I am what I am; I will be what I will be.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

“Who the Hell is Registrar to Run My Dream?”

When the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Department of Sociology presented South Asian University’s first theatrical performance on 26 April 26 2012, ‘The Birth of Dreamers’, the aim was not to create the century’s best crafted play in Delhi and look for awards. On the contrary, the aim was to help establish a space for creativity, which up to now is by and large absent in the university. True enough, one cannot establish institutions and their best practices overnight. In our context, the usual words used to describe that absence is “teething problems”, which I personally think should be banished from our institutional vocabulary and may be even from the English language, if that would help. 

Open air rehearsals; Photo: Dev Pahak
I have never believed that limits could be imposed on the act of trying and the worlds of anticipation. Though conventionally the creation of such a space is considered to be part of the general responsibility of a University’s central structures, there is nothing to stop an individual faculty, a department , a teacher or student to  make an effort; to take the risk; to spend the time. But of course one can do so only if a certain degree of selflessness can be expected from the movers and shakers of such ideas. And pioneers cannot be shackled by conventional wisdom or short-term hurdles. It would have better served my colleague Dev Pathak who came up with the idea if he had spent the time reading what sociologists usually read and churning out a few papers thinking of his own academic future and promotional prospects. Such a focus in the long run would have also helped the department climb a few notches up the zillion institutional grading scales that now haunt the known academic universe. The director Tarique Hameed who has nothing to do with the South Asian University must have quite possibly lost his own money in training our young people in the art and craft of acting, diction and everything else in between. But then, he had the passion and the creative madness as did other members of his team to spend the time and energy on a project that captured their imagination with no anticipation of profit. That naturally made a significant difference.  On the other hand, the Department of Sociology made a crucial decision early on when the drama workshop and theater production program was being planned. Though initially planned for its own students, a decision was made at the outset to expand its scope beyond the department and beyond the Faculty of Social Sciences. This allowed students from departments of Computer Science, Economics among others to become part of the effort if they had the interest.  It also helped that the measly budget requested was unhesitatingly and quickly approved by the president of the university. It was also quite heartening to see that many academics, students and administrators had come to watch the event.

Open air rehearsals; Photo: Dev Pathak
I do not intend to explore the logistics of this endeavor or to review the play. I would rather think a bit about dreams; their capacity and the worlds they might open up. The power of dreams which I have always believed in came back to my mind not when I read the title of the play displayed in the elegantly designed posters that were smiling at us from many of the walls in the university, but when one of the characters uttered the words “This is my dream, and the university will be mine too; who the hell is registrar to run my dream; who the hell is registrar to run my university.” It also reminded me of an essay I wrote for my regular column ‘Alternate Space’ (The Island, Colombo) in February 2002 titled ‘A Land where Dreams have Died.’ That was based was on the experience in a southern Sri Lankan town where economic difficulties, lack of facilities in schools and the entrenchment of an uncreative and dogmatic system of education had effectively dried up the capacity to dream of an entire generation. They were prisoners of their times and circumstances. And what was most shocking was that they were unaware that their dreams had been expelled; banished from their collective consciousness. I am convinced even when the ravages of time would take a toll on my memories, the land where dreams had died would continue to haunt me. 

Theater exercises; Photo: Dev Pathak
Theater exercises: Photo: Dev Pathak
But that reality is not something peculiar to a distant Sri Lankan village or to other such remote localities in the rural hinterlands of the wider South Asian landscape. It is entirely possible a similar situation might exist right here in Delhi today; it is more than possible that such a state of affairs may exist within our own institution. What would our world be like if the youth amongst us merely whispered sweet nothings to their test tubes imprisoned within their glittering labs assuming they have conquered the world? What would life mean to young minds whose collective experiences hardly extended beyond their romance with software and hardware, which knitted both their personal and professional lives together? How would the world manifest to a generation whose points of reference are dictated by a wilderness of pie-charts and predictable data sets and the mantra-like memorization of reams of court judgments of bygone eras? What kind of citizens would we usher into the world if we encourage our young people to assume that rote-taking of classroom material and ritualized seminars by well groomed academic performers would bring the intricacies of global power-play into their systems of reckoning? Would the endless revisiting of Marx, Weber and more recent pundits take the young ones amongst us anywhere close to reading contemporary society and culture? If this our reality or if this is where we are headed, I would suggest it is a clear recipe to ensure that the dreams of an entire generation would not only be killed, but that the capacity to dream itself would be forgotten. That is what conventional education lacking in both wisdom and imagination would bring. That is why the limits of conventional knowledge need to be understood by those who teach as well as those who learn.

Birth of Dreamers; Photo: S. Perera
 Now let me get back to the play itself and what it means. The entire rhetoric and the politics encapsulated in the words, “this is my dream, and the university will be mine too; who the hell is registrar to run my dream?; who the hell is registrar to run my university?” needs to be read in the context outlined above. It is not a simple pot-shot at a person or an office. I believe we are not on the business of pettiness. It is an utterance impregnated with meanings about the nature of education and imagination in our times; in our immediate circumstances. Quite literally, if our capacity to dream is stunted due to limitations of our educational approaches as well as resources, we would end up creating a brave new world in the Orwellian sense which has lost sight of its humanity.  In the simple one act play packaged within twenty minutes, the young characters who proclaim to be dreamers in their own right resist limitations and structures imposed on them by institutional rituals and expectations. For them, it is unacceptable to dream in tune with politically based associations in society as well as formal structures of entities such as universities. They want to dream on their own as they feel fit in spite of the divisions and borders enacted by caste, creed, ideology, market, and other forces. For the dreamers who want to be free, these vested interests or dream merchants of our times are merely conventional systems that limit their capacity to think. This does not mean that the dreams of individuals and institutions will always be oppositional; in fact, there can be many instances when these converge. The bottom line is that the play is an ideological statement about the capacity of the individual and certain collectives to think free of hindrances and expectation of others. After all, doesn’t thinking start with the ability to dream? 

Birth of Dreamers: Photos: S. Perera
As I said at the beginning, the play was produced not to seek fame or to win awards but to create a certain kind of space in the university. Hopefully that space has been demarcated and would be used more often in times to come. We have tested what is possible and have come to grips with where we stand and what needs to be done. The future is not about revisiting the realm of possibilities that has already been visited and captured. It is about transgressing the borders of what is possible into the veritable impossible, and making those domains our own. That can only come through the ability to dream and not through regular classes or accepting what exists as inevitable. In times and circumstances where frustration seems like one’s own shadow and anger manifests as an alter ego, I thought my own capacity to dream had disappeared. It was no accident that a writers’ block exhausted my creative impulses over the last two months where I could not write a single poem despite the thoughts gallivanting around in my mind. I must thank the young dreamers for letting me know that my own capacity to dream is still intact despite the odds and helping lift my writers’ block as the soft rays of the morning sun would expel rain clouds.
Birth of Dreamers: conclusion; Photo: Tarique Hameed
Birth of Dreamers: post conclusion celebrations; Photo: Tarique Hameed


  1. For what the play is worth, the endeavours of Dr. Pathak and yourself to facilitate such a space for expression, and, the zealous persistence with which you do so is incredible.
    That ' Birth of Dreamers' would stand to define the incipient psychological infrastructure of SAU is beyond doubt.
    In the hope that the space to dream would survive and outlive the excuse of the University being yet inchoate. That the Birth of Dreamers steers the course ahead...

  2. This is Dev’s effort and that of the people he put together. I was merely a spectator with a camera and a notepad. But I do hope I could continue to be a spectator in many more such events in times to come. SP