by Priti Salian
I left the theater shaking, cold, and rather broken. Besides the overarching story of Nirbhaya herself, five other women came forward to paint the picture of an overwhelming amount of violence towards women in India. The stories that these five women told broke me down into fundamental pieces. I began to question a lot of my own experiences as well as the world around me. In putting myself back together, I learned a lot about myself and about my future. I can relate to these women. Even if I have not had the same experiences, I have felt scared, angry, frustrated, and very, very alone. But I am clearly not alone, and I want other women around the world to come to that same realization.
Susan Rattigan, a high school student, recently wrote this college entrance essay based on the impact Nirbhaya, the internationally-acclaimed play by playwright and director Yael Farber, had on her. Produced by Poorna Jagannathan, Riverside Studios and the Edinburgh Fringe Production Company, Assembly, Nirbhaya begins with the horrifying gang rape of a medical student in Delhi that took place on Dec. 16, 2012 and moves forward with the performers being catalyzed into shattering their silence about their own abuse. In this testimonial drama, each of the five actresses brings to the stage a personal incident from her life.
Nirbhaya was first featured at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland this August where it received rave reviews and won three awards: The Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, The Scotsman’s Fringe First Award, and the Herald Angel Award. It has been in the news ever since for the phenomenal effect it has had on its audiences. The makers of Nirbhaya recently ran a campaign on Kickstarter.com, a crowd-funding site, and were able to collect over 50,000 GBP (USD 81,845) to bring the production to India early next year.
Jagannathan, who has worked with both Indian and international films, like Delhi Belly and Dealbreakers, and on stage, has had the most transformative experiences through theater. She says of Nirbhaya, “Something deep opened up in every person who saw this play. People broke their silence after every performance. Many told me that they could always manage to put a guard between the subject and themselves; they could find a way to distance themselves, saying it’s just a film, or that documentary happened somewhere else.” But watching the cast perform their life stories just a few feet away from them broke down their guard and transformed them. It brought out feelings from deep within that they never thought existed. Several cried and many spoke of their own experiences, but each and every one of them was moved deeply.
“There were also tons of men and women who didn’t have any stories but wanted to understand how to get involved and how to help.” The play helped them understand that their apathy could also be a cause of this epidemic.
Cases of marital abuse, childhood abuse, gang rape and sexual harassment on the streets of India are disturbingly frequent and a part of every woman’s life who lives in the country. According to the Indian government agency National Crime Records Bureau, 706 cases of rape were reported in the city of Delhi in 2012, as opposed to 572 in 2011. A total of 24,923 cases were recorded across India in 2012, a highly underreported number.
A survey conducted by the Thomson Reuter’s Foundation in 2012 rated India the worst country for women among the G20 nations. This is sad, but possibly true. From childhood, the women of India are taught to suppress their anger every time they are eve-teased or sexually harassed for their own safety. As a little girl, I stopped playing in one of my favorite parks because a group of teenage bullies who never missed a chance to grope little girls frequented it. The only solution a ten-year-old like me could think of was to sacrifice visiting the park by telling my parents it had too many mosquitoes.
But something changed for the women of India on Dec. 16, 2012, when a medical student was gang raped on a moving bus. They were moved to a point of no return and took to the streets to support her cause. Even though the victim succumbed to her injuries two weeks later, her supporters did not stop giving vent to their rage. A fire had sparked and would not be doused in a hurry this time.
Today, on the anniversary of that horrifying gang rape, three Indian artists are out to support the women and the innumerable men of India who have catapulted into action. Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal, Siddhartha Jain and Poorna Jagannathan will soon be on board with their works on transformational arts and hope to engender a public debate and galvanize action.
Kotwal is a veteran theater personality in India who has acted in, produced and directed plays like The Vagina Monologues, playwright Eve Ensler’s gem that discusses issues like marital abuse and rape, among other things. Recently, Kotwal also directed Emotional Creature, a play based on true stories of teenage girls around the world. Written by Eve Ensler, Emotional Creature is ready to open to the audience after a run at the Times of India Literary Carnival in Mumbai on December 8. Both plays will be staged through December in Indian cities.
Over the years, Kotwal has seen theater change lives. She was on a flight from Mumbai to Delhi recently when she met Saira*, who walked up to her and hugged her. Kotwal’s production of The Vagina Monologues had given her the strength to stand up against her husband, who abused her in every possible way, and finally leave him.
Kotwal has many such stories to share. “A mother who was unsupportive of her daughter’s decision to divorce her husband of six months came up to me to say that after viewing the play she had realized what her daughter must have gone through,” she says. “A very young man who had always refused to understand his mother felt he was being slapped in the face with every word that he heard during the performance.”
“Several women opened up to me about the horrors of genital mutilation after watching us discuss the subject in the play. It was the first time they could muster up the courage to talk about it.”
With topics such as sex trafficking of young girls, teen pregnancy and unsupportive parents, Kotwal’s production of Emotional Creature targets the teenagers and their parents with the hope of transforming attitudes.
Kill the Rapist? is a Bollywood flick produced by Siddhartha Jain that looks at the treatment a rapist should receive. The film is a mainstream thriller and hopes to spur a debate with the answers it seeks. Whether the rapist should be killed is one of the questions it asks its viewers.
Jain has been running the Kill the Rapist? movement as a Facebook group for some time now. He started this group to “vent out anger at rapists.” Says Jain, “What’s heartening to see is that more and more men are voicing their opinion, which is very important. The common voice is that capital punishment is important and the fear of law enforcement [is] critical.”
Jain chose to make a film on this issue because he considers it an effective medium to send a message to the world. “A film can reach out to a much larger audience in a short time period.” He wants the film to make “every rapist to shiver with fear before even thinking of rape.” Subjects such as implementation of laws, punishment for criminals and looking down upon the victim are also covered by the film and are bound to initiate a country-wide conversation as soon as the promotions begin on Dec. 16.
Kotwal, Jain and Jagannathan are doing their part to achieve personal and social transformation through their work. They are looking to rekindle a flame in all Indian men and women, to help them walk past their shadows, leave behind their ghosts and break barriers of silence against abuse that might have happened to them or their family. They want to challenge the shame that society associates with victims of abuse and communicate that victims should never feel like they should remain silent.
As for me, each day, I teach my daughter not to take a bad touch lying down, but to stand up and tell the perpetrator to stop, and then come home and discuss it with me. I want her to drop her inhibitions, to be able to stand up for herself as a young woman, and be an active part of the change taking place in India. It is heartening to see that she is trying to do what I never could.
*Name changed to protect the individual’s identity.
About the Author: Priti Salian is a freelance features writer and journalist settled in Bangalore, India. She took to teaching immediately after receiving her master's in Chemistry, but soon discovered a special connection with words. Though she still does the occasional stint as an educator due to her love for children, she is primarily a writer of nonfiction. Internationally, her work has appeared in The National (UAE) and Anokhi (Canada). Priti has written for Indian nationals such as Femina, Prevention, Child, Mother & Baby and Discover India, among others. From lifestyle to human rights, she loves to write about a host of trends and challenging issues that call for attention.