By Shruti Devgan
What happens when speech becomes impossible? Is there any way to speak of unspeakable experiences? Kultar’s Mime, the first and only theatrical representation of the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in India, provokes these questions. This year, thirty years after the cataclysm, the play is an attempt to give some form to the incoherence of severe pain and loss.
This theatrical representation of 1984 begins with small groups from the audience successively led onto the stage. They step into a simulated art exhibition, a haunting raga, or melody, playing in the background. Eight paintings hang in the exhibit including one blood splattered portrait of the assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, another of the frenzied mobs that attacked Sikhs and killed them mercilessly by putting tires around the necks of Sikh men and burning them alive as kinswomen were forced to watch in helpless horror, and portraits of the four children whose stories the audience will hear later in the words of the poem “Kultar’s Mime.” The poet and co-director of the play, Sarbpreet Singh, wrote the poem in 1990. Kultar, Billoo, Angad and Ranoo, the protagonists of the play, exist only as dim apparitions. The story of one is the story of another, each one’s story the story of an entire community.
The paintings form the backdrop of the play and act as a medium to convey experiences that defy language. In viewing them, the audience comes face to face with untold and inexpressible horrors. The play’s artwork draws you in as you yourself are drawn onto the stage and intrigues even before the actors can begin telling us more. The tears flowing down one little boy’s face, the noose tied around the neck of another, the bloodied handprints running all over a little girl with vacant eyes that have seen too much, and the girl who remembers but would do anything to forget. What transpired was a fate designed for a community by a state and its functionaries. 1984 was the orchestrated decimation of a community.
I am a graduate student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, in the process of writing my doctoral dissertation on digital memories of 1984. Sikhs are piecing together their direct and indirect experiences of history in and through digital media. They are finding new and innovative ways of contesting narratives constructed by the Indian state and state-controlled media. When Kultar’s Mime was staged at Rutgers on October 12, as part of the production’s larger North American tour, I was eager to witness this dramaturgical retelling of the terrible events of that year.
1984 was the first state-sponsored sectarian massacre of a religious minority in India. Yet, what happened in 1984 was not an isolated set of events. Starting in 1978, Sikhs had become embroiled in various political maneuverings and machinations with the federal state. While the Sikh leadership, including the controversial leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, were also figures in this political power play, the Sikh community bore the brunt of the suffering. Their punishment took two main forms. First, the state and mass media told a distorted story of Sikhs as “outsiders” in a “Hindu nation-state” who deserved the hostility with which they were being treated. Sikhs were blamed for their own victimhood. Second, the Sikh community at large was targeted in two separate but related episodes of massive violence, described below.
On June 1, 1984, a brutal military assault, code named Operation Blue Star, was launched on the much-revered Golden Temple where pilgrims had gathered to celebrate one of the most important events in the Sikh religious calendar, the martyrdom anniversary of the fifth (of ten) Sikh Gurus or teachers. The ostensible purpose of the attack was to purge the complex of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers, but it led to the indiscriminate killing of thousands of pilgrims.
The gruesome loss of life and damage done to the Golden Temple complex harmed the Sikh collective body irreparably. To capture Sikh sentiment after the assault on the Golden Temple, the famous Sikh novelist and columnist Khushwant Singh wrote, “Things have never been the same again. Sikhs who had nothing to do with Bhindranwale or politics felt deeply humiliated.”
The end of Operation Blue Star was also the beginning of another spate of state-initiated atrocities against Sikhs. In one state action called Operation Woodrose, young Sikh men were attacked and disappeared. In the name of pursuing Bhindranwale’s followers, the Indian army carried out a long-term attack on Sikh youths between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five.
On October 31, 1984, in retaliation against this sustained suppression of Sikhs, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s two Sikh bodyguards assassinated her. Not all Sikhs condoned Gandhi’s assassination, but there had been a premonitory understanding among both Sikh and non-Sikhs alike that the June invasion of the Golden Temple would have catastrophic consequences. The assassination precipitated a state-backed massacre of Sikhs in India’s capital city, Delhi, and other parts of north India which began on the evening of October 31, 1984 and lasted through November 4, 1984. More than 3,000 Sikhs died in the violence aided and abetted by prominent leaders of the Prime Minister’s Congress (I) government. All Sikhs were affected by the carnage, but the economically dispossessed and marginalized suffered the most. The extent and impact of the horror was not acknowledged until later, at which point, the Indian state dismissed the violence as “riots.”
