Gender by Choice

Every few years, gender lines are redrawn and there is a scramble to redefine what is politically correct. Sometimes, it seems as if every step society takes towards reducing the inequality between the sexes, two steps are taken backwards.

Post-feminism, women were told they could be equal to or better than men; men were told to be less aggressive and more respectful of women’s progress. Suddenly, after it looked like the intensity of the battle was lessening, there is a change of perspective. Now women are told, be careful, don’t go out after dark, don’t be too ambitious or assertive, or men will retaliate. (The women who led the women’s movement also braced themselves and warned other women for the backlash.) Men are told, dump all that shared domestic chore, hands-on parenting, metrosexual nonsense and revert to being retrosexual.

A scene from the play, Ila, being staged at the Experimental Theatre, NCPA. We live in strange times, and some of this confusion is captured in Ila, which has some pithy home truths about gender interspersed through its running time
A scene from the play, Ila, being staged at the Experimental Theatre, NCPA. We live in strange times, and some of this confusion is captured in Ila, which has some pithy home truths about gender interspersed through its running time

When all these conflicting ideas are flying around, it often becomes difficult to isolate the male or female mindset. One study says women are hardwired to be mothers and caregivers; others say men can be as gentle and ‘maternal’ as women, if society does not expect them to be always strong and controlling. Books like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus are quoted as definitive proof of the gender divide built into the chromosomes. Feminists say women are not born, they are made when they are conditioned to become homebodies; and boys are ridiculed if they cry or show any kind of weakness.

We live in strange times, and some of this confusion is captured in the delightful stage play, Ila, directed by Puja Sarup and Sheena Khalid, devised by the two men (Amay Mehta, Arpit Singh) and five women (Shruti Vyas, Bhavna Pani, Prerna Chawla, Mukti Mohan, Rachel D’Souza) who act in the production — which is predominantly movement-based, but has some pithy home truths about gender interspersed through its running time.

The women’s compartment of a local train is cleverly seen as the modern equivalent of the zenana — a space where women can be totally uninhibited and say things they would not utter in mixed company. Like the eunuch in the zenana, the only man allowed into the compartment is the vendor of women’s things. He is not a threat, because he needs these women’s money for his survival.

The ladies’ compartment is also compared to the magical forest of myth that was meant only for female creatures. When an arrogant man, King Ila, enters his forest, he is turned into a woman by the presiding deity, Lord Shiva. When Ila pleads for mercy, Shiva — who has an ardhanarishwar form too, so knows all about gender duality — reduces the impact, so that Ila will be a man on full moon night and as the moon wanes, his maleness will diminish so that by amavas, he turns into a woman, and then becomes a little more male every day till it’s full moon night again.

For the first time, as he is harassed by his palace guards, he realises what it means to be a woman. That, understandably, blows Ila’s mind, and probably scrambles the hormones, so that during the waxing-waning period he is in varying stages of male and femaleness. So what of the notion that only men rule and only women become mothers? Ila rules, plus becomes a father and a mother; he consorts with his queens as a man; as a woman, he falls in love with the handsome Buddh, son of the Moon.

In a society where men are told to swagger with their legs apart, their chests out, their eyes wide open, and women told to walk with legs together, slightly bowed, their eyes downcast, how is Ila to understand what to do, when at any given time he is part man, part woman in varying degrees, a constant physical and mental shape-shifting? In real life, most people have a mixed blend of behavioural and emotional responses to things — there can be no such thing as a fully male or fully female response. A man may be moved to tears but also be able to use his superior muscular strength; a woman may be emotionally stronger than a man and be able to solve a complex problem using female intuition. So is a person who has the ability to be both man and woman, superhuman or a freak? Can a normal person pick the gender attributes he or she wants and choose a kind of androgynous existence?

All this is portrayed with words as well as movement, which is what gives the production its uniqueness. Devised theatre pieces mostly end up being confused or confusing and unable to articulate their ideas in a cogent manner. Ila could also have done with a tighter structure, but with great humour, grace and empathy it takes the audience along on its journey of exploration.

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She tweets at @deepagahlot

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