In Mumbai, if you happen to spot a group of people dressed in glaring red saris or robes, with faces painted white, you might want to stop for a second. They’ll be dancing, miming, or enacting a scene. Or maybe they’ll just stand and stare at you. Turns out, they’re not an avant-garde performance art, but a group that makes guerilla interventions at public spaces in the city to raise awareness about arguably the most trending topic on our news feeds: the climate crisis. They’re called The Red Saree Brigade (RSB) and have been formed by the India chapter of the global and famous environmental movement called Extinction Rebellion (XR). The group made their first appearance on October 13.
What does wearing red saris have to do with climate change, you might wonder. We did, too.
The RSB was hugely inspired by The Red Brigade in London, which was created by the Bristol street performance group called the Invisible Circus in 2001 to protest the Iraq War. The performers wore red or crimson materials, and their faces were painted white to symbolise “living statutes”. Soon it joined hands with XR and is now spread across Europe and Australia. The movement, by its sheer visual representation, has become a powerful one.
Most of the philosophies that the RSB follows are borrowed from its Western counterpart—straight from the colour red that signifies blood and life, to the aspect of making a striking presence in public spaces. However, the group feels it is important to put it in the right geographical and cultural context. “The use of red in India has been around for a while. There’s a prevalent cultural thing to wear red saris in India,” Rayyan, a Mumbai-based XR activist and a member of the RSB, told VICE. “But overall, red signifies life. Red also signifies the blood that’s going to flow if we don’t act now. People think it’ll happen in a few years, but the truth is that we’re already seeing it happening around us.”
The group also wears green bindis to complete the ensemble, the colour signifying the environment. “Traditionally in India, red bindis are worn and they also have a cultural and religious aspect to it. So we wanted to bring in a play of all those elements. The idea is to keep it traditional and culturally relevant,” said Rayyan. “Also, even though it’s called The Red Saree Brigade, it’s not only saris; it also includes other traditional wear such as salwar-kameez or dhotis and so on.”
Street theatre as a form of communication is deeply rooted in the Indian traditions, with social messaging being disseminated through dramatic performances in public spaces. It was only natural then that XR would take on this artform, known for its long-standing association with rebellion and dissent. Interestingly, the RSB also took to the streets for protests against the felling of trees in Aarey Colony to build a car shed for the Mumbai metro project, last week. A day after activists were detained for protesting against the cutting of trees, a scheduled XR performance in the city was censored by the Mumbai police in order to discourage any mention of Aarey.
Additionally, the Mumbai authorities also imposed Section 144 in and around Aarey Colony of the Indian Penal Code (that bans unlawful assembly) to restrict environmental activism of this kind. In India, Section 144 can be imposed if there’s an assembly of more than four people in the area. So how, then, must a group such as this, which is so conspicuous by its presence, raise awareness without getting arrested?
“We’ve spoken to the Deputy Commissioner of Police and he’s told us that these days, we will not get permission for any kind of protest or meeting related to environmental issues. He told us very nicely but firmly that if we do something, they will have to come and pick us up. They don’t want to, but they will have to,” said Rayyan.
Hence, in their first performance, the group had not more than four people, while the fifth person, Rayyan himself, took over the job of taking photographs. “Our legal team has told us that as long as we’re not a group of more than five, we can still go ahead,” said Rayyan. “When we were at the Haji Ali Junction, the police did not interfere. They looked at us from afar. But we wanted them to come over and ask us what we’re doing because we want to have an open relationship with the police in the city. We want to tell them what we’ve planned and ask them for their advice on how our work can be achieved. We see the police as part of the citizens who are getting impacted. We’re not the only ones experiencing climate crisis, they definitely are too.”
The group also acknowledges that unlike in other parts of the world—such as in London, where extreme actions have led to mass arrests and even a ban on the group—India may not be ready to “disrupt things”. “We also don’t want to risk the lives of people who want to continue talking about issues such as Aarey. We do feel that Mumbai doesn’t want to remain silent and this is why, a creative way to highlight problems, but using drama, art, and colours, is the right way,” he said. The troupe is currently working towards expanding to other parts of the country and plans to create interventions every weekend.
It’s also important for the collective to subtly propagate the idea that environmental activism in India is not a Western construct, as many believe. We asked Rayyan whether the focus on rootedness to Indian traditions (they plan on including classical dance performances to the itinerary soon) is in light of the stigma that comes with being seen as an outside influence, considering XR started out as a civil disobedience movement in the United Kingdom. In 2015, the Indian government cracked down on a slew of environmental groups for acting as “foreign propagandists and foreign agents.” The cautionary tale and the stigma is not lost on the group.
“At XR, we’re a completely voluntary organisation, and we don’t get paid. But we’re very careful and we know that stigma exists.,’” said Rayyan. “This is why we localise our events and see what’s relevant here.” However, the biggest challenge, perhaps, for the group is to convince people of the severity of their cause. “More people are aware of our situation but defining this as ‘climate crisis’ is something that’s not happened in India. An Adivasi tribe knows that our grounds are parched and there’s flooding. Farmers know that droughts are happening. But, despite it all, people are not able to connect these disasters as a climate crisis. This is the connection we are trying to build.”
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