“1984” became a taboo subject for everyday Sikh community members in India at the same time that it became a kind of shorthand, symbolizing the tensions between the community and the state, state-inflicted civilian atrocities and abuses in Punjab and state impunity. The state and mass media circulated stories that constructed a narrative to blame, shame, and stigmatize the community. A militant movement for a separate Sikh state emerged as counter-narrative. While this movement was powerful, and deserves to be contextualized and understood in its own right, it also proved inadequate at translating the difficult and painful experiences of the community.
In the early 2000s, Sikhs in the diaspora began to expand existing narratives and talk back to dominant representations of 1984, especially in and through digital media. Kultar’s Mime is part of this larger narrative turn in how 1984 is remembered and memorialized.
Kultar’s Mime is more than a play. It is a jolt, a powerful nudge to the complacency of the Indian state and media. It is a voice of dissent against the state and against silent submission by those inside and outside of the Sikh community. More specifically, the play is a journey into the wounded world of the children of the October-November carnage. The play thaws the frozen experiences of extreme loss and despair of the Sikh community at large. The actors effectively depict the inexpressible pain of muted victims and survivors of 1984 in haunted verse combined with melancholy, melodious music.
The five actors – four women and one man – recreate the sense of 1984 more than the events themselves; feelings take precedence over facts. Sometimes the audience loses the thread of the weighted and heavy words being uttered so swiftly, yet they remain enraptured. What’s more, the actors manage to enact the very different roles of victim, perpetrator and bystander all at once in the single short act in which the play unfolds. Their transitions from one role to the next are both effortless and emphatic. This element of the play especially raises deep, complex questions about the thin boundaries between compartmentalized categories and how individuals and groups can morph from one to the other.
No one in the cast or production team is Sikh or South Asian, a fact which reflects the complexity of representing the story of 1984. As Boston-based Sarbpreet Singh explained, the shortage of South Asian actors in Massachusetts necessitated choosing an all white cast and crew from different religious backgrounds. Does it take away from the Sikh experience? If anything, I think these actors’ presence and performance is an important way to start telling the story of 1984 as a specifically Sikh experience that also should be connected to other traumatic memories. As sociologist Arlene Stein points out, many different groups invoke the Jewish Holocaust as an interpretive framework for finding language that can translate common experiences of collective trauma. Kultar’s Mime gives us a way to think further about this kind of translation work.
In fact, the point of departure for Kultar’s Mime is the memory of another mass killing, the pogrom against Jews in Kishinev in 1903. In his poem “In the City of Slaughter,” Haim Nahman Bialik, a famous and important Hebrew poet, wrote of the pogrom against Jews in Kishinev. In it, he describes the three-day long violent attack on Jews that killed 49, injured 500, destroyed 1,300 homes and businesses, and left 2,000 families homeless. In Kultar’s Mime, a group of young Jewish artists in New York City decide to commemorate the Kishinev pogrom by organizing an art exhibition accompanied by a reading of Bialik’s poem.
While preparing their memorial, they come across the “Black Book,” a document put together in India in the immediate aftermath of 1984 by civil rights organizations wishing to implicate the state and its officials in the massacre of Sikhs. They decide to remember and write the two massacres in same ink by including images of 1984’s devastation in their show.
Kultar’s Mime does not return to the Jewish pogrom after the first few minutes of the play. There could have been a way to thread together the pogroms of 1903 and 1984 later in the play, but for a predominantly Sikh or South Asian audience, this lacuna is easily glossed over.
1984 continues to haunt Sikhs and this haunting resonates across generations. Sarbpreet Singh’s poem Kultar’s Mime was first adapted into a play by his daughter Mehr Kaur. I did not get a chance to speak with Mehr Kaur, but in my academic research on 1984 I have been speaking with “second generation,” or descendants of “first generation” survivors and witnesses of 1984. These second generation Sikhs were either born in the diaspora or have spent their formative years outside of India. Their intimacy with the trauma of 1984 is the product of many factors, including the importance of the panth or Sikh community and its sacred memories, both glorious and grim. While the first generation grappled with feelings of shame and fear inflicted upon them by the state and its media, the second generation, growing up in various diasporic contexts, did not internalize the same feelings. They have engaged with 1984 and in doing so highlighted the question: Who tells the story and what version of it is circulated?
Kultar’s Mime evokes the terror of 1984 without being inflammatory. As Sarbpreet Singh explains the play is about “making a statement.” It is not so much a cry for justice as it is for something even more basic than that, registering feelings of loss, pain and rage, denied to the community so far in the distortions woven by the Indian state and mass media. It is a restrained and dignified retelling of a past that cannot be laid to rest, only remembered and honored with reverence, and serve as a cautionary tale for the future.