Theatre artist Maya Krishna Rao's monologue analyses women's safety

Mar 07, 2014, 08:05 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre

One day before International Women’s Day, an analysis of theatre artiste Maya Krishna Rao’s recent performance, raised questions about fundamental human rights like the right to be in a park after dark and looked at how artistes can bring theatre to people in unconventional ways

Can I walk in the park after dark? Can I be safe on the street at the stroke of midnight? These are simple questions that theatre artist Maya Krishna Rao asks in a 35-minute monologue called the ‘Walk’.

Maya Krishna Rao brings her art and uncomfortable questions to the people at Cafe Zoe in Lower Parel. Pic/Satyajit Desai
Maya Krishna Rao brings her art and uncomfortable questions to the people at Cafe Zoe in Lower Parel. Pic/Satyajit Desai

As she recently devised her walk in three varied settings of Mumbai a trendy cafe in Lower Parel, a college in south Mumbai and an invited-only staff show of a multinational bank, Rao repeated her questions.

In each setting, she didn’t have a conventional stage. She ‘monologued’ with the audience; came close to them, looked into their eyes, smiled and raised a basic question: Shouldn’t women and men expect their fundamental right to safety in public spaces?

Rao has been asking these questions since December 2012 when she devised the ‘Walk’ in response to the gangrape and murder in Delhi. She has since then performed the piece each time tweaked as per the city she goes to, in disparate locales.

From the streets of Delhi to the Jaipur Literary carnival to the International Theatre festival in Thrissur, Rao has been presenting the ‘Walk’ as her personal reaction to a horrible tragedy. As she put it in one of the Mumbai interactions, “More than a piece of theatre, these are my immediate feelings after we lost Nirbhaya to a heinous crime.

Staying in the same city where the rape took place, I had to talk to people about what has gone wrong with our public life, our families, our civil behavior, our laws. Walk was therefore a medium for the talk that I wanted to initiate.”

Interestingly, Rao’s Mumbai debut has led to many invitations for performances in Mumbai, particularly in educational campuses and cultural institutions which are currently debating over issues relating to rape, sexual molestation, gender sensitivity and access to public spaces. Rao’s ‘Walk’ not only articulates current concerns, but it seeks to unite sensitive men and women regarding core humane issues.

“Things are happening at a dizzying speed. And we are not talking enough about them. Even before we could deal with the Delhi incident, another horrifying rape shook Mumbai. Close on the heels of that came the Tejpal incident which is even more multi-layered and complex.

The legal definition of rape has changed and people have more unanswered questions. Young women and also men, in metros and small towns, are unable to chart out their individual lives amid this outbreak of rapes. Against this backdrop, ‘Walk’ is an effort to generate a healthy debate on several fronts,” she said.

Rao says the piece is less on rape and more on our collective national upbringing. “The focus of our debate is often misplaced. When we talk about safety of women, we are talking about it as a citizen’s right. But the obsessive focus on safety can also serve the traditional ideology of gender.

We should not let that happen,” says Rao, who feels that unless we see women’s rights in the context of our overall education, we will get stuck in wrong areas. She gives an example about the futile debate over women’s dress code.

“The point that needs collective appreciation is the fact that men or women should not be judged as per their clothing. Clothing is a personal lifestyle choice and should not be linked to sexual consent.” In the ‘Walk’ Rao asks: Give me a mother who will teach her son to sense/hear/see/ a ‘No’ from a woman and not construe a ‘Yes’ as per his moral mathematics.

While ‘Walk’ is an educational tool to underline the need for a national dialogue, it has another important aspect in the context of theatre practice.

In cities like Mumbai, paucity of performance space is often lamented. But Rao feels that Indian theatre should get over the need for a conventional proscenium stage. “We have to carve our own spaces to do contemporary theatre.

Theatre is not a box set drama. It can happen anywhere, even without the trappings of an auditorium.” ‘Walk’ rests on a minimal musical background score coupled with an unscripted monologue -- the duration and texture of which can change as per the audience reception. As Rao puts it, no two shows have been similar.

Rao feels the emerging India will require a more flexible form of theatre that will reach new spaces in college cafeterias, railway platforms, boardroom meetings and bus travel. Rao did her Thrissur ‘Walk” show amid her power point presentation on Gender in the 21st century. She has also performed the show in Delhi malls.

“As theatre people, we are lucky to practice a medium that is closest to life. Theatre is like human breath. As artistes, we use our bodies as a medium to reach out to people. Instead of lamenting about what we cannot achieve due to the rising real estate prices or culture policies, this is the time to do provoke a dialogue.

Artistes should help people to know themselves.” Rao says her performances usually end with long interactions with young boys and men, who are seeking answers to unsolved gender tangles. They ask questions that are seemingly regressive.

For example: a boy in Delhi asked her, ‘So, should we lock up the girls in their homes after the night?’ “I was zapped by that reaction, but only to realise that the boy was well-meaning, but was unable to articulate his thoughts. Boys, like girls, are looking for answers, but there aren’t any easy ones available. They need to talk it out.”

Rao, currently a professor of theatre in the School of the Arts, Shiv Nadar University (New Delhi) is now designing a Master’s program in Theatre / Education/ Social Transformation that will be on offer from August 2014.

A believer of education through theatre, she has also taught ‘Acting’ in the National School of Drama. She is a recipient of The Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.

Since the late 1970s, she has produced a body of work that has provoked her audiences to delve into social and political issues. She has also done stand-up comedy shows dedicated to social issues. Being a trained Kathakali performer, Rao often uses the traditional art forms in her modern work.

A founder-member of the street theatre group Theatre Union, Rao scripted, directed, and performed powerful street plays such as ‘Om Swaha,’ a critique of dowry, and ‘Dafa No.

180,’ on the Indian rape law. In later years, she has produced a succession of compelling single-actor plays such as ‘Ravanama,’ ‘Are You Home Lady Macbeth?’, ‘A Deep Fried Jam,’ and ‘Heads Are Meant for Walking Into.’

Rao’s ‘Walk’ is a theatre piece that goes close to the sentiment expressed in ‘Take Back the Night,’ an internationally held march and rally intended as a protest against rape and sexual violence.

Rao feels that ‘Walk’ is another way of bringing home the crucial role of the street in human life. “Indians are living in such constricted lives that we do not consider remaining on the street after a certain hour. We claim to be super busy and whatever time we spend on the street is driven by the fear of the unknown.

We are so confirmed about our views on (not experienced) street life that the thought of watching a squirrel at night in a park does not ever cross our minds. It is never ever factored into our calendars.”

She says the ‘Walk’ reminded her that there is a crucial home away from home (on the street). She says, there are friends, relatives, strangers, neighbours, mothers and fathers, on the street, who need to be talked to. “We need to walk an extra mile to talk to them. The street is therefore an extension of the self!”

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