Kultar’s Mime Review

Review by Jasleen Singh

Photo 1-9 by MP Singh (www.mpsinghphotography.com) Kulatar’s Mime at Stanford
Photo 10-17 by Pushan Vij (www.bhuvan05.wix.com/pushanphotography) Kulatar’s Mime at Berkeley

Live storytelling is an art form that cannot be replicated on film or captured within the confines of a book. Telling a story on stage must effectively reel in the hearts and minds and senses of the audience, all at once. There is no bookmark for a stage production; no returning later when the narrative gets too messy or too difficult. And Kultar’s Mime was difficult. It screamed in the face of an audience, some all too familiar, some not at all, with the horrors that accompanied the 1984 genocide of Sikhs in Delhi.

We began the evening by being guided onto a stage in groups. We have entered an art collective and are given time to gaze over the artwork there. I see a boy with a noose, a depiction of a beautiful abstract tree that looks like it is dripping more with blood than with the vibrancy of life, and a nonchalant face of Indira Gandhi framed by a chunni filled with skeletons and outlines of human hands and faces desperately asking for help. These images set the background of the play that follows.

We take our seats, the theater goes black, and the play begins. We are introduced to the anxieties of Jewish youth feeling as if they bare the burden of genocide alone. Who else could understand the atrocity of being persecuted, not for what you have done, but for the unchangeable truth of who you are?

Sikhs. Of 1984. Of Delhi.

We are taken to Delhi and introduced to 4 people, or rather, shells of people once whole, once normal. Kultar’s Mime is premised on a transient back and forth of narratives of 1984 and present day. What happened then and how those three days of purging created the characters we see on stage now. The logistics: Indira Gandhi is assassinated. Rajiv Gandhi comes to power, saluting his new country with a proud smile while giving orders to extinguish Sikhs below. The politicians conspire. There is a darkness that befalls the theater, flashlights darting around us. There is chaos, madness. Get the Sikhs. They did this to our beloved Mother. Find them. Here are lists of where they live. Go. Get them. Kill them. Abuse them. Render them worthless.

First, a hanging. Then, a man lit on fire with a tire. Next, rape. Each repulsive act starts slow, calm almost. And yet, we know what is coming and we cannot get up from our seats. Each story escalates, quickly. No scream was too loud, no action too convoluted. It was with this unrestrained depiction of emotion that we as the audience could even attempt to understand what was done to our Sikh brothers and sisters. This is what sets the production of Kultar’s Mime apart from other portrayals of 1984. The play harnessed the purpose of the “mime” – to portray a story through gesture, movement, and facial expression. The emphasis was not on any prop, but the expressions themselves. I have heard stories, I have seen movies, but I have never been faced with pure arresting movements of victims, of the families, of the daughters and the fathers of 1984 quite like this production.

Kultar’s Mime left us quiet, thinking, digesting, angry. It was less emotional harm that I felt, and more shock. A truth played out before me, rather than remembered.

The question and answer session that followed allowed me to unwrap my thoughts, to contextualize what I saw with what I had known. These stories were heavily based on narratives recorded in Veena Das’ Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Each story was based on fact.

White actors had told stories of my Sikh history, a history I was still struggling to call my own, but had been so wholeheartedly embodied in these five magnificent white actors on the stage before me. The notion was at first difficult to reconcile. And quite frankly, still is. However, perhaps it is because the white characters on stage were not white Americans, but rather, young Jewish men and women who also have genocide in their history. The final message of the play – “We will not forget you” – comes from characters who understand the pain, who have perhaps been left shells themselves from the violence and the blood of their ancestors. Thirty years does not heal wounds that cut so deep into the psyche of a people that they have been left shells of who they once were, of who they could have been.

This burden of persecution is not held only by the Jewish in Nazi Germany or by Sikhs in 1984 Delhi. It is held by Armenians in 1915 Turkey, by Tutsi in 1994 Rwanda, by Muslims in 2002 Gujrat, and the list goes on. The night I watched Kultar’s Mime, outside the doors of the theater was a march raging in the streets of Berkeley, CA in protest of the non-indictments the officers who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Their deaths were a symbol of an American justice system that routinely disempowers black and brown bodies. What does it mean to never get justice in a country that is meant to be home? This is what Kultar’s Mime asks us. And it answers us in the form of characters who used to be whole humans. The victims are not just those who were killed, but those who witnessed what happened. Systematic, cyclical injustice traumatizes generations of the future.

I am again reminded of those last words – “We will not forget you.” Let us, as Sikhs, not forget ourselves. Let us not forget our own history. However, as the play reminds us that we are not alone in our trauma, we cannot forget to stand with others who have experienced and continue to experience trauma of their own.

Kultar’s Mime is sponsored by the Sikh Research Institute. For more information about Kultar’s Mime, as well as upcoming performances, please click here

Jasleen Singh is the Director of the Sikh Monologues and currently a first year at Berkeley Law. She is passionately invested in projects that create safe spaces for women and dedicated to mitigating the effects of institutionalized racism through civil rights work and criminal justice. She is devoted to coffee shops, traveling, and the concept of storytelling.

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