On Bhopal, Memory & Theatre with Rahul Varma & Rohan Kulkarni

An email exchange with Montreal-based playwright and theatre director Rahul Varma and Rohan Kulkarni, a Toronto-based theatre critic and professor.

Rahul Varma’s “Bhopal” holds space in the Canadian dramaturgical canon as an international response to the gas explosion, and a living work of history that can be kept alive in ways that journalism is often denied – by remembering, and revisiting.

Published in Volume 1, Issue 4 of The Sparkplug
December 2020

LK: It’s been 36 years since the Bhopal tragedy. What is the significance of marking the Bhopal disaster for you, and what do you think about the way the disaster has been retained in public memory since then?

RAHUL: The consequences of the Bhopal disaster are intergenerational. Many young girls who survived the 1984 explosion are grown women now and giving birth to horribly deformed babies. Who would have thought that babies would be inheriting deformities from their own mothers because the mothers were forced to inhale poisoned gas three and a half decades ago? Thousands have become disabled and suffer the ravages of respiratory disease, madness, cancer, and other unidentified illnesses.  Many born after the explosion are born with severe birth defects and disabilities.

While the Bhopal disaster continues to torment people, neither the defunct Union Carbide nor its new owner Dow Chemical, and nor the successive US and Indian governments have adequately addressed the problem. Grass root activism, NGOs such as Sambhavna Trust, and environmental justice organizations such as Greenpeace have kept the memory and lessons of Bhopal alive.  In the field of arts and culture, Teesri Duniya Theatre is among the few theatre companies that have kept memories of Bhopal alive.

LK: How would you characterize the way the disaster has been retained in public memory—especially abroad, where people benefit from the products produced by such chemical factories?

ROHAN: Growing up in India in the 1990s, I remember Bhopal being a significant part of the conversation as the country opened its doors to corporation after Western corporation, desperate to keep up with the speed of globalization. Bhopal was still somewhat fresh in people’s minds – a warning about the potential human cost of India’s economic competitiveness. In the international context, the Bhopal gas disaster has unfortunately not been retained over the decades.

It hasn’t lived on in public memory in the way, for example, Chernobyl has. No award-winning HBO series have been made about Bhopal. This is especially sad when you think about the fact that the disastrous effects of the explosion are still unfolding.

LK: Tell me a bit about your personal motivation and experience composing Bhopal?

RAHUL:  I first learnt about this explosion from television reports in Montreal. I saw images of mass destruction of lives – Bhopal city was littered with dead bodies and bodies gripped in pain. These horrifying images of destruction relayed directly into our drawing rooms hugely disturbed me. It raised the question “why did this have to happen”, and then “how do I respond?”

The quest for response was precipitated by the image of a child named Zarina, which I saw in a documentary film called Bhopal: Beyond Genocide by Tapan Bose and Suhasini Mulay. The film traced the 18 days [of the] short life of Zarina, who was one of thousands of babies born after the explosion.

The film showed the heart-wrenching body of Zarina – her heaving ribcage and her collapsed heart that could be seen through the lesion on her melting skin. Her autopsy report said, “Poisoned in her mother’s womb”.

I asked myself if Zarina had lived longer, how would she describe her pain? Well, she didn’t live and at 18 days, she was too young to say anything.

What could have been said, then, became my creative response culminating in the form a play, Bhopal which was later translated into Hindi as Zahreeli Hawa by iconic director, the late Habib Tanvir. It was also translated in French by Paul Lefebvre and in Punjabi as Khamosh Chiragan Di Daastan by Kewal Dhaliwal.

LK: Catastrophes like the Bhopal pesticide plant explosion tend to fade from memory quickly, even though their consequences remain for decades—seeping into land and water, absorbing into our bodies, and poisoning the air. Here in Canada we can think of the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster which spilled crude oil in the Eastern Townships only a few years ago, or the persistent pollution of Limoilou, a neighbourhood in Quebec City where heavy metals are blown from the city’s nickel-transporting port. Sometimes the extent of contamination from such disasters, and the consequences on all forms of life in the polluted environment, are not immediately evident. What do you think about this aspect of the “slow time” of a catastrophe, where the real damage may not be known until many years after?

