This week marks five years since the nationwide Nirbhaya protests sparked off in the country, with the first public demonstrations taking place in the Capital at India Gate to a reception of water cannons and tear gas shells. The date of the incident, December 16, is now increasingly etched in common consciousness as a national day of shame, rather than just Vijay Diwas (a day of remembrance for martyrs of the 1971 war). Unwittingly perhaps, the young woman became an international symbol of resistance and bravery, and the epithet coined to symbolize her fortnight-long struggle took on the garb of an everyday hashtag that continues to resonate and spread, much like #MeToo did this year.
In theatre, the incident has been referenced and reframed in several explorations and productions in the ensuing years. From Yael Farber’s Nirbhaya that opened to critical acclaim in Edinburgh in 2013, to last year’s Deepa Mehta film, Anatomy of Violence that pulls out real-life footage from theatre workshops conducted by Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, to countless solo performances, the works all wore their politics on their sleeves. Some drew their power from raw, naked vulnerability. Nirbhaya’s testimonial became a form of protest theatre that was to be taken completely at face value. Audiences bore witness, but couldn’t necessarily participate in a discourse that could challenge the aesthetics of outrage or the blurred ethics of appropriating stories of the self. Yet the power of women coming forward and telling their own stories could not be denied. There is a universality that comes naturally to each woman’s experience, much in the way #MeToo demonstrated the utter pervasiveness of toxic misogyny, a scourge borne collectively by generations of women.
Life becomes art
In Farber’s play, Singh (performed by Japjit Kaur) received an affecting leave-taking denied to her in real life, and the stage became a temple to some medieval sacrifice, or an altar on which to lay down the body of an unwilling woman. At the same time, the piece did not shy away from actually representing the sexual assault. Empty seats on a bus acquired ominous proportions on stage. In 2014, Burning Flowers: 7 Dreams of Woman, an Indo-Polish production by theatre company Teatr Biuro Podróży, featured women and men in bright colorful attire clinging to a handrail in a bus, bouncing to the beat of a pulsating pop number. There was much joie de vivre, and it could have passed off as the setting for a prom. Of course, such intermingling of the sexes in a culture of implicit gender segregation would be rather amiss, and the set-up quickly degenerated into the classic passive-aggressive molestation scenario women contend with, on an almost daily basis, in public transport. In the controlled environment of a rapid transit bus, as women were sputtered out by the invasive nudging and elbowing, the men crowded around those who remain.
When there was just one woman left, the arena transformed into the site of sexual assault, evoking Nirbhaya. The handrail became the rod used as the ultimate weapon of subjugation. The girl (Kani Kusruti) was left with little faculty, but could just about manage to scramble to a larger-than-life skeletal frame of a woman made in her likeness, and as she knelt before it, prostrate to this idea of sacrosanct womanhood, the men came by and set it alight. It was a rousing moment in an open-air spectacle staged at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala, as the wind carried with it wisps of ash and perhaps, the hopes of countless women. From one set-piece to another many more such frames of women were consigned to flames, in a way repurposing imagery from Indian epics. The regressiveness we have come to associate with Sita’s agni pariksha, for instance, was nicely inverted, with the effigies lined up in an open field resembling a Dussehra mêlée rather than a pyre of piety.
In Chowdhry’s recent productions, the dynamic between masculine and feminine informs the loose-limbed physicality of her actors. Sexual transgressions as human nature is part of the turf when it comes to the Partition-era tales drawn from the writings of Saadat Hasan Manto that permeate both Bitter Fruit for the NSD Repertory, and her own production, Dark Borders. In the latter, the specific Nirbhaya reference is played out by male actors taking on the parts of both perpetrators and victim. Female actors appear complicit in acts of their own violation because of the performative agency afforded to them, as they recreate the most egregious of physical acts with a rigor that is strangely artistically satisfying. In these works, and others such as Jyoti Dogra’s Toye, consent remains grey, and never really explicit, as one might demand in a “no means no” paradigm.
Perhaps, these ambiguities allowed Chowdhry’s team to become perfect collaborators for the explorations that led to Mehta’s film. During its making, Mehta worked with her actors to improvise the speculative backgrounds of the Nirbhaya perpetrators, as well as that of Singh herself. They probed into the conditioning mindsets that might have led to their violent personalities, the formative events that may have contributed to the development of their darkest impulses that turned them into monsters on that fateful night. The film does not paint them as anything less than reprehensible or fully accountable for their actions, but it does humanize them, and fully places the onus of rape on the men, rather than the woman.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.