a charge of sedition, right? So that fear is there.
Sedition? What's that about?
If you engage with Kashmir as anyone in India, you're going to be surveilled. For a long time I was sure my phone was tapped. … [India has] these sedition laws, where they can easily put a treason charge on you. If you have a case pending about you, you can't leave [India]. … If someone files something based on something they read, [and I travel there,] they can keep me there indefinitely.
What is so challenging about Chronicles?
Chronicles is targeted toward privileged Indians—like me. And every time we've taken the piece outside of Kashmir, we've been shut down. We took the piece to Western India, the cops showed up. When we were doing the filming of the piece, we were essentially placed under house arrest. … When you delve into stuff that's really important, that really pushes boundaries, somebody's gonna shut you down.
What did that censorship look like for Chronicles?
(Laughs) Where to start? … There are various things that happened. There's the kind of censorship that happens in Kashmir, where people are just afraid of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. And my [pro-Pakistan or pro-independence] colleagues were uncertain of being associated with someone who's Indian, because then people might think that their associations are suspect. So there's an automatic self-censorship that happens. …
When we actually performed the 24-hour piece … the cops showed up, refused to read the script because it was too long, but they were taking decontextualized photographs that could easily have led to charges of sedition or potentially even arrest. We had to cancel our show. …
So that's when we said, 'Okay, let's just focus on getting the script out and the film, before we're officially shut down.' … And so finally, during the filming of Chronicles, for the first week, everything was fine. We were shooting at a school. But then I got an email from the director of the summer program that was hosting us that said, 'You've gotta be out of here by tomorrow.' … Someone in the town got wind that there were Kashmiri actors, and was threatening to use it to malign the school.
And where was the school located?
I'm not allowed to say. That was the deal, eventually. I crowdfunded half of it, and half of it was our own money, and it was an ensemble of 14, 15 of us—and I was like, 'I can't afford to take them back tomorrow.' … So I went to the facilities manager and said the only 'deal' I could come up with … was that we go into voluntary house arrest. There was one building that they had given us, up in the mountains, and I said we would film everything in and around that building. A couple of us will go to the cafeteria every day and bring our food up. No one will know that we we're still here. … We're not allowed to give [the school] any credit in the movie, we don't use any identifying material in the movie, we don't mention where we shot it. It's like we were never there. At the end of it, we were all just claustrophobic.
So, more specifically, what does the installation of You & Distant Wars look like?
Without giving away too much … there's one part that you can choose to experience what curfew might feel like; you go into a darkened room. … One of the beautiful things that happened in curfew was, despite the banality and the sitting in the house and hearing shit happening outside, is that people tell stories. So if you find yourself in this space with other audience members, there are prompts of how you might want to engage with each other. So that's trying to unlock some of the beautiful things that happened, despite the oppression.
There's one area in which you can read the script of Chronicles from Kashmir and drink some really nice chai. There's one station that is a game that … asks the spectators questions about linking Kashmir with the US and Santa Fe. … You can watch segments of Chronicles from Kashmir that we haven't released online, partly because we're scared to release them online. There are eight, 10 hours of footage. … And finally, before you leave, you're given the choice of signing up to be a pen pal with someone in Kashmir. … I'll hook you up with one of my friends in Kashmir, and you can take that relationship wherever you want it to go.
I want to make all of these spaces without beating people over the head with it, like, 'Donate to this organization, donate to that organization.' Because then my agenda comes into play. So I say, 'Okay, I'll pair you with someone who's actually in the thick of that situation, and you talk with them and decide what that means for you.' For me, 'success' might be you developing a lovely relationship with a theater artist that I've worked with in the past, and you going to visit them in Kashmir in two years. And then making up your own mind about what you can do.
On a different note, last year, Asylum, in which participants would assume the roles of asylum-seekers, didn't end up going down in Santa Fe. What happened with that?
