16 Days Of Activism: Nukkad Natak

by | Mar 16, 2020

Clicked in the field area of Vikalp Sansthan, Rajasthan. Image source YourStory

Every year from the 25th of November to the 10th of December, women rights-based organizations observe the 16 days of activism which is a global campaign that addresses gender-based violence against women and girls. Vikalp Sansthan, where i work on behalf of Gender At Work as an India Fellow, also takes part in planning activities during that time to educate the community on the issues of child marriages and all kinds of gender-based violence that women and girls face every day.

2019 was no exception. It witnessed a series of meetings, games, poster making, slogan writing, marching with candles based on the central theme of uniting to speak up on violence against women. The planning began at the staff meeting of Vikalp, weeks before. It was that a street play also be organized. I, being always the one typing away in the office and hardly getting a chance to visit the field said I’d gladly help. Fortunately, she was convinced that I could be a person of reliance, we came up with possible topics that can be covered, gave the play a name and she asked me to join her for the rehearsal a few days before the performance.

I, being a performer, had more than a few ideas as to how we could go about it, but I decided on my way to the field to keep them to myself. It was absolutely crucial that I only provided the support needed and pay attention to their ideas. To any performer, especially one who is a writer-performer, unsolicited advice is the second last thing that is welcome. The last being criticism. We may say that we would love to hear your feedback, but honestly, we know better and all we want to accept after any performance is praise. The play was to take place on five villages in Mavli block : Dhola ka Dhaneriya, Changedi, Wasnikala, Khartana, Fatehnagar. The rehearsals took place in Khartana as most of the participants belonged from there. The trip to the field was a very uncomfortable auto ride, where I was sandwiched between large packing boxes containing who knows what with my legs wrapped around more of them like jelly. It felt like I had accidentally entered one of Willy Wonka’s chocolate making machines. Tara and Vaishali, had come to pick me up from the Fatehnagar station.

Upon reaching the field, I was introduced to the village women of Khartana, who were the mothers of the girls taking part in the play. They were informed about how the girls would be escorted on a performance tour across villages for a whole day and would be dropped back home in the evening. It helped that Tara and Vaishali, were also participating. I noticed that the girls and their mothers relied on these two, as they were part of the same community and had been working in the field for quite some time now. I was reminded of my own dancing community back home, and how my mother used to joke that it wouldn’t matter if we got lost in the Sahara on a dance tour as she knew we would be in the care of each other.

The rehearsal took place in a school, after-hours. I was introduced to the story then. They chose three stories on child marriage, harassment in the streets and domestic violence. The idea seemed a little too ambitious at the time, and rightly so. It was the first time some of them were performing, and none of them had the experience of performing on the streets. The greatest of the great artists will tell you that proscenium is a much safer choice, should you be given one, as there is a considerable amount of distance between the performer and the audience. So, naturally, I feared that not only they hadn’t had a chance to be in that secure enclosed space, they were about to be thrown in front of unapproving stares and judgemental remarks of the public. Most of them had never acted before, in a scripted environment. And most importantly, I asked, why would people pay attention to whatever they had to say?

All of us perform every day, we perform rites and rituals, some sacred, some profane. Most importantly, we as women, perform duties to the society, the family and the self. We cannot walk about in the house as we please, we hide behind a forced smile, we hold our keys between our fingers while walking down the streets and what not. All of this is because of the systemic cogwheel turning relentlessly every day that is well oiled by patriarchy.

And no matter how loud we are, our voices never carry the weight that a man’s voice does. But all of this is expected of us, a street performance pointing out these open secrets, is not. When do people pay attention? Is it only reactionary? In that case, wouldn’t the girls shouting slogans and singing in the streets make them react? The fear was, how exactly were they going to react and whether that reaction would actually stem from paying attention to what they were saying or would just be a showcase of power play.

On the day of the performance, I reached a little late to the field and could only stay for three of the five performances. The first performance I witnessed, was at Fatehnagar, on a fairly busy street within the hustle-bustle of the town. They chose a spot at the bus stand where we were constantly getting interrupted by the vehicles passing by. Because of that and also people moving around, hurrying past us, the performance got delayed for a while and the girls kept losing focus. Finally, there came a man who decided to stop the vehicles from taking the bifurcated road where the girls had chosen a spot to perform. It took one man to actually pay attention to what was happening, and I observed in wonder how he had so much control over the public space as compared to us women. There were around ten of us and yet, we couldn’t accomplish what this one man could. The performance received not much crowd focus, but the passer-by people would from time to time stop by and look at the girls with curious eyes.

During their performance at Sanwar, we received the opposite. The entire crowd encouraged the girls on their initiative to weave these stories into a tale and traveling from one place to the other to narrate it to the people. And they paid attention throughout the performance, passing remarks on each scene. After it ended, they even gave money to the girls as shagun, out of respect. I don’t know if the gesture bordered on patronizing but for the girls, it went a long way to boosting their self-esteem.

The next performance at Wasnikala, a village quite different than Sanwar. Here, the majority of Vikalp’s work is with the Bheel community who were also the larger part of the audience. There was a statue of Ambedkar in front of which the girls chose to perform. I was busy clicking pictures, but I noticed that the previous performances helped them improve. They seemed more confident. I thought to myself, it took me fourteen years of formal training to be a performer on stage before I could step outside to perform in the streets and even then I could not shed off the mountainous amount of inhibitions I have stored away over the years. And these girls dropped them off one by one like loose change falling out of a torn pocket! How did they manage to do so?

Perhaps it was because one must be absolutely honest to tell a story with their body. It doesn’t matter how prepared one is, months and months of rehearsals will never do justice to it if you cannot bare your naked soul out to the people.

What Saloni Soni, Komal Chauhan, Neha Jat, Ranjita Sen, Rekha Jat, Puspa Regar, Mangi Regar, Vaishali Sen, and Tara Regar showed me that day, I will carry with me forever. I wasn’t paying attention to the story that they were narrating, I was paying attention to how they became the storytellers.

Image used for representation purpose only, source Creative Commons

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