Feminist Street Theatre: Plays as Contemporary History
Deepti Priya Mehrotra
The period from the late 1970s to the end-80s was a particularly fertile time for street plays made and performed within the context of a vibrant women’s movement. These plays focused on concerns such as dowry, sexual harassment, rape and communalism, and exposed the ugly underbelly of the society, family and state. Closely associated with autonomous women’s groups, they were broadly socialist feminist in their perspective. Recently Sampurna Trust, a small independent feminist group in Delhi, decided to share some of these plays anew through a program of dramatised readings. The hour-long performance, which featured readings from two plays, “Ahsaas” and “Aurat aur Dharm”, was organised at diverse venues such as the Delhi School of Social Work, the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art and Studio Safdar, from March to May 2016.
“Ahsaas”, “Aurat aur Dharm” and other plays such as “Om Swaha” and “Parivar ki Gaadi” were created by ordinary women from colleges and bastis, and performed hundreds of times during the ’80s. The plays evolved, typically, through groups of women sharing experiences and concerns. They were then weaved these into scripts, through improvisations. Through these deeply political plays, women articulated hidden experiences of pain, anger, and resistance. It was drama from the ground up, based on real lives and events, and it contributed to a new surge of awareness, questioning and analysis.
The plays were performed in many different places in those days: streets, parks, courtyards, schools, colleges, hostels, hospitals, at protests and celebrations. Activists tried to reach out to as many people as possible, hoping to change mindsets through this powerful medium.
The Two Plays
Sampurna Trust has been researching feminist street theatre, and the program of play readings emerged as a seamless extension of this research. The organisation received a small grant (2014-16) under the Arts Research program of India Foundation for the Arts, with part support from South Asian Women’s Fund, to work on a book on feminist street theatre. It has been exciting to locate and read a number of the old play scripts, and interview original participants. Three of us at Sampurna, Indira Mukherjee, Shanti and myself, began reading the plays aloud, in late 2015. It was strangely energising. From this point on, it was a short journey to performing for others.
The two plays were selected intuitively. We felt that the two complement each another. One was written in a university environment, while the other evolved within a grassroots organisation active in working-class residential areas. Taken together, they open up windows into the past, bringing out different facets of reality.
“Ahsaas” emerged out of a workshop held over several weeks in late 1979, in Ruth Vanita’s hostel room at Miranda House, Delhi University. Vanita taught English Literature, and was involved with the then-new journal Manushi. Ten to fifteen women from various campus colleges, and a few from outside the university, joined the workshop. Theatre exercises helped participants to open up, overcome inhibitions, and share their experiences as women, including intimate, and troubled, areas. From this material, the script was composed by Tripurari Sharma, and then rehearsals took place. The play was performed in Delhi University during Dec ’79-Jan ‘80, at Miranda House, Central Institute of Education and a few other venues; and in Lajpat Nagar, in homes – courtyards, terraces, where women would gather. Audiences watched attentively, and invariably women responded intensely, discussing issues, sharing experiences.
“Ahsaas” received a fresh lease of life in 1982. St Stephen’s college witnessed a traumatic incident of sexual harassment during March ’81: several women students were molested by a gang of 30 to 40 men who came into the college premises, on pretext of playing Holi. No action was taken: authorities forbade it, and concerned women students feared parents would withdraw them from college. Some women students initiated a campaign next year, as the festival approached: they went from college to college; sparked off Vigilance Committees; drew up collective demands for the Vice-Chancellor; got women police to act as stooges; extended the campaign into residential areas; and made a television program on sexual harassment. Later, in summer ’82, a core group decided to take up Ahsaas, to continue the campaign against sexual harassment. This group of activist-friends performed the play during the next five years, up to 1987. It became an integral part of their lives: Suvritta Khattri, Shobha Agarwal, Jyotsna Kapur, Vrinda Grover, Jyotika Virdi and myself. Others joined for chunks of time — Jashodhara Tripathi, Rahul Roy, Aditi Phadnis, Gouri Dey, Pravin Kumar, Amar Kanwar. Audience responses were warm and spurred us on to continue performing.
The play is down-to-earth. It uses a very domestic idiom. There are evocative dialogues between mother-daughter, brother-sister, wife-husband, principal-students. There are also several monologues voicing women’s internal dreams, conflicts and struggles, all of which is wrapped within the chorus representing social morality, at other times solidarities in resistance. The play caught some of the flavor of ordinary women’s struggles – for education, voice, identity, dignity, freedom, the right to work, to be safe in every space whether private or public.
Aurat aur Dharm
“Aurat aur Dharm” was born out of the churning several activists experienced after working with survivors of the anti-Sikh riots, 1984. These were grassroots women activists, living in Sundar Nagri, Nand Nagri, Jehangirpuri and Dakshnipuri, working in non-formal education and health programs run by Sabla Sanghs, Action India and Ankur, in their bastis. They were active in relief and rehabilitation work, and this, particularly the situation of riot widows, shook them deeply. They mulled over communalism, and also religion itself: beginning to see how every religion relegates women to a secondary status. They discussed, amongst themselves, how religions oppress women – imposing taboos, restrictions and limitations. They discovered this in not only their work-area, but also their own lives.
In 1985 some of these activists decided to make a play on the theme of women and religion. A series of workshops were held, with Ein Lall as the resource person. The play’s content, storyline and characters emerged out of collective thinking and discussion. They improvised, took on roles, rehearsed and thereafter performed at many different venues. The activist-actors included Shanti (now in Sampurna Trust), Gyanvati, Veermati, Vidya, Maharani, Sumitra, Reshma, and a few more. They sometimes faced the ire of patriarch-communal crowds; at other times sparked off intimate conversations in women-only gatherings. Overall, their performances stimulated thinking and discussion, among tens of thousands of people.
The play “Aurat aur Dharm” is humorous and serious at the same time. An Ustad-Jamoora pair defends and upholds orthodox socio-religious anti-woman stands. Women stand up for themselves: speak out against the hold of menstrual taboos and stigmatising of women as dirty and inauspicious. They protest the inhuman treatment of widowed and single women. They celebrate the birth of daughters against prevalent son preference, finally striking out on their own, with a burgeoning feminist consciousness.
Zindagi ke Natak, Natakon ki Zindagi: Plays from Life, and the Life of Plays
If the street plays were based on real-life, today it appears that the plays, too, have a life of their own. Vivek Lohia, a Delhi university student, remarked (after viewing the program of readings, on 20th March 2016): “These plays feel as if they were written last week… I can’t believe they were made thirty years ago!” Several young people in the audience felt the plays were relevant to their lives. Shreya Tiwari, an educationist at NCERT, noted, “I’ve learnt that women were raising issues and struggling over them, all those years ago, before I was even born! We still face similar issues. Knowing this history, I feel stronger, it gives greater courage for fighting our struggles today.”
Shailaja Dixit, who works on issue of domestic violence in California, with the organisation Narika, found her eyes brimming with tears as she listened to the first few dialogues of “Ahsaas”: “I hear these words every day, in my work with women of south Asian descent”, she explained. “These plays bring up issues women face all around me – they are overworked, exhausted, constantly handling all the slack, and are still vulnerable to violence.”
The feminist drama scripts seem to resonate across time and space: it feels meaningful to revisit, reclaim and communicate old truths, for consideration across generations.
Sampurna Trust is a registered charitable trust that supports grassroots action and research for children, education, and women’s empowerment. They received a grant, with Deepti Priya Mehrotra as the Principal Investigator, under the Arts Research programme of the India Foundation for the Arts, with part support from South Asian Women’s Fund.
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