Text by Jehan


It’s Monday morning at 7am. I awoke groggy after a night of celebratory wines following the end of my first major tour as an assistant director with the Song Company – the vocal ensemble I had been undertaking an apprenticeship with for the last year and who had been my family for the last few months. The tour had been a massive undertaking: shadow theatre and a cappella music in collaboration with Melbourne based shadow puppeteer Steven Mushin put together from scratch in just over five weeks with two weeks of touring Brisbane, Newcastle, Wollongong, Canberra and Sydney. The development and tour had been an exhausting experience for everyone in the company but in typical style just 14 hours after the curtain closed on our final performance in Sydney I was boarding a plane bound for Bangalore to begin the first stage of development of The DAM(N) Project.

Everything and nothing was organised for the trip. We knew who to meet and when but where was always a hazy thing as many of the protesters would change city overnight based on new news, or a major court ruling. We decided to stay in Bangalore for a day to gather everyone together for our first briefing.

Shakthi, Leah and I were staying on that first night in Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka and home to our collaborators Attakkalari – one of the best contemporary dance companies in the world. Things were planned in my head, and I had made nearly 20 key contacts over the previous 12 months of research…but nothing was booked ahead or set in stone mostly because my experience of India in past trips was that it was a place where what you plan is mostly meaningless. Besides, opportunities in India are something that reveal themselves like tarot cards (that is, even when you’ve been dealt them, you don’t really understand what’s going on). Hence I figured our time would be best used focussing on finding the contacts who could draw me maps on the back of cardboard and send us in vaguely the right direction into the heartland of the Narmada Valley. It tends to stress people who are not used to this mode of travel and even I had an impending fear that we would end up travelling into the most remote parts of India only to find nothing but deserted/submerged villages. But I made sure I had my little black book with all the numbers and addresses I could possibly need, a bag full of recording equipment and all my essentials (which included several boxes of Australian chocolates shaped like koalas…yes not even I can resist kitsch chocolate when I see it) and I was on my way.


I still haven’t really explained what the hell were we doing there…

So to fill everyone in, we were about to embark on a trip into the heart of India’s middle state Madhya Pradhesh in search of some of the most significant socio-political activists in India’s post-independence history – those involved in the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). The group that was travelling included Shakthi Sivanathan, the director of digital film and media company CuriousWorks and our film guy, Leah Barclay, an independent sound artist and composer working on a series of international collaborations, Sylvester Mardi and Meghna Nambiar, two young dancers from contemporary dance company Attakkalari and of course myself at the helm. It was a mammoth task finding the right people for the job, and even worse trying to find a common three weeks where we could all undertake the first phase of development. But it happened, somehow…

I ask myself “why choose the NBA?” sometimes. There are a lot of major social struggles going on in India. It’s always been a place of change with many losers and a few winners in every era. But the NBA was different. They were the first organisation to change THE question being put to the political class both domestically and internationally…the question What KIND of development do we want and at what cost? Even to this day World Bank Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) don’t consider corruption, environmental damage or social impacts as a mark of success or failure for large scale development, merely that the project has a concrete (literally) outcome.

Well, 2011 marked the 25th anniversary of the NBA’s official formation and the beginning of a collective struggle for democratic rights by a then disparate group of Adivasi and Dalit tribal people in the largest and most complex democracy in the world. They were fighting for their lives which were about to be (and eventually were) submerged following the building of nearly 3000 dams across central India with submergence zones across four states. The movement would become a symbol for the unending power of peaceful protest in an increasingly turbulent and violent democratic political climate.

There’s all lot of excellent journalism surrounding the dams and the internal displacement of nearly 30 million people who were economically internally sustainable and producing food (see India Together). But we did not set out to arrive and retell the same stories. We came to celebrate the movement which has inspired other movements within India and across the developing world. We came to tell the other stories that came out of the movement – those of self-education, self determination and shared success for a forgotten people who have fought to create a new and brighter future.


So back to my story of being hung-over and sitting on this plane bound for India. Shakthi, Leah and I had all agreed to meet at a tiny inner city motel decadently named TAP Gold Crest. The hotel was a funny little 60s establishment with a sweetly smelling rubbish tip opposite. I was glad to arrive because the one thing I was desperate for was a hot shower which the motel had. When I arrived Leah was already there…in the shower, fresh from a residency she was understaking in Kerala as part of her Backwaters Artlab as part of her project Remanent Emergency. This was her first hot shower in several months and I think seeing each other on the ground in India for this project after a year of research and planning was thoroughly revitalising for both our battered souls.

Shakthi rocked up an hour after I did around 1am Bangalore time and after a few big smiles and hugs we all turned in to bed. SLEEP!

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