Book Excerpt from Theatre & War: Notes from the Field by Nandita Dinesh

Theatr2 copy
Nandita Dinesh places Kipling’s ‘six honest serving-men’ (who, what, when, where, why, how) in productive conversation with her own experiences in conflict zones across the world to offer a theoretical and practical reflection on making theatre in times of war. This timely and important book weaves together Dinesh’s personal narrative with the public story of modern conflict, illustrating as it does, the importance of theatre as a force for ethical deliberation and social justice. In it Dinesh asks how theatre might intervene in times and places of conflict and how we might reflect on such interventions. In pursuit of answers, Theatre and War adopts the methods of auto-ethnography, positioning the theatrical practitioner at the heart of conflict zones in northern Uganda, Guatemala, Northern Ireland, Mexico, Rwanda, Kenya, Nagaland, and Kashmir. No longer a detached observer, the researcher and practitioner has to be able to meld theory with practice; to speak to ‘doing’, without undervaluing the importance of ‘thinking about doing’.
The range and scope of this book make it required reading for those interested in theatre―practitioners, researchers, and students alike—as well as those seeking to understand the applications of the arts for ethics, politics, and education. 
Pick up your copy on our website here, with a limited time 10% discount and free shipping.


Being Indian has always been a big part of my identity. At fifteen, at an international high school, my Indian-ness began to be brought to my attention. At seventeen, as an international student in the United States, my nationality came to define me some more – questions like “Why do you speak English?” and “Do y’all still ride on elephants?” stoked the fire of my new found patriotism. At twenty-four, it was this Indian-ness that brought me home after years of nomadism. Coimbatore, Pune, Ahmedabad, Paud, Thrissur, Mussoorie, Dimapur, Kupwara, Udaipur, Imphal, Kohima, Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Bhavnagar, Nasik, Madras, Anantnag. Each of these places was a part of this all-encompassing ‘India’ to which I felt I had to return. But after spending my first month in Kashmir, I realized that this list of places needed to be edited.


 “It’s only for the Indian government and armed forces”, I was told. “We have nothing against Indians like you.” Indians like me. Indians who are nationalistic in our own right. Who pay taxes to support that government and those armed forces that you say oppress you. Maybe you don’t intend to include me in that statement that has been spray-painted across many walls in the city. But somewhere, somehow, I am one of those Indian dogs. And it is impossible for me to not take that personally. As evidence of my own culpability within what is often described in Kashmir as an ‘occupation’.


I had never heard Kashmir being described as an occupation before my trip there in 2012. I had heard about the movement for a free Kashmir but had assumed, in all my ignorance, that this was just one more group like those who were pro-India or pro-Pakistan. One more group to add to the confusion surrounding Kashmir. There is so much I didn’t and don’t know about ‘Azadi’, the movement toward independence that most of the Kashmiris I met clamour for. There were of course the few who greeted me as a fellow Indian, who said their freedom fighters were a bunch of clueless agitation junkies. But I cannot deny that these pro-India folks were a minority amongst the Kashmiris I met.


The more I see it, the more I say it to myself, the less it affects me. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.


I look at the army officers who patrol the streets, who man the check posts, who stand around beautiful rice fields for ‘security’ reasons. They look so young. So, so, young. And I wonder. Do these boys know what they are fighting for? “Do you know what you are here for?” I wanted to ask these soldiers. But I couldn’t seem to do it. Because I didn’t know what that one action could trigger. In an atmosphere that was fraught with tension and fragility, every action had a potentially disastrous consequence.

The snow-kissed hills and cloudy peaks surround what seems to be an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. “What are you doing here?”, “Why do you want to teach theatre?”, “What are you getting out of this?” Three weeks in the valley felt like a year. Surrounded by a claustrophobic male gaze, it was difficult to not attribute paternalistic social customs to be the shortcomings of a particular religious philosophy. Difficult to not look at everything, from washing clothes to taking a bus, through the gendered lens of being the ‘weaker’ sex. Difficult to just be…. The girls I worked with, the men and women I interacted with, everyone, seemed to be constantly unsure of what was acceptable and what was not. Is this against the religion? Or the culture? Or the politics? Or the government? Or the freedom movement? The categories overflowed:

The twenty-nine year old who loves pelting stones at soldiers from the Indian army.

The fifty-five year old National School of Drama graduate who runs a theatre academy.

The thirty year old who sells guns to the same army that his closest friends detest.

The teenage girls who love dancing. But cannot in public.

The thirty year old who detests the Indian government but understands his arms dealer friend’s business.

The twenty-two year old woman who single-handedly runs a home for vulnerable girls.

The six year old who screams “Azadi” (Freedom) during the rehearsal of a play. Completely out of context.

The twenty-four year old police officer whose biggest problem is the antiquated police jeep he has.

The thirty-year-old journalist who talks about censorship.

The sixty-four year old who has a case pending against him at the Supreme Court. For sedition.

The fifty-eight year old who hates my blue jeans.

The sixty-one year old Kashmiri Pandit who can never return home.

I went on my first trip to Kashmir thinking of it as a reccie – a first trip to lay the ground for future theatre projects. And like many of my other experiences, I woke up every morning with one question: “What can theatre really do here?” Having taught theatre for a year prior to this trip to Kashmir, I had come realize the value of long-term, multi-disciplinary approaches to learning. Just theatre itself can’t do much. Just a three-week project can’t do much. But when art understands the wider context in which it is situated, and uses its position within that context to negotiate the possibilities it contains, that is when things begin to happen.

So I returned from that trip to Kashmir with a little more certainty.
Certainty that there was/is a space for my theatre work there.
Certainty that there were complexities about the context that I had not even begun to understand.
Certainty about my own insignificance in all of it.
And certainty that this experience, this journey, had challenged every part of my being ― the part that was/is defined by my Indian-ness, by my femininity, by my being an artist.

After years of wandering around conflict and post-conflict zones, observing from the vantage point of an outsider – here was a war that was personal.

There were possible consequences to every one of my actions: writing about the experience, going back to Kashmir, making a theatre piece about Azadi, staying silent.
Every action had a consequence now.
A possible price attached.

Suddenly, here was a war that was personal.


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