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Kathak depicts Bangladesh RMG workers' story

  • Published at 07:16 am January 16th, 2015

A German choreographer has tried to depict the scenario of the exploited ready-made garments workers of Bangladesh with her dance theatre production, Made in Bangladesh.

Choreographer and also theatre director Helena Waldmann used Kathak to narrate the stories of the thousands of RMG workers who are being exploited by the international clothing industry, reports India based Scroll.in.

More than 1,100 RMG workers died in Rana Plaza collapse in Savar on April 24, 2013. Much before Rana Plaza collapse, felt the need to tell the stories of the workers to the world.

She began interviewing factory workers in 2010 and after four years, Waldmann is ready to tell the stories with the help of her best known language-- dance.

Made in Bangladesh, is about the lives of the lowest rung of labourers in mass-production factories – the pressure and monotony of their work, their suffering and aspirations.

Waldmann makes fascinating connection between the sewing machines and the classical Indian dance form of Kathak.

She said: “I have de-constructed Kathak for this show, taken out its lyrical aspects and the bells on the feet. I am using the footwork and arm work as a tool to talk about exploitation.”

The internationally acclaimed choreography, is best known for addressing social and political issues through dance.

The idea of Waldmann's new production emerged out of a short trip to Dhaka in April 2010, when she noticed a group of “strange, scary buildings” on the outskirts of the city.

She said: “These were garment factories, in dark buildings with windows that wouldn’t even open. When I saw the factories and spoke to the workers, I realised that the garment industry in Bangladesh should concern the whole world, because we in the West are the ones behind so much exploitation in this country.”

The main problem, Waldmann points out, is that consumers around the world want to enjoy the fruits of the garment industry without taking on the real costs. “Everyone wants to wear the shirts stitched in the factories, but no one wants to pay the right price for it,” she said. "So workers’ wages remain low."

This made Waldmann draw an otherwise unlikely connection between the sweat shop of a factory and exploitative nature of the art industry, particularly in Europe.

“Increasingly in Europe, artistes are not allowed to open their mouths in protest and people are not willing to honour artistic work in an honourable way,” said Waldmann. “People want to go to theatres and access art, but don’t want to pay better for it.”

In Made in Bangladesh, the choreographer has depicted the exploitation of the art world through the symbol of a typical European dance studio, where dancers are expected to stretch their limits with minimal pay.

Adapting Kathak

Through auditions, the choreographer assembled a troupe of 12 Kathak dancers from across Bangladesh for the performance. The Kathak portions of Made in Bangladesh have been largely choreographed by Indian dancer Vikram Iyengar, who also performs in the show in the roles of a factory manager as well as ballet master.

While working on the production, Waldmann invited 12 factory workers to interact, one-on-one, with the Kathak dancers in the troupe.

“The workers shared the stories of their lives with the dancers, and we have summarised some of the stories to narrate in the show, almost in a documentary manner,” said Waldmann.

The exploitation that the garment workers spoke of, she said, is severe: labourers have to work between 12 to 18 hours a day and are often given just a few seconds to finish tasks like stitching a pocket onto a shirt. “They have to do thousand of such pockets a day, and if they don’t meet the target, they are made to skip meal breaks and go home late,” she said.

She added, “Although they dislike this system, the women in the factories told me that they are happy to be leading independent lives and be a part of capitalistic society. At first I was shocked, but then I realised that they are young, want to earn money like everyone else. For them, this life is still better than living in the countryside with no water or basic amenities.”

Made in Bangladesh, produced by Waldmann’s dance company Ectopia, has already completed a Europe tour and is currently touring India. The troupe performed in Thrissur, Kerala, on January 13, will be in Delhi on Saturday, in Mumbai on January 20 and Kolkata on January 22. Finally, on January 25, Made in Bangladesh will have its Dhaka premiere, where Waldmann intends to stage the show before garment workers, factory owners and other stakeholders from the clothing industry.