People showed up. There were seven to 10 folks who came, a couple from Albuquerque. Part of what was scary to them was the time commitment. It was a durational performance; it was eight hours. And part of it was they were afraid that they would be viewed by the public as problematically taking on someone else's story. I tried to mitigate that—like, you know, 'Look, there are techniques I have designed over the years, we're going to break this down in rehearsal, we're going to problematize the content, and we're going to talk about how, in your characterization, you highlight those problems.'
But it was just this nervousness. I think in Santa Fe, a lot of people have faced critique for being appropriative when they have gone into something with good intentions, and that fear of critique is so strong. So I eventually ended up having to do it with my United World College students, because they were just like, 'All right, we'll try it, and if there's a problem, we'll figure out how to fix it.' Which is more the attitude I needed. … That's why I like that age group; 16 to 18-ish. They're not jaded enough by the world, and a critique to them is inspiring, because it makes them figure out what they believe and who they are—compared to us, who take critique so personally and it becomes damaging, in a way.
So participants' unwillingness to be hurt kind of derailed the whole project.
There's this interesting thing—I don't know if it's a US thing, or what it is—but this notion of being triggered by a performance, and that being a bad thing. At home, I don't remember ever issuing a trigger warning for anything. Even at UWC, if people got triggered, they left. If they had an issue, they'd bring it up to you, and you'd debate and talk about it and argue. But I think I'm learning too; here, people see the notion of being triggered as bad, and want to be prepared for it. One of the actors said, 'It's a little too triggering for me to do this.' And I said, 'Oh—and that's not a good thing for you? Ok, well, nothing we can do about that.'
When I first started this work, it was in Rwanda. During April, they have commemoration of the genocide, and one of the aspects [circa 2007] was they recreated what happened in the genocide. … And when they do that, there are people in the audience who have attacks of trauma, they start screaming and convulsing, and the Red Cross people have to take them out.
The first time I saw that, I was with my friend who is a survivor of the genocide, and I said, 'That just seems unethical, no? Why would you trigger people like that?' And he said, 'No, I think it's cathartic. I lived through that, and to be seeing that means it's still being remembered, we're still honoring that memory; and that release of emotion is troubling, but it's good.' And it's funny, because in that context, I was the one saying, 'Trigger! Trigger! Trigger!'—and in this context, I'm like, 'Why is everyone so triggered?'
So why a move to this kind of self-guided room, rather than ensemble performance?
I want to do more stuff that's solo. One of the big fears about censorship during Chronicles from Kashmir was that I was not alone; the risks were not to me alone. It was also to my ensemble, and some of them were 16 years old. I couldn't take on those risks, because it wasn't just me. In a way, the curation of these immersive spaces, if they work, is making the risk for me, and not for anyone else. That gives me a lot more liberty in what I can say and what I can play with.
Do you have fears about You & Distant Wars?
Right now, no. But as soon as the first South Asian-looking person walks in that room, I'm going to be scared. And that's fascinating to observe in myself. Even now, after so many years of going to Kashmir, there are people who think I'm a spy. And depending on which side you're on, I'm spying for Pakistan or I'm spying for India or I'm spying for the US. So if, like, a bunch of South Asians show up, I'll be nervous. But I won't do anything about it.
What's a parting thought you have for Santa Feans about You & Distant Wars?
You can spend as many hours in there as you want, which is why we're keeping it open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays throughout May. If you come in one day and you're like, 'Today it's too much,' then leave—or if someone comes in and they're like, 'I want to do the curfew thing today,' and just sit in there, they can.
I just hope folks show up. I want folks to be willing to take that leap. What I've heard from a lot of theater artists here is, 'Oh, we just have to be careful with our audience. They're used to a certain thing.' Which I get; so you have to build it in stages. This might not be building. It might be like, 'Go in there.'
You & Distant Wars
5-8 pm Friday May 10; noon-6 pm Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through May 31. $10. Santa Fe Oxygen & Healing Bar (Kaverns), 137 W San Francisco St., 986-5037