Protest Through Performance

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Issue No: 88March 2, 2014


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Protest Through Performance

“In the dark times

Will there also be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing.

About the dark times.”

Bertolt Brecht

When I started writing this paper I thought to myself, whose perspective am I writing it from? Or perhaps whose perspective ‘should’ I write it from? Soon I was sure that I needed to talk about it from an activist's and a practitioner’s perspective.

In this piece I would like to talk about two performances-cum-protests which were created during the time of mass protests in Delhi and other cities after the brutal Delhi gang rape incident in December 2012. I would also talk about the interaction between culture and such protests here.

In December 2012, we saw one of the most unfortunate and brutal incidents of violence against women in our country. A 23 year old physiotherapy student was beaten up and gang raped by some ‘joy-riders’ in moving bus in South Delhi at night(although I am not sure who named her Nirbhaya _but since I want to avoid the word ‘victim’ for such a courageous girl, I would also call her _Nirbhaya). Later, she died of her internal injuries. This incident shook the whole nation. People across India felt the need to respond to this. The issue of security for women in a cosmopolitan city like Delhi became everyone’s concern from just being a 'womens' organisation' issue. People occupied the streets. The protests were shifted from Jantar Mantar - an ‘assigned’ spot for hunger strikes and protests to the streets which led to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, India Gate and the Parliament House in New Delhi. After many years a large number of youngsters, womens' organisations and several political parties got together on this issue.

What was the reason of such mass-scale outcry? Was it the sheer brutality of the perpetrators that crossed all limits or the careless attitude of the police? or was it the resistance and courage of that girl that inspired so many of us to take it up as our ‘own’ issue?

There were two categories of reactions which emerged. Resistance, sloganeering, silent marches, public meetings, human chains were one part and then, there were reactions and statements which came from the other side of the table. The then Chief Minister of Delhi said “it’s okay” at the end of her statement on the death of the gang rape victim; a right wing organisation’s chief claimed that rape happens in “India” not in “Bharat”; one of the Congress MPs referred to female protestors as “dainted-painted”, a famous God man blamed the victim for her own ordeal and said that “she should have called culprits brothers and begged before them to stop. This could have saved her dignity and life. Can one hand clap?” Some others said ‘improper’ dressing sense among women, use of mobile phones and even chowmein could be a cause for rape, some said.

It wasn't surprising fact that none of these people thought of 'assertion of masculinity to control woman’s sexuality' a reason for such brutal sexual assaults. All these outrageous statements further galvanized these protests. Media too played an instrumental role in keeping the debates on and mobilization of people at such protests to demand womens' security and other issues in the capital city of Delhi.

Several women's organisations condemned these arbitrary statements and demanded action against then Police Commissioner of Delhi and those who were responsible in the transport department. In 1979-80, the Mathura rape case verdict was challenged by some women organisations and the Indian rape law was amended. It was a big breakthrough for women's movement in India at that time. There have however been debates about the flawlessness of those amendments. Therefore, for several years women's organisations have been struggling to put pressure through various agencies to bring in new amendments in the rape law.Unfortunately, it took a cruel sexual attack such as this to get their recommendations and struggle noticed.

I went to many of these protests in various parts of the city at that time. On one hand, thousands of young men and women came together to demand justice and did ‘chakka jam’ at central places such as Vijay Path and Delhi Police headquarters. I also saw protests led by an ‘aspiring’ political parties at the time who were shouting sexist slogans and asking police officers to wear bangles (‘chudiyan pehan lo’). I am not doubting their intentions but I am not sure if they really understood the meaning of what they were saying or demanding.

Many artists and performers registered their protests too. A lot of them mixed and matched various new and old forms of performances and questioned the status of security, public transport, street lights, and use of public spaces. These linked the issues at hand with the large problem of gender based social inequality and patriarchy.

I would like to underline that in this particular context the definition of the word ‘artist’ needs to be expanded as well. People who used performance as a form of resistance in response to the gang rape incident were from various sections of society. Several dramatic societies of Delhi University colleges created powerful plays and poetry performances. Anger, angst, feeling of betrayal by the state and the police were clearly reflecting in these performances. Everyone was asking what if it happened to them? Several short films produced by film students and others from across the country were uploaded and went viral on the internet, especially on social media. So many anonymous groups of boys and girls used the idea of flash mob to reclaim the public spaces in the city.

Protesting through art is not a new idea. But, as someone who is born, brought up and has lived in Delhi all these years, I was amazed by the sheer number of these cultural protests which happened in that short period of time, to be precise in the month of December-January 2012-13. I had not seen something like this in past so many years.

I will now talk about two performances which showcased the demand to have a strong public transport system in Delhi especially at night. Both these cultural interventions happened with in a month of the incident. These performances reflected upon the status of women and raised the issues about the reclaiming public space. Through these interventions performers reasserted the need for measures to be taken to provide security to a woman.

Jana Natya Manch along with Jan Sanskriti, Janvadi Lekhak Sangh and other cultural organisations decided to reclaim the public transport in Delhi at night. The strength of this performance was that it lied somewhere between a protest, an impromptu street performance and a flash mob performance. If one wants it could be seen as, in broader sense, a cultural intervention. We wanted to talk about the idea of reclaiming the night, the public transport and the city in this cultural intervention. The intervention cum performance cum protest was called ‘9.30 ki Akhiri Bus’. We decided to board the last bus from the bus terminal in the centre of town and go back home while singing and reading poetry on women during the ride back. Like any other performance this one needed preparations and like any other protest it needed planning and strategy. People who committed themselves to attend were divided into groups and were asked to board the bus that would go to near their house. They were also asked to prepare songs and poems.

