Evolving new languages of resistance.

Newsletter Sep-Dec 2010


Two Saheli presentations at the IAWS regional meet

For a collective that started out as a crisis intervention centre and evolved into a campaign group, Saheli has used a variety of strategies to talk about issues, articulate concerns, popularise its perspectives, stop unethical research studies, raise awareness, raise a storm… whatever! So, over the years, from grappling with police procedures to wrangling with medical jargon, rescuing women and children from abusive homes to writing songs, performing plays and indeed, even cracking a new tune, we’ve done it all… even if we didn’t always stay in tune while we did it! But interestingly, even as we built our ‘skill sets’ in all these areas, we have never quite seen ourselves as a ‘legal’ or health’ group, or indeed, even a ‘cultural group’. Yet curiously enough, in the last few months, we have found ourselves invited to two rather different events to ‘talk about’ our ‘cultural’ avatar, to revisit our journeys of expression, reanalyse our strategies, and relook at the languages of resistance we have wittingly and unwittingly evolved over the decades. While some trajectories of growth and evolution have been distinctly our own, some of them emanate from the fact that Saheli was part of the larger stream of the women’s movement since the early eighties wherein plays, songs, performances and dialogues were powerful means of visibilising issues related to women in the public domain.

The first event - The Indian Association of Women’s Studies (IAWS) and Indraprastha College, University of Delhi organized a seminar cum workshop titled “Cultures of Resistance: Women’s Movements as Performance” from 8-10 September 2010. The seminar brought together women from the worlds of theatre, music, film and publishing, along with activists and academics who have been critically engaging with issues related to the ‘cultural production’ of the women’s movement. This was because there was a growing realization within the IAWS, especially by women like Uma Chakravarti who drove this event, that while the Association has had a long history of focusing on issues pertaining to women through national and regional workshops over the last 30 years, it has never focussed on the ‘culture of resistance’ so central to the movement.

The women’s movement of the late seventies and eighties centred on opposing forms of violence against women that had been practiced for a long time, but had now assumed new dimensions and were being seen in new contexts and manifestations. This created a new imperative for both thinking critically about culture and the ways in which it validated such violence; as well as ways of intervening in the practice of culture, and working to democratise, if not reclaim it. And so it was that the post seventies women’s movement in India emerged with a large repertoire of street plays, songs, poster exhibitions, films, proscenium theatre, sculpture, installations, even handicrafts like kantha and phads, drawing upon an extremely wide range of traditions.

The idea of the seminar was to create a forum for older feminists to revisit their journeys and to open these discussions with a newer generation of women. And so it did, generating a palpable energy and camaraderie that one has come to associate almost exclusively with women and the women’s movement.

Taking our songs to the streets!

A rocking start to the day with Kamla Bhasin, Gouri Chowdhary, Jaya Srivastav, Runu and others rewinding to the earliest days, the first songs and the first ditties of the movement, and it was a hard act to follow! Satnam and Vani began the Saheli presentation by recalling a similar session on the songs of the movement that everyone had shared on the 26th anniversary of Saheli in August of 2009. Recalling the use of songs in various campaigns, protests, demonstrations, awareness generation programmes, Women’s Day programmes and so on as a way to reach out, they talked more about how various songs were created, where they drew their sources and energies from; how they had been adapted from socialist

classics, radical poetry, film songs and folk ditties, and how they had been re-used, re-contextualised and re-adapted with the changing times.

Songs on the power of sisterhood like Uth Jaag Meri Behna (Rise with me, sister), satirical numbers like Hindu Mandir Mandir Bol, Muslim Masjid Masjid Bol… (Hindu, speak only of the temple; Muslim, speak only of the mosque) and others like Kaisi Neeti Hai... (What kind of policy?) often helped us create a common, easy language to join forces with other progressive groups and individuals and speak to common people about difficult, sensitive and complex issues ranging from communal politics to the new economic policy. In a presentation peppered with performances of excerpts of songs sung by Divya, Satnam and Vani (and several in the audience), the presentation then traced the evolution of newer verses added to older classics like Isliye Raah Sangharsh Ki Hum Chune… (That’s why we choose the path of struggle…) during the 1984 anti Sikh riots or in response to the recent “honour killings” of young men and women who fell in love or married out of the community.

