Healing on the World Stage
Over the summer, Devika Ranjan (SFS ’17) lived along one of the world’s most dangerous borders with an important task at hand. Armed with nothing but a grant from the Catherine Davis Foundation, Ranjan was working on a peace-building project — one that did not entail moderating dialogue between opposing forces or campaigning against pro-conflict government factions. Instead, she was conducting theater workshops.
Ranjan spent her summer in Manguchak, a small town just 500 meters from India’s border with Pakistan, teaching theater in communities impacted by insurgency and, more recently, earthquakes.
Ranjan paints a chilling image of the forlorn village, which is tucked away in the country’s most violent corner, assailed by shelling and saturated in fear. It was here that Ranjan became a fixture among the town’s women, working methodically to unpack the conflict’s psychological impacts.
Although theater played a large part in her life prior to Georgetown, Ranjan decided that while at college, she would focus on her political passions and put aside her interest in the arts.
“I thought that the arts should be a hobby,” Ranjan said. “I thought, while at Georgetown, I should capitalize on Georgetown things, like politics and international relations.”
However, Ranjan soon stumbled upon an opportunity that combined both of her interests in March of her freshman year: a panel discussion concerning the use of theater in conflict zones. The seed was planted.
Ranjan approached the panel’s representatives afterward and they encouraged her to work on a community theater project in Afghanistan. After Afghanistan was ruled out due to safety concerns, Ranjan set her sights on Pakistan. The biggest challenge she faced was convincing her parents to allow their only daughter to travel through a country that has had conflicts with their country of origin, India.
Theater turned out to be a possible solution to this conflict. During her sophomore year, Ranjan helped choreograph an on-campus show for the Lahore-based Ajoka Theatre group. According to Ranjan, after her mother watched the Pakistani actors perform, she “made the connection,” exclaiming: “They’re just like us!”
The performance played a key role in determining Ranjan’s path: Not only did it push her parents toward supporting her travel plans, it also gave Ranjan faith in the healing power of theater.
“It was step one in affirming that the arts can change people’s opinions of what’s happening,” Ranjan said. “The performance altered a decadeslong prejudice.”
While the Ajoka show won over Ranjan’s mother, it did not do much to convince Georgetown of Pakistan’s safety in order to secure a grant. She overlooked the roadblock and headed to South Asia with a Raines Fellowship in tow and a mission to witness the theater community’s healing in action.
For three months during the summer of 2015, Ranjan travelled throughout India and Nepal, setting up intimate theater workshops in struggling communities.
Working in post-insurgency — and more recently, post-earthquake — Kathmandu, Nepal, she learned about the ways small group performances help unpack community tensions. Playback theater, a type of performance in which actors on stage perform the stories of audience members, was an especially helpful tool for reconciliation.
After a summer of hopping between villages, Ranjan was not quite ready to return to the comforts of campus. In the interest of furthering her study of conflict zones, she headed to Palestine in the fall of 2015, on a leave of absence from Georgetown. After encountering opposition in Bethlehem, she left for Berlin, giving her insight into a different kind of conflict: the migrant integration.
Upon arriving in Berlin, Ranjan worked as a translator at a medical clinic for refugees after her friend, a Kurdish refugee, encouraged her to apply. Ranjan was stung by the city’s anti-immigrant stigma and dismayed at the lack of mental health resources available to asylum seekers. Despite her clinical setting, Ranjan’s faith in the arts as a tool for healing persisted. From Berlin, Ranjan applied for a Project for Peace Grant, and less than half a year later she was in the shell-shocked community of Manguchak.
The independent nature of Ranjan’s project allowed her to dive deeply into the community’s struggles and to formulate major conclusions about the complicated issues surrounding the effects of poverty, insurgency and natural disasters.
By operating daily workshops for the town’s female population, Ranjan unearthed the conflict’s dark underbelly. The regular shelling had created a culture of fear among town members, which encouraged opium abuse and alcoholism, and in turn lead to widespread domestic abuse. As national newspapers reported diligently on border skirmishes and the conflict’s political developments, women faced the conflict head-on each evening when drunken husbands came home unhappy.
While many factors can contribute to the prevalence of domestic violence and substance abuse in any area of the world, Ranjan is firm in her belief that the shelling is largely to blame for the town’s most pressing troubles. She argues that it has not only perpetuated constant fear, but has also stagnated the economy, producing financial frustration and excess idle time. For Ranjan, the conflict tested her own limitations.
“Because I was a foreigner, the community assumed I must have the answers, and I didn’t,” Ranjan said.
While Ranjan was not able to abate a decadeslong disagreement from Manguchak, she was able to have a serious positive impact on the community’s interrelations. By bringing women together on a daily basis in an intimate and safe environment, she inspired a kind of collective women’s movement. Before the workshops began, the town’s women hardly knew each other; relegated to domestic chores, they bared their burdens alone. The workshops inspired the group to unite in their hardship and seek a communal solution.
“Now that they’ve gotten an excuse to come together, they’ve created a collective of over 100 women from neighboring villages,” Ranjan said. “They come together each week to discuss means of financial independence, from things like creating a sewing center or packaging mangos.”
Looking ahead, Ranjan intends on studying conflict resolution and the ways to handle this problem.
“I want to learn more. I’ve seen a lot of roadblocks, but I’ve also seen this form of theater work,” Ranjan said. “I’d love to do human rights field work, using theater but also other methods to understand people and advocate for them.”
Ranjan’s work has had a global audience, but can serve as a lesson for Georgetown students as well.
“When nothing is going on, do random things that you wouldn’t find any nominal benefit in,” Ranjan said. “That’s what got me wandering to that panel. That’s what encouraged me to think that even though theater might not get me anywhere, it could be something really interesting.”