RAHUL: The consequences of industrial disasters, environmental catastrophes, nuclear explosions, and radioactive spills are long-lasting, intergenerational, and often not known because the multinationals collude with the state and withhold information.

Dow Chemical was commissioned by the US government to produce napalm and Agent Orange during Vietnam War, little is known about its consequences. The dreadful consequences of MIC continue on lives of those who “survived” Bhopal disaster.

There is a similarity in Lac-Mégantic oil spill, and other such disasters, such as BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, with what happened in Bhopal. But there is a difference when it occurs in a developing country like India vs. when it happens close to home or the Western world. For example, Canadian Government acted on Lac-Mégantic oil spill and rebuilt the town. Similarly, President Obama ordered a criminal investigation and forced BP to set aside 20 billion in clean-up fund. In contrast, no such measures were taken in the case of Bhopal disaster and Agent Orange case.

No industry should be able to operate unless short and long-term safety has been assured.

LK: Your play confronts the difficult reality of industrial conglomerates providing what they call “opportunities” for employment. It’s a delicate balance—rejecting the influence, interests and exploitation of multinational, private companies and their polluting industries, while actually developing opportunities for economic development and common enrichment of a community. How do you reconcile this contradiction?

RAHUL: Economic development does not have to be at the expense of people’s safety and loss of life. Multinationals are interested in maximizing their profit, not developing economies. So, under the banner of developing economies and helping the poor, they eradicate the poor and pollute air, water and soil.

Lives and the health of people become the cost of such development.  The Bhopal disaster of 1984 and the disaster at the garment factory in Bangladesh in 2013 – as well as famine, drought and soil erosion in between – confirm that respect for life and human rights are not at all concerns of the multinationals. 

Plays like Bhopal remind the public what governments ignore, examine what is kept off public discourse and value human life over profit.

Photo by Raghu Rai via Bhopal Medical Appeal.

Rohan Kulkarni writes how “[n]eocolonialism manifests itself in the attitude of wealthy Indians towards the suffering of the poor in their immediate surroundings, because they are able to compartmentalize their empathy to focus on maintaining a good relationship with the American corporation.”

LK: Could you talk about how economic divides and caste play into the integration of Union Carbide into the community, and the response of the Indian government in the aftermath? 

ROHAN: The economic and social elite in India profit off the exploitation of marginalized communities as much as Western corporations do. These are the people who are on the ground, navigating local bureaucracy and opening doors for companies like Carbide.

Economic and caste divides play into how much the government decides to prioritize the wellbeing of those being affected by the exploitative practices of Union Carbide. Once the government is adequately lobbied, the promise of economic investment is presented to the public as a no-brainer, even if it risks the safety of a certain segment of the population.

The discourse of progress is rampant and everyone wants a piece of the pie. Poor and largely illiterate people in slums are baited with the promise of wages and work to get them on board.

And if things go wrong, as they did in Bhopal, their lives are sadly not seen as valuable enough to warrant decisive steps to prevent further damage. The fact that in the aftermath of 1984, Union Carbide wasn’t ruthlessly prosecuted and driven out of the country for good, tells you all you need to know about who matters more to the Indian government.

LK: Responding to Rahul Varma’s play, you also mentioned how “Language thus becomes the main tool of oppression” in the play, describing how the “top-down language of progress is employed by neocolonial powers to influence local leaders, who then convince the masses”. This hierarchical diffusion of information from authorities to the public is universal to governments that repress information to obscure who holds decision-making powers, and ultimately avoid accountability. Could you talk a bit about this dynamic of language?

ROHAN: The process of globalization in the world’s largest democracy had to be snuck in with effective messaging – there was no other way. Following the economic boom and Green Revolution, conversation in government and the media was focused on India now being ‘ready’ to open up its economy and finally come into its own as a key player on the world stage.

