ACTing on and off stage

The core group of actors from Aagaaz, have been engaging with regular conversations about gender and sexuality. The adolescent girls meet me on a weekly basis to co-create a safe space.

I have always been fascinated by the prospect of exploring gender as a theme with adolescents. However, this group at Nizamuddin is responsible for opening my eyes to the struggles and significance of such crucial and controversial work. I feel that I have come a long way as a learner, if not a facilitator. My initial conversations with the girls were primarily scientific and factual. We discussed the details of menstruation and spent a whole lot of time naming body parts and critically examining myths and taboos around menstrual health. Gradually, we moved towards understanding personal