Changing the world

Mar 25, 2014, 07:57 IST | Deepa Gahlot

Nobody is naïve enough to believe that theatre (or cinema) can bring about social change, but the performing arts still remains the most potent means to express the need for change

Nobody is naïve enough to believe that theatre (or cinema) can bring about social change, but the performing arts still remains the most potent means to express the need for change. In simpler times, before the cacophony of various audio-visual media overwhelmed the world, the written word was perhaps the strongest mode to get ideas across, but now very few read, and who can take the various rants on the Internet seriously.

Not shamed into silence: In the spirit of street theatre, Yael Farber’s Nirbhaya uses the Delhi case as a take-off point, and then goes into experiential mode — five women speak of and enact the abuse they faced

So, to share personal or collective angst, theatre is the way to go. It reaches a small number of people at a time, but the impact and recall is higher, and it doesn’t need the huge resources of cinema.

The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) recognised the need for using theatre to reach the masses and took their plays about social issues to the people in villages, chawls and slums. The original theatre activists of IPTA believed that it was the duty of the artiste to help disseminate the message of progressiveness and reform. Some of them suffered for their beliefs, went to prison and lived austere lives. Prithviraj Kapoor was a great film star, but he travelled with his Prithvi Theatres to small towns and villages to perform his socially relevant plays. Safdar Hashmi was murdered when he and his Jan Natya Manch troupe were performing a street play. Real theatre that speaks to the masses is performed out there amidst the people, not in proscenium theatres.

It was in this spirit of street theatre that Yael Farber’s Nirbhaya was staged last week at the Tata Theatre, and hit audiences with its scorching candour. It came out of the anguish that ran through the nation when on December 16, 2012, a young woman was raped, her male companion brutally attacked, and both left for dead. What killed her was not just the savagery of the men, but the indifference of the people who drove past, the dithering by the cops and the inhumanity of the hospital staff. Then the story broke in the media and shocked a nation that usually buries cases like this under the carpet of shame.

Poorna Jagannathan, who co-produced the play, felt that this time, the silence had to be broken, the outrage had to be stoked, and at least an attempt must be made to see to it that attitudes change and action is taken when women and children are subjected to violence. It’s not as if rape does not take place elsewhere, but the biggest obstacle women in traditional and patriarchal societies face is the notion of izzat or honour, and the onus of upholding it falls on women.

Nirbhaya uses the Delhi case as a take off point, and then goes into experiential mode — five women speak of and enact the abuse they faced. Poorna herself was abused as a child, Priyanka Bose was sexually assaulted several times (her parents’ apathy in inexplicable), Sapna Bhavnani was gang-raped, violence was inflicted on Rukhsar Kabir by her father and her husband, and the most horrifying and tragic, Sneha Jawle was burnt for dowry and her son was snatched from her.

The enactment of the Delhi rape and the excessively melodramatic style of presentation (Nirbhaya’s death and funeral were cringe-worthy) bordered on the distasteful, but the audience was both stunned and moved. These cases happened to women like the ones seated in the auditorium, not some faceless tribal. At least a couple of the performers on stage are part of the celebrity social circuit; for them to look the world in the eye and narrate what happened to them took courage. It also exposed them to diverse reactions like pity, horror, judgement, scorn and of course, overwhelming empathy.

Nirbhaya’s reality is balanced by Eve Ensler’s fictional stories of female adolescence in her Emotional Creature, directed by Mahabanoo Kotwal, who has been doing The Vagina Monologues for over a decade now. Like the earlier, widely known production, this one too is made up of short pieces, this time about what it is like to be a young girl in various cultures. The pieces range from twee (the giggly girl chat) to traumatic (a young woman sold to sex slavery).

The story most affecting was that of the Chinese teen who is forced to work long hours in appalling conditions in a factory making Barbie dolls. India is a case study by itself — the range of problems women face is mind-boggling.

There’s work cut out for a playwright.

The Delhi case has triggered off many emotional responses, besides Nirbhaya, Aditi Mangaldas’ new dance production Within has a piece that depicts through a fusion of contemporary dance and kathak an artiste’s response to the horrific incident.

Nirbhaya’s tragedy had left most of us dazed with helpless rage — that rage now needs to kept alive so that no woman has to suffer like she did. There have been more shocking incidents after that. We have to ensure that the victims are not shamed into silence and that the perpetrators do not walk free. Maybe, just maybe, art can speed up the process.

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. You can follow her on twitter @deepagahlot

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