Bhopal was a part of this. Politicians effectively argued for increased trade liberalization and relaxation of regulations, which led to a series of economic policy reforms throughout the 1980s. Detractors were told that if India didn’t wholeheartedly welcome foreign investment, it would lose out to neighbouring China and other developing countries.

This ‘race to the bottom’ was positioned as India needing to maintain its competitive edge. But when things went wrong, language was equally effective in obfuscating the truth of what happened in Bhopal. Between numerous lawsuits and investigations, various levels of government essentially found ways to blame each other and confuse the narrative. This was to the detriment of those seeking help and justice in the critical years following the disaster.

LK: The previous issue of The Sparkplug looked at the nationalist movement in Kashmir—and the revocation of the state’s autonomous status by Narendra Modi’s government last year. Less often discussed on this side of the Atlantic is the role of British partition in dividing territories and defining contemporary India…but also, the impact this has had on New Delhi’s control over regional development. Bhopal had also sought independence following British partition, but was ultimately integrated into greater India. In what ways has this shaped industrial and economic development in Bhopal?

RAHUL: Colonizing countries leave but not without leaving behind a painful legacy – ethnic strife and divided people. India was split into India and Pakistan along racial/religious lines. Yes, some princely states tried to separate but lacked support of the population, thus Bhopal remained integrated into India. However, the industrial and economic development of Bhopal had more to do with what Bhopal offered to the multinational than its one-time desire to separate.  What Bhopal offered to the multinational was a well-built railway network, constant supply of water, cheap labour force and inflow of migrant workers, and above all lax safety laws.

There can no longer be any doubt that industrial disasters are a direct outcome of capitalist accumulation for the benefit of rich and upper classes, leaving ordinary working-class citizens in despair, poverty, and poor health within their own houses.  To prevent this from happening is an urgent need, but the greater need is to dismantle the system that produces such disasters.

Methyl isocyanate tank. Image via Bhopal Medical Appeal.

LK: Bhopal is one example of documentary theatre that engages with an urgent and persistent humanitarian disaster, which, as we see, has not gone away. And documentary theatre is ultimately an aesthetic form of journalism or non-fiction narrative. 

Journalism has increasingly been starkly separated from engagement with cultural discourse, and more broadly from “the masses”. It’s a consumer product whose creators, more than ever, emerge from an academic ivory tower that mechanically generates talking heads for the mainstream media. Yet, engagement with artistic and cultural milieus is, arguably, essential to “good journalism”—that is spirited and inspired, and connected with the humane pulse of society (and possibly even well-written).

We can think of Chris Hedge’s comprehensive depiction of political theatre in the U.S. – in his book The Death of the Liberal Class – and its engagement with civil rights movements in the late 60s and early 70s. Many of the productions and companies, from Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre, and Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s The Living Theatre, to the Open Theatre founded by Joseph Chaikin, as well as the Bread and Puppet Theatre and Theatre for the New City … All of these were at the forefront of social movements, including the civil-rights and Black liberation movements, protesting the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War. How do you see the role of political theatre today in social discourse, and its relationship with journalism, and agitating the masses? 

RAHUL: First, to the question on documentary theatre – as you say documentary theatre is an aesthetic form of journalism, and there are theatre companies across the world totally dedicated to documentary theatre.

But the play Bhopal is an imagined play based on a historical event. I created an imagined, rather than a documentary, play to dig deeper into the social and political angles, and examine the politics and power-relationships that caused the disaster rather than the disaster as the outcome.

As Picasso’s proverb goes:

“art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

And thus, in Bhopal the truth behind the social and political conflicts was extracted through the personal lives of play’s characters.

To the question of, role of political theatre in social discourse and its relationship to journalism … Political theatre is decidedly aimed at social change and there is no end-point; need for change is an ongoing thing. There is an unbreakable dependence between political theatre and change, in its alignment with social justice and struggles against powers that deny human beings their dignities. Political theatre is primarily concerned with power – how people struggle against oppressive powers. Theatre is a site of subversion, where the struggle for human dignity and justice is staged.

