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Alumnus’s social justice play comes to Concordia

Sudhir Selvaraj wrote play about Bhopal’s gas disaster    

Spreading awareness of social justice issues, alumnus Sudhir Selvaraj will present his play on Bhopal’s gas disaster in the beginning of April in Barry Auditorium.

Following graduation in 2011, Selvaraj traveled back to his home country India to intern, which led to his re-discovery of Bhopal and its history. After interviewing citizens affected by the gas leak, Selvaraj wrote a play called “We All Live in Bhopal,” that demonstrates the need to strive for social justice. The play will be performed in Barry Auditorium on April 4 from 8 p.m. to 8:40 p.m. After the production, refreshments will be served and the audience can converse with Selvaraj.

What happened in Bhopal 30 years ago? More than 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas seeped from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killing at least 3,800 people instantly and injuring thousands more on December 3, 1984, according to Edward Broughton in his article “The Bhopal disaster and its aftermath: a review.”

Selvaraj grew up in India. His father is the director of Visthar and the dean of the Social Justice Peace and Development, also known as SJPD, program in India partnered with Concordia and Gustavus Adolphus College. With his father being the dean for over 10 years now, Selvaraj grew up with the program. After graduating, he became an intern for Visthar, a partnering program with SJPD, where part of his internship was to accompany students to Bhopal. In this part of the internship, he had the opportunity to talk with survivors, victims of the disaster, and activists. Hearing their stories, Selvaraj was moved to do something about their situation.

“When you hear conflict, you hear numbers—30,000 people died, 5,000 injured, something like that. You rarely get to hear, ‘I was in my home and then there was white gas and then I couldn’t move because of the number of people stampeding to get out of the city,’” Selvaraj said. “You hear these stories and they always stay with you, they’re the more hauntingly beautiful parts of tragedies and conflicts around the world you won’t ever hear unless you’re looking for it.”

To collect as much information as possible, he worked with activists and non-government organizations from around the world. He has also done personal interviews and in-depth research on Bhopal.

“My big concern was that people my age didn’t know about this,” Selvaraj said. “So I was trying to figure out a format to inform people… (and) I decided to tell the story of Bhopal in different perspectives and in different times.”

Discovering more on Bhopal and with the disaster’s 30 year anniversary happening this year, Selvaraj found more reason to spread awareness of its history and affects. Since he was 16-years-old, Selvaraj has been involved in theater as the founder of the Renegade Arts and Theatre Society. He uses theater as a “platform to highlight some of the issues going on in the world,” he stated. With his theater background, Selvaraj decided to write a play to convey Bhopal’s story to others.

“The stories are the more powerful parts of the play. Not so much of, ‘hey this is what happened,’ because you can get that from a book. But, these stories being told in the way that these people told it to me is what I’m trying to communicate,” Selvaraj said.

The play is a series of monologues that intersect with each other to the chronological story of the 30 years of Bhopal to tell the story of what has happened in Bhopal. Victims, activists, American CEOs and others tell their stories of Bhopal through their eyes. Wanting to engage the community, Selvaraj does not hire his own actors; he asks volunteers from the community to perform each character. He also structured his script so it can be modified based on what resonates with the cast and what they believe is relevant for the community.

“In theater productions, there is a glass wall between the audience and the performances. I’m trying to basically break the glass piece and make sure the audience gets a better feel for it,” Selvaraj voiced, “I want the audience to travel with these people through the 30 years of struggle, through the different emotions and through the different things that are happening.”

How he engages the audience is a question he left unanswered, so one has to attend the play to find out.

Selvaraj attended Concordia College where he double majored in political science and global studies and minored in business. He currently studies international relations with a focus on war studies at King’s College in London. His education did not bring his play back to Concordia; the students he met while interning established a connection for future possibilities that he did not think of at the time.

Senior Denise Sykora went on the SJPD program in 2012, where she met Selvaraj. They conversed about Bhopal, India, and other social justice issues during her stay in India. Keeping in touch after the program ended, Selvaraj sent his play to Sykora in January 2013.

“I was moved by the stories. I knew some of the people he interviewed and referenced, I was able to put a face to them and hear their stories,” Sykora said.“The first time I read it, I knew I wanted to bring it to an audience to the best that I could. Being in the Concordia community, I thought it would be a great way and time to do it.”

First, Sykora had to find funding. She presented her idea to Concordia’s Special Projects and Initiatives Fund, where she received funds for the production, bringing Selvaraj back to Concordia. The only request was that Selvaraj would be involved on campus during his stay. He will be talking at a Tea House event on March 31 at 4:30 p.m. and speaking in classrooms about his strive for social justice.

Next, Sykora had to find a cast to perform his play. She contacted Megan Orcholski, assistant director of forensics, who referred her to David Wintersteen, theatre director. After telling Wintersteen about the play, he was more than willing to help her find a cast and figure a schedule for the performers. Auditions for the play were held on March 18. Sykora now is figuring out miscellaneous aspects to make the play happen—reserving the auditorium, needed equipment, transportation for Selvaraj, etc.

To prepare for the performance, Selvaraj is sharing his play with colleagues to be reviewed. He is also deciding what is the best way to communicate the message to Concordia students and the Fargo-Moorhead area. He wants to do a mix of multimedia presentations with the play, which would include utilizing a screen in the production.

This is not the first time he has presented his play. The first performance of the play happened in Bangalore in August 2013. Per Anderson, associate dean of global learning, was in Bangalore during the first performance: “It (the play) is very powerful; it’s very much worth seeing.” He knows Selvaraj because he has led the SJPD program twice and encouraged him to come to Concordia.

“I think the fact that we’re having this event is a wonderful expression of the consequences of our hospitality to international students,” Anderson said.

His play has also been performed in London. He hopes to present his play to as many colleges as possible in the London area.

“We have to develop the ability to hear difficult things, to just simply believe it and struggle with it. It’s not that often in American life we are required to do that … Also, for students to participate in this play written by an Indian activist is an incredible example of wanting to participate in cross-cultural perspective taking. It’s a neat example of what we want to allow our students to experience,” Anderson said.

“I want them to see the power of one. Sudhir is such a perfect example. He went to Concordia and now he’s doing so much that if you just decide to follow what you want to do, most likely, I would argue, that you can achieve it.” Sykora.

“These people (in the play) are perfect role models of hope,” Selvaraj said. “So I hope that the message that there is still hope even in the midst of deepest suffering because the human spirit can’t survive without hope. Disparity is not what humans are here for.”

This article was submitted by Sage Larson, contributing writer.

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