Surprisingly, while preparing for this performance we gathered that the last bus from that terminal (Shivaji Stadium in New Delhi) leaves at forty past twenty one hours at night. This means that nobody, whether a man or a woman, can stay and work beyond that time if they wish to go back by bus. It actually seemed farcical, since it mocks the concept of having the last bus! This was not the case let’s say even ten years ago. Many people blamed the girl for being out at night so late and little did they realise that the public transport of our city is in such terrible shape.

We all gathered at the bus terminal on the decided night. Most of us wore placards saying ‘akhiri bus se ghar jaana hai’, ‘raat ke musafir’. Other passengers waiting at the terminal stopped by and started to look at us in surprise and our placards. We were not sloganeering which confused them a little bit more. We explained about what exactly we were up to. Some of us got talking to them and they said how difficult it is to get back home at night if they miss the last bus. Our obvious question to them was why don’t they commute by Delhi metro to which they answered that they cannot afford it on daily basis. Ironically, the previous Delhi government used to swear by the metro. But obviously they never thought of the passengers who have to cover long distances to get to work and cannot afford to use the metro every day.

Soon after we started singing and then cops turned up. They asked us what we were doing. We told them that we were waiting to board the bus. Since, we were just going to ride back we never took police permission to do this intervention. Within half an hour all of us boarded the buses in clusters. Our co passengers, bus drivers and conductors were astonished to see us but got comfortable with the idea when we explained to them the objective of this intervention cum performance. While riding the bus we sang many protest songs and read poetry. After every song and poem we asked our co passengers if they would like to hear more, some of them answered “kyon nahin?”(Why not!) while others silently said ‘irshaad’ by just nodding their head. One of them, while getting off at his bus stop said ‘bhai kabhi aisi bus mein to main gaya hi nahi!”

The mass outrage of people in the city actually got many of us thinking about gender inequalities prevailing in our society and to ask whose city is this any way?

Another powerful solo performance that I witnessed during those days was by the eminent theatre actor and educator Maya Rao. Many of us didn't know that Maya directed Om Swaha - one of the first plays that emerged in response to the increased number of dowry cases. In early 80s she directed another play on rape law in India while the parliament was discussing the amendments in the same. She created another solo performance to respond to the assault on _Nirbhaya _and freedom of expressing oneself as a woman. She did the first performance in December 2012. Since then she has performed it at many places in and outside Delhi.

Why did she create this performance? Maya answers this questions in the beginning of one the performances of ‘Walk’. “This was as you know just one of those unique moments in our lives where so many things, probably not even just to do with men and women, boys and girls, so much about who we are and what we think got churned up…I just want to share it with those who don’t live in Delhi, to see these boys and girls who have never marched up and down to India Gate on one end and Rashtrapati Bhavan on the other… There were womens' organisations and older women and everybody behind them. These people just went up and down and we just went with them. It did transform me in some way.” In the end she says that this is why when asked by a student’s group in Jawahar Lal Nehru University to come and be part of a cultural platform at that time she immediately agreed.

The performance begins with music playing in the background. She says, “walk, walk, walk, walk…I want to…can I?..will I?.. can I?.. should I?” Then she goes on, “…not five, not six, not seven, not eight, not eleven… at 12 midnight… I want to walk the streets… at two, at three, at four... I want to walk the street, ride on a bus, lie on a bench in the park... I try not to be afraid of the dark… will you walk with me?...” The performance raises questions about the status of the public life of a woman and her right to be at public spaces at whatever time she likes. Why should she be told that she needs to be confined to home as much as possible? In other part of the performance she talks about the issue of consent when she says “I know when to say yes… I learnt.. when to say no…” Maya through her performance asks for speedy and more number of accused to be convicted. From a woman’s consent for sex to the attitude of cops towards the victim, her performance covers the whole gamut of questions around violence against women and gender inequalities. This performance fitted so well with the demands of people and women's organisations protesting on the street at that time.

I have seen this performance live only once but many times on youtube. One could see that the response of the audience has been overwhelming. One reason is of course the acting and the techniques used by Maya who is one of the finest performers in the country. But another reason is that the performance precisely raises all the demands which came on the table after the incident took place.

She uses broken sentences and not full-fledged and long dialogues. The silences and gaps in between those sentences gives time to the audiences and compels them to think and introspect and not just remain mere spectators. It questions not just the system but also us as part of that system.

After that incident there has been an increase in the number of incidents of violence against women. There could be two reasons for that. One, now more women are ready to come out and report about violence inflicted upon them and there is a pressure on the police to record FIRs of these incidents. Two, whenever women come out on the streets to demand their rights for equality and dignity as citizens of the country, foundations of patriarchy shake and it becomes crucial to curb their voice with acts of violence and suppress the assertion they are making.

Till the time oppression, inequality, patriarchy and violence against people prevail in society, art will have to keeping playing a transformative role. One is not saying that art and cultural interventions alone can change the world but by working hand and hand with the larger progressive social movements, changes might occur. Culture will always have to take equal responsibility to question the status quo and to reflect upon the problems and issues of the contemporary times.

Komita Dhanda is Secretary, Jana Natya Manch and teaches development journalism at Lady Irwin College, New Delhi. She has a masters in Mass Communication and has acted in and directed many street plays for Jana Natya Manch. This paper was read by Komita Dhanda at the recently held ICWS conference in Guwahati Assam.

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