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Theatre as therapy

Puppeteer and children’s theatre director Meena Naik is currently improvising an untitled script that voices a rape survivors’ struggle with the police, the medical authorities and the judiciary, using puppets and masks to underscore the sensitivity required for post-rape healing.


Speaking frankly: A staging of Aata Tuzhi Paali, which deals with the still-taboo topic of menstruation and sexual health

Poet and activist Pradnya Daya Pawar’s debut Marathi play Dhadhant Khairlanji (Indisputably Khairlanji), which just opened in Mumbai, is a theatrical account of sexual violence perpetrated on Dalit women of Bhandara district of Maharashtra in 2006. The play is part of a state-wide awareness drive.


Train of thought: Unconventional plays such as Yoneechya Maneechya Guzgoshti bring new awareness to Marathi audiences

An advocate of participatory theatre in the field of gender and sexuality, Vandana Khare is readying for a fresh slate of performances (suspended during monsoons) of her play Yoneechya Maneechya Guzgoshti, the Marathi rendering of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. She is also planning to replicate her other UNICEF-funded ‘workshopped’ play, Aata Tuzhi Paali, staged by college girls in villages of Chandrapur district, which raises issues of sex education and menstrual hygiene.

Exploitation themes
Even as the nation is gripped with shocking crimes against women, the themes of rape, sexual exploitation, child abuse and women’s access to public spaces are also reflected in individual efforts in Mumbai’s cultural world.

Khare feels art tributes to real-life tragedies should not be mere reactions to breaking news, but instead the tributes should be effective comments on societal attitudes, norms and values that give birth to unruly behaviour. Her play Yoneechya… presents several monologues of women who have survived rape, incest, continued sexual slavery, repression and domination. The play has had 130 shows since 2009, and Khare says there is a renewed demand for performances.

Need for sensitivity
Khare says, “With every rape incident, particularly after the Delhi and Mumbai cases, people feel the need for greater sensitivity towards gender violence. They want to hear women sharing their experiences. They have appreciated the connection between these incidents and the general undocumented everyday harassment in public parks, railway compartments and office spaces.” Yoneechya… as well as Aata Tuzhi Paali (It’s Now Your Turn -- referring to the menstrual cycle) underline the connection between attitudes and crimes.

Khare feels a definitive decline in the crime graph can be achieved only when society accepts a basic shift in gender equations. “When we present Aata Tuzhi Paali, the performers help the audience to connect the theme of menstrual hygiene to seemingly unrelated factors like the average age of marriage, women’s financial independence and women’s right to safety. It takes time for the audience to understand the interconnectedness. That’s the reason each show varies in texture; the audience needs to appreciate why anti-women attitudes give rise to dysfunctional behavior.”

Battling mindsets
Khare’s groups, particularly the one presenting Yoneechya..., is usually battling with audience mindset at every point in time. “Ever since Yoneechya… got the censor certificate for the ticketed shows, we are guarded about our audience because now we are out of the ambit of the regular theatre-going audience. We have to be wary of troublemakers who seek titillation. They have the nuisance capacity to spoil the show. So we deal with such people professionally. We appeal to them not to clap or hoot at the wrong places. But if they continue, we stop the performance for a while,” recounts Khare. She says the well-meaning audience often intervenes in the interests of sensitivity.

Khare and her co-actors have faced criticism and even hate campaigns on social media. But, she says, “Despite allegations and other hindrances, we have decided not to stop the shows. If we stop performing, that will be the biggest victory of the people who want to perpetuate the current gender equations.”

Raising awareness levels
Like Khare, Meena Naik also feels the need to continue to practice theatre that raises awareness levels. Her play Vatevarti Kacha Ga (A Difficult Road), which has had 500 shows in the last 12 years, was rendered in Hindi and has now been made into a film for larger projection. Its success strengthened her belief in theatre as therapy.

“When I first raised the issue of child abuse through my play, which centres on a schoolgirl’s abuse by her tuition teacher, I was not aware how rampant the problem was. I never thought that I will find echoes from adolescent girls in the safest of neighbourhoods. Much as girls in remote areas opened their hearts and discussed their experiences of abuse, girls from posh English medium schools also made shocking revelations,” narrates Naik. She is now seized with the idea of using theatre tools like masks and puppets to delineate the post-rape trauma of the survivors.

“For me, the takeaway from the recent Mumbai and Delhi rape cases is the need to stress on the mainstreaming of the survivor. Our social support system, our police, our doctors and our legal aides need education and sensitization. We need to know how to be of help in the healing of the rape survivor. I feel a good script can forcefully put across the need for a different kind of literacy in this context.”

Naik wants to mount the production in the coming months. Much like her earlier plays, she will precede and follow the performance with interactions, distribution of publicity booklets and social media networking. “The power of a live performance helps in opening up a discussion. It is a take-off point for a campaign or a larger intellectual protest.” Naik feels puppets and masks are the right devices because they denote the concept of privacy that is crucial in rape cases. She also feels that masks help in initiating a dialogue because the audience is not so guarded while sharing their intimate experiences.

Uncovering the truth
Dalit writer Pradnya Daya Pawar feels that art, particularly theatre, helps to uncover the truth. Before deciding to write a play on the 2006 Khairlanji massacre and sexual attacks, she penned a poem and then a short story on the subject. But she felt that the multiple dimensions of the tragedy could be brought alive only if she embraced the confines of theatre. “I wrote the play in 2007 and found a director in 2013. That was good and bad as well. The delay helped me to revisit my creative impulses. Unfortunately, the situation has not changed much in Maharashtra, particularly in the context of Khairlanji. Caste-driven rivalries and ensuing sexual violence is common in the state, as well as in other parts of India. Khairlanji is therefore a metaphor for the fast-deteriorating situation overall. And the exploited female protagonists represent today’s women.”

Targetting caste
Pawar feels the prism of caste is her specific choice. She feels the issue of sexual violence attains another grim dimension when the politically dominating perpetrators target women as constituent parts of a sub-culture. “The play delineates the Khairlanji village, but the attitudes towards Dalit and other low-caste women remain the same even in metros like Mumbai. A low-caste woman’s intellectual rise in Mumbai does not protect her from attacks that are intended against her specific community.” Pawar feels Dhadhant Khairlanji is her way of hitting out at a mindset which perceives women not as individuals but as caste constituents.

Incidentally, the Marathi play Purush, which portrayed the story of a rape survivor, has now completed three decades. Written by the late Jaywant Dalvi in the early 1980s, Purush has been performed around 2,000 times in Marathi, Hindi and English. The play’s protagonist, a rape survivor, belongs to the upper caste and her fiance, a Dalit, is unwilling to take up her cause. The playwright effectively underlines two different faces of oppressive males -- one is the obvious face of the arrogant politician Gulabrao who commits the rape, and the other is the covert oppressor in the form of Siddharth, the lover who doesn’t find it politically convenient to take up cudgels.

Critic Madhav Vaze comments, “The play was controversial, particularly because of the playwright’s endorsement of male castration as a form of justice. Even after 30 years, Dalvi’s script seems an anguished cry against gender violence.” 

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