As a member of the audience, your engagement with this immersive theatre experience begins when you enter the hall in small groups. You walk onto the stage, past paintings in front of which four actors sit or stand, reading silently. In the background runs the recording of a haunting alaap in Raag Tilang.

Later, you realise that each actor is placed near the painting of the child whose story he or she will tell.

The striking paintings by Evanleigh Davis, an undergraduate at Smith College, represent her response to Sarbpreet Singh’s long poem Kultar’s Mime, written in 1990, about the massacre of Sikhs in India after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her on October 31, 1984.

In the ensuing four days of violence, marauders killed over 3,000 Sikhs, injured, raped and traumatised numerous others, burning down homes, businesses and destroying property.

Davis made the paintings for an amateur production last year when Singh’s daughter Mehr Kaur, then a freshman at Smith College, decided to dramatise his poem at her former high school in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, in the Boston area.

Singh didn’t think it would work. The youngsters who took on the project thought otherwise. And they proved him decisively wrong.

The pogrom

On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the 1984 carnage, Kaur’s play has developed into a professional production that she co-directs with Singh. Enacted by artists from The Applejus Collective and powerfully choreographed by movement designer Poornima Kirby, the minimalist production features four children affected by the violence. The performance characterises the violence as a pogrom (“po·grom - n. An organised, often officially encouraged massacre or persecution of a minority group”), and not, as the official and media interpretation labels it, a riot.

The production incorporates elements from a long poem that Singh chanced upon last year, about the 1903 pogrom of Jews in Kishinev, capital of Bessarabia, Russia. Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik’s In The City Of Slaughter tells the tale of three days of violence that killed 49 Jews, injured 500, destroyed 1,300 homes and businesses and left 2,000 families homeless.

Singh was struck by the similarities of these bloodbaths, 81 years apart. Kishinev too was no spontaneous riot. The bloodshed was preceded by libel, innuendo and propaganda aimed at stoking hatred and fear.

The pattern is visible in other incidents too, like the Gujarat massacre of 2002 that Singh writes about elsewhere.

“The not too subtle point,” he says, “is that in the end, all innocent victims are the same, regardless of how they worship God and what tongues they speak.”

Linking the violence

The current production of Kultar’s Mime opens with a collective of young Jewish artists in New York City discussing plans to commemorate the Kishinev pogrom with an art exhibition and a reading of Bialik’s poem. Coming across the Black Book, about the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in India, they decide to link these two little-remembered cases of organised violence.

You are transported to Delhi, “Yamuna-paar” to the poor locality of Tilak Vihar, one of the sites of the 1984 bloodbath. The children’s stories unfold through the observations of the narrator (Allison Matteodo), and their own re-enactments of the violence they survived.

Ten-year old Kultar (Michelle Finston), a deaf-mute, plays in the street with nine-year old Biloo (Christine Scherer). They seem normal enough – until something triggers memories of unspeakable horror. The other two are the blind teenager Angad (Addison Williams) and the 19-year old Rano (Cat Roberts), traumatised into shadows of what they once were.

Singh’s poem does a fine job of humanising the children, their playful sides providing touching contrasts to their suffering.

The actors “own” their characters superbly, with powerful performances that moved many in the audience to tears in the show I attended in the Boston area.

Human duality

Each actor also doubles as a villain and perpetrator – a stark reminder of the duality of human nature; an individual can be a perpetrator as well as victim.

After the gripping hour-long production, the cast and production team sit down for a discussion that feels necessary after the intensity of the experience you have been through.

In a follow-up conversation later, I learn that Singh’s own journey – from an apathetic young man who initially accepted the propaganda that the targeted Sikhs had somehow “asked for it”, to the rage that he pours out in Kultar’s Mime – is intrinsic to the story.

Growing up in the border area of Sikkim, away at college in Rajasthan in 1984, and being “one of those Western-oriented people in India who live in a bubble”, he initially didn’t feel affected by the violence, he tells me.

There was also, he notes, the class element: “Most people who suffered and died were very poor. I'm ashamed to say I didn’t identify with them.”

Not least, there was the pervasive narrative by the state-run media that cast Sikhs as the villains. Many Sikhs, particularly outside the Punjab, carried a burden of “collective guilt” for years, says Singh.

His personal transformation began after leaving for the US in 1987 for a Computer Science degree. Away from the propaganda, he began to educate himself. His university library yielded a copy of a publication he had only heard rumours about – The Black Book, banned in India. This booklet, titled ‘Who Are The Guilty’, by The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (then headed by Rajni Kothari) and The People’s Union for Democratic Rights, documents the carnage and its perpetrators. It impacted him tremendously, along with Madhu Kishwar’s report ‘Gangster Rule’ in her groundbreaking magazine Manushi, and anthropologist Veena Das’ paper ‘Voices of Children’ in the journal Dædalus, based on interviews and field research in Delhi.

Based in the Boston area, Singh works in the technology sector, while also writing poetry and short stories, and pursuing a passion for Gurmat Sangeet.

He never got anything published, but would quote from his works at speaking engagements and while teaching young children at Gurudwara-run programmes. Years later, those seeds are yielding fruit as the children he mentored, now young adults like his daughter, take up the torch.

Kultar’s Mime, in partnership with the Sikh Research Institute, ran to full houses at Harvard University and at The Armory at Somerville (Boston area) at the end of September.

Kultar’s Mime is also heading to India, where it will play in Delhi (November 1), Chandigarh (November 2), and Amritsar (November 4).