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The New Ensemble
New feminist theatre in the wake of the Nirbhaya tragedy
On a cold January morning this year, theatre enthusiasts squeezed into one of National School of Drama’s smaller auditoriums to watch an afternoon show of Museum...Of Species in Danger. Halfway through the hour-long performance, the hall turned uncomfortably stifling, not just because of the people packed into the aisles, but from what was unfolding onstage. Several sari-clad actresses enacted true-to-life episodes from the lives of women, from mythology (Sita, Surpanakha) to contemporary characters (rape, acid attack survivors). The enactors—in turn caustic, bittersweet, hopeful—minced no words or expression (one of them twisted her face to resemble an acid attack survivor’s throughout a monologue). The audience flinched, the message had hit home.
Later the same evening, one got to watch veteran thespian Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry’s new play, The License, which brought together elements of Manto’s story of the same name and Bertolt Brecht’s The Job to explore a woman’s changing identity as she slips into a man’s job. A few days later, director Malavika Priyadarshini Rao revisited Tamil feminist writer Ambai’s Kitchen in the Corner of the House, which addressed women and their bondage to the recesses of the kitchen.
Feminist theatre may have come into its own in the 1970s during the women’s lib movement, but post-December 16, sexual violence as a theme has acquired a new context on stage. For Mumbai-based director Rasika Agashe, directing Museum... soon after the Nirbhaya gangrape itself became a form of protest. “I took part in protest marches, but I wasn’t satisfied. I had a few monologues in mind from Sita’s life and real-life cases, so I called up a few friends, and we put together 12 sketches, some of them from our own experience.” The play, written by Sumedh Kulkarni, has been touring the country since August last year, and was also a part of Jurrat, the week-long cultural event held in Delhi recently to mark one year of December 16.
Something similar happened with actress Poorna Jagannathan who chanced upon a Facebook post by international playwright-director Yael Farber about Nirbhaya’s death and decided to collaborate with her on a play. “I knew there was a huge urge to break the silence around sexual violence here in India, including my own. December 16 woke us up from what we considered ‘normal’. We did a workshop last February with seven actors. The intent was to premiere Nirbhaya—A Play in India, but since a British producer came onboard in March ’13, we toured London and Edinburgh with 40 shows,” says Jagannathan, who’s acting and co-producing. The testimonial-driven play makes its debut here next month, in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, thanks to a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter and individual sponsors.
If the idea is to figure new ways of engagement to address old issues, thespian Maya Krishna Rao has cracked it. In a year’s time, her minimalistic, discerning sketch, The Walk, has already made it across schools and colleges, malls, even literature festivals. The 10-20-minute improvised piece, written and performed by Rao herself, has many versions, in English and Hindi, changing according to the audience. Composed to a light rap rhythm, one version goes thus: “...Not 1, not 4, not 5, 6, 7, but at 12 midnight...I want to walk the streets. At 2, 3, 4, I want to walk, sit in a bus, lie in a park. I try not to be afraid of the dark. Will you walk with me?” The popular piece rakes up a host of urgent concerns: unlit lamps on the streets, sexual predators who haven’t been convicted, issues of consent, marital rape, women who won’t stand up for other women, and many more. “The December 16 incident gave us an opportunity to relocate gender issues for what it is, about men and women, both. I use The Walk to talk to my audience about negotiating relationships, identities, spaces, issues I see lots of young boys grappling with too,” says Rao.
With an ever-expanding cultural landscape, Rao finds a sea change in how young people are exploiting theatre, interconnecting the whole spectrum of gender concerns from the personal to the political. Another recent theatrical sketch by young Delhi performer Mallika Taneja called Thoda Dhyan Se, for example, takes on the regressive brouhaha around how women should dress. Delhi University professor Sanjay Kumar, who leads theatre group Pandies, is revisiting episodes from their older plays to fit the new context. “With the regrowth of right-wing politics, we’re relooking at communalism and sexual violence, and also at marital rape, masculinity, and how we have evolved into a ‘rape-friendly’ society,” says Kumar.
A live-wire medium like theatre, then, minimalistic and raw, is seeing new vigour as part of the ongoing gender debates. If Rasika Agashe has scores of women in the audience rush to her after a performance to share their own experiences, Poorna Jagannathan often gets asked why she didn’t do a film on the subject instead. Her response: “You witness a play, you only watch a movie. There have been a few plays that changed my life. Movies somehow have never had the same effect.”