Within the culture of India, there is a class of people so oppressed that they don’t even register within the nation’s theoretically abolished caste system.
During the fall 2009 India Abroad, seniors Anna Procter and Tabea Mangelsdorf lived with, interviewed, and researched the Dalit people, and crafted a series of monologues and songs to commemorate their experience.
On Wednesday of Week 10, they will perform “Untouchable Voices,” the culmination of their work, for the last time in the Black Box Theater.
Mangelsdorf and Procter first shared this performance with the campus on Saturday of Week 1. “Untouchable Voices” was so well received that the pair decided to schedule a second performance.
Procter said: “It was beautiful. The whole way along we had just been terrified … We just had no idea if it would work or if it would come together.”
Mangelsdorf and Procter first researched Dalit culture during the spring quarter before their abroad. Procter said that scholarly research was replaced by personal interviews once they arrived in India. Procter added that as soon as they started their interviews, it seemed necessary to change their intellectual or ideological questions in order to get more meaningful responses.
Mangelsdorf said one scene from “Untouchable Voices” depicts the struggle of asking very complex, entirely research-based questions to people who often didn’t speak any English. Of course, Procter and Mangelsdorf worked with a translator, but as Procter said: “Our questions were just all wrong. You have such a different perspective from the outside than you do on the inside. First of all, we had to learn what the real questions were.”
Procter said that most of the interviews used as inspiration for “Untouchable Voices” were conducted in Udaipur, a city in the Northwestern state of Rajasthan. She added that wherever the group traveled she spoke with sweepers, who were all members of the Dalit class. According to Procter, there are four or five colonies of Dalits in Udaipur, several of which she and Mangelsdorf visited during their stay.
Even within the Dalit community, there is a sense of hierarchy. Most Dalits do manual or “unclean labor” that no one else will do, including cleaning toilets, slaughtering animals for food, and repairing shoes. However, Procter said their translator was also a member of the Dalit class, but was able to interact with other Indians and study at a university in the city.
During their home stay, Mangelsdorf and Procter were placed with a Dalit family. They soon found that none of their new family members could speak any English.
“It definitely pushed our limits in a lot of ways,” said Procter. The pair stayed with a core family of 12, not including the many friends and visitors who were often around. As Mangelsdorf put it, they slept “like sardines” in two small bedrooms. “There was nothing physically comfortable about the whole affair,” Procter said.
At the same time, Procter said she witnessed “[an] amazing sense of family and fellowship” in that home. She said she came to appreciate the rhythm of their lives and the fact that the family was so willing to share what little they had with foreigners.
Most India abroaders were required to translate their research and interviews into long papers, but Mangelsdorf and Procter wanted to do something different from the very beginning.
Mangelsdorf said, “I think Anna and I always wanted to combine our art with our passion for social justice.” She later added, “You always want to raise awareness, but people are so immune already to all the things they read.”
Mangelsdorf said she thought it might be easier to reach people through the arts. Procter said, “We knew we wanted to do something performance-based.”
She added that while her peers worked on their papers for several days, she wrote a collection of ten monologues and Mangelsdorf wrote several songs. Although Mangelsdorf and Procter are performers, neither of them had experience writing their own songs or monologues before working on this project. Mangelsdorf said it was difficult to look through over 80 pages of notes from her interviews and choose just one concept for a song.
Mangelsdorf said she was unable to compose music in India because she didn’t have access to an instrument during their stay. She worked mainly with lyrics and rhythms while abroad.
Although Procter and Mangelsdorf wrote the rough material for their presentation while in India, Mangelsdorf said she changed some of her lyrics when she returned from the trip. She also decided to include more vocals and both violin and bass accompaniment, and wrote parts for each of those instruments.
Through weeks of observation and conversation, it became clearer to Mangelsdorf and Procter that what they were learning needed to be shared with a broader community.
Mangelsdorf said, “These people poured out their hearts for us.” Procter said, “It’s just important and beautiful to share these stories; to just get a window into a way of life that’s so completely different from your own.” She added that Dalits are not paid any attention in their own country, much less in the United States.
Mangelsdorf also believes in the power of sharing these stories with people who might not otherwise know about the oppression and mistreatment of Dalits. She said, “Once you meet the people [involved in an issue], you actually really care.”
Mangelsdorf said that it was difficult to write songs about the issue without sounding “preachy.” She added, “I think the message will be different for everyone … We don’t want to tell people how to feel.”
Despite the fact that Procter and Mangelsdorf did not create “Untouchable Voices” to deliver a specific message, Mangelsdorf said she hopes the performance will educate others about the humanity of the Dalit people. Mangelsdorf said, “You can see something really special and beautiful in every person.”
She added that, despite our perceived differences, “We all have fears and feelings, and hunger and thirst.”
The last performance of “Untouchable Voices” will take place at 9 p.m. on Wednesday of Week 10 in the Black Box theater.