We also spoke of our experience of ”re-inventing”, if you will, the use of older songs that sometimes become trapped in the context of ‘their times’. An example shared was that of the historical narrative of the Indian women’s movement, Sangathith Ho… (Gather all ye women…) that captures significant landmarks from the anti-price rise agitations of the 1970s to the anti-dowry and anti-Sati struggles as well as the response of the movement to the Shah Bano judgement. However, with time we have found that the language and tenor of the song makes it difficult to use as a means of communication on its own. Yet, interspersed with short descriptive talks about the various struggles of women, it has been reborn as a new performative tool!

Along the way, we also talked of songs like Samjhe Ye Zamaana (The World Must Understand…) that were created for our play against sexual harassment at the workplace titled, ‘Mahaul Badalna Hai’ (We’ve Got to Change the Environment), which have now become standalone songs. Our ever popular ‘Down Down’, based on a popular song from a children’s film that takes on the street harasser, the police force, the callous university administration and the silent spectators in the city was also discussed. Citing a more recent example, we shared how we sometimes adapt old classics to push a point and make new interconnections – for example,   on the 2nd of July 2009, while the LGBT community was celebrating one year of the judgement decriminalising homosexuality, we brought the focus back to the long road ahead by Mashalein Le Kar Chalna… (Walk with torches blazing, because the night is long) in order to talk about the challenges ahead: continuing homophobia, transphobia, police harassment, discrimination, lesbian suicides, patriarchy and so on.

We closed on a lighter note with one of our favourite songs called Naarivaad Behna Dheere Dheere Aayi... (Sister, feminism comes very, very slowly!) which takes a long hard dig at our own brand of feminism and collectivism – critiquing funding of the ‘autonomous’ women’s movement by international agencies, poking jokes at non-funded collectives, teasing ourselves about how caste and sexuality have split the movement and so on…

‘Playing’ it in different ways.

The afternoon session on Journeys in Street Theatre was a particularly emotional one. After all, we were in IP College, the site of the first ever performance of Om Swaha – considered to be the first ever street-play of the autonomous women’s movement in India. 

Sadhna opened the Saheli presentation with a backgrounder on how, from Om Swaha to Farq, Norplant to Mahaul Badalna Hai and Kaun Jaat – plays ranging from anti-dowry to personal laws, hazardous hormonal contraceptives to sexual harassment and the grip of caste and religious identity on women’s lives – our journey over the ages has been one of addressing violence against women in both its direct and more insidious forms. We chose to talk only about three plays that Saheli developed and to look at the making of these plays along with the development of women’s movement as it was confronting newer challenges and was grappling with the complexity of violence in the lives of women. This violence is sometimes direct but also indirect, often invisibilised and trivialised, though connected at various levels.

In the beginning, the movement was looking at more blatant forms of violence, like the dowry related violence in Om Swaha. From violence within the family and sexual violence as understood within the terminology of rape, the women’s movement went on to understand violence on women in situations of communal riots with the increasing control of community on women, to sati where in the name of tradition violence took different forms. More recently, issues related to women in land rights and environment protection movements, to reproductive and general health issues, violence/harassment that women face at workplaces, to controls by caste and community panchayats are also being raised. Keeping this long and rich trajectory in mind, our effort has been to keep the style of plays interactive, and to weave in humour and satire without compromising the gravity of the issue. All the three plays discussed here have been developed by the group, and performed by both, members as well as friends, supporters and other groups.

The Norplant play was developed in early 1990s in reaction to the government’s ruthless policy for family planning and decision to subject about 20,000 women to trials of the hazardous hormonal implant, Norplant. This was also the time when western governments and multi-lateral agencies were propagating theories that increasing populations in the third world were leading to a stress on natural resources and environment, and hence poor women from the third world needed to be targets of population control! Hence, the play was created with two objectives – (i) To warn poor women especially in slum areas of Delhi about these trials and this contraceptive and (ii) to put pressure on the government to scrap the trials themselves. It took about a month to develop this play which had both Sahelis and friends of Saheli – Kalpana, Nilanjana, Suhas, Jaya Mehta, Hari, Sunita, Davi, Deepak. Later, it was performed with a different cast which included Dimple, Asha Kachru and Anita Srivastava.