Now, about the relationship to journalism – journalists are best equipped with the knowledge of reporting political events. And I would put theatre reviewers/critiques in this category. But ironically, more often than not, these critiques make a distinction between a political theatre and apolitical drama, favoring individual stories full of me, me and me rather than stories of power-struggle. Journalists have to truly treat political theatre as an aesthetic form.

ROHAN: This is really the question, isn’t it? I think political theatre is more important than ever, and I wish we had more of it happening. Theatre, as a medium, is particularly well equipped to combat the rampant misinformation and shoddy journalism that characterizes the current moment. Given the liveness and proximity of theatre, that is, you’re physically in the room with the storytellers, it’s much harder to get away with things mainstream media does.

The audience also has a chance to respond in the moment and question the version of events and viewpoints presented by theatre, which is certainly a more empowering position than the one-sided relationship we have with our TV, phone, or computer screens.

There’s a reason documentary theatre performances are incredibly well researched and concerned with ethics in a way that Facebook or Fox are just not.

ROHAN: Agit prop isn’t really the flavour of our times anymore, so a Living Theatre-style performance would likely fall flat and feel bizarre.

I think documentary theatre appeals to audiences because of its attention to detail and its casting of audiences as active witnesses to the event being depicted. In that sense, the conversation is less about agitating the masses and more about implicating them in the injustices of today, and advocating for a change in consciousness.

LK: And yet, where is the momentum for activist-theatre in Canada? We can definitely look to austerity measures that have impacted everything from public arts funding and artist grants, to skyrocketing rental fees, to a lack of appeal or accessibility of theatre to the working class—but that didn’t stop activists from these earlier mentioned projects. Why do you think that is?

RAHUL: Conformity! That simply means they do not understand, and therefore respect the power of theatre.

ROHAN: Continuing from my previous thought, it feels like activist theatre has evolved into a more subdued, intellectualized exercise. Political theatre is happening on our stages and in our communities, but its aesthetic has changed. Of course funding is a part of this because arts organizations are ultimately beholden to public funding bodies, corporations, and wealthy individual donors – none of whom are particularly interested in supporting radically disruptive works.

But I also think the public isn’t looking to theatre for its activism. Activism, on the other hand, has become increasingly theatrical. Activists know exactly what to do to get the public’s attention, how to make things go viral and appear on every single screen in the country, how to build and control a narrative. It’s interesting to see this shift happen.

As evidenced by the widespread protests across North America this summer, activism hasn’t gone away. Song, dance, and powerful performances, led by Black and Indigenous activists, have been an integral part of these protests. This activist theatre might not be staged in traditional theatre spaces or performed by ‘theatre artists’ as such, but it is happening where it matters the most – in our streets.

Rahul Varma

Rahul Varma is a playwright, artistic director of Teesri Duniya Theatre, and co-founder of alt.theatre: cultural diversity and the stage. He writes both in Hindi and English, a language he acquired as an adult. Some of his other plays include Land Where the Trees Talk, No Man’s Land, Trading Injuries (a radio drama), and Truth and Treason. His plays have been translated into French, Italian, Hindi, and Punjabi. Rahul is the recipient of a special Juror’s Award from the Quebec Drama Federation, a Montreal English Critic’s Circle Award for promoting Interculturalism, and the South Asian Theatre Festival Award.

Rohan Kulkarni

Rohan Kulkarni is a PhD student at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies. He holds an MA in Drama from the University of Alberta and a BA Honours Double Major in Theatre and Political Science from York University. His research interests include intercultural performance, South Asian theatre in Canada, community engagement for the arts, and production dramaturgy. Rohan has taught as a sessional instructor at the University of Alberta, hosted pre-performance talks and panel discussions for Edmonton Opera, worked as a production dramaturg, and contributed program notes for several theatre and opera performances.