The play counterpoints many interesting events: celebrations over the birth of a son (after three daughters) in a family set against an angry American population control funder; a parody set in the office of the Health Minister (ML Fotedaar, called Khotedaar) where (then Finance Minister) Manmohan Singh has set out no cuts in the Family Planning budget, except a 90% cut on Health; the glee on the face of the funder and the minister when they realise they finally have a means of contraception that the users cannot control – i.e. Norplant – that once implanted stays in the woman’s body for about 5 years as opposed to condoms that get blown up like balloons and pills that get flushed away or male sterilisation that actually brought down the government! Towards the end we see how poor, illiterate and vulnerable women are lured into getting Norplant implanted, and the play exhorts them to break the silence and put a stop to atrocities on women’s bodies. In order to communicate this message more effectively, the play also uses songs like Khamoshi Todo Waqt Aa Gaya and Naari Shareer Par Atyaachar Nahi Sahenge..

While reading out sections of the play to make the presentations more lively, Sadhna also talked about the need to retrieve a number of songs like Gore babu ka aayaa adesh family planning jayada karo which none of the original cast/crew can recall anymore, thus highlighting the need to archive and document our creations for posterity. The play was taken to a large number of bastis and resettlement colonies all over Delhi, and well-received by large audiences, generating much discussion among both women and men. It also became an important tool in working with Left party women’s groups like AIDWA and NFIW, NGO’s and other groups working on health, and helped us to collectively lobby against the Norplant trials with members of Parliament and ministers.

Satnam then spoke about the process of developing Mahaul Badalna Hai and also enacted a part of it. Based on a survey we had done on the varying vulnerabilities of women to sexual harassment at the workplace across class and occupation, the play was unique in the fact that it did not have the physical presence of male harasser. His presence was felt through the dialogues and reactions of the women characters. Working with a bare minimum of props i.e. a daphli and a chair, the play was simple, light and direct, yet subtle in its use of humour and satire, and educative about the Supreme Court Guidelines on Sexual Harassment at Workplace. It also took on the moral policing of women and used examples to illustrate the double standards that the world has when responding to acts of violence against men and women. Ten years after Mahaul Badalna Hai was created and first performed in colleges and universities, domestic workers unions, nurses, factory workers and middle class localities, it remains one of our ‘hit’ productions. We have also used it as the basis for numerous workshops, trained students to evolve variations of the play themselves, conducted sessions with guards of universities using sections of it, and even worked with other women’s groups who chose to take on the play and perform it at various other places.

The songs of the play have also been ‘big hits’ and are still used during dharnas, morchas, demonstrations, protests and Women’s Day celebrations.

The last part of the Saheli presentation was on the play, Kaun Jaat. Vani spoke of how the form evolved of any play by the group depends on several variables – the issues at stake, the strengths of the present group, its set of talents, its aesthetic choices etc. Again, Kaun Jaat was also based on a Saheli study that looked at increased control/ socialization of women to community identity, in the context of post-Gujarat genocide. This report titled ‘Talking Marriage, Caste and Community: Voices from Within’ reveals complex interconnections between the everyday controls on women’s lives and the insidious nature of this violence. It inspired us to evolve a play of five semi-fictional monologues: one of a Dalit medical student at AIIMS, the story of a Muslim woman married into a Hindu family, that of a Hindu woman married within the community, another one of a single, lesbian woman and the interwoven narratives of victims of sexual violence – Surekha from Khairlanji, Bilkis from Gujarat, Manorama from Manipur.

Interspersing her talk with excerpts of the monologues, Vani spoke of how while the form of the play gave us the power to connect with the audience, it presented some challenges as well. It is more difficult to perform as a group, and somewhat more challenging to receive an audience, especially if you are not talking about anything like vaginas, as in the Vagina Monologues! Also, the fact that the play raises a large canvas of issues related to caste, religion, community, sexuality, sexual violence as a tool of community control, makes it simultaneously exciting and difficult. Yet, Kaun Jaat has been actively adapted and performed by a Saheli – Akshara and other students in Hyderabad University, with a monologue added on the discrimination faced by students from the North East. All in all, it was a superbly exciting day of sharing and re-thinking our own cultural journey and learning from those of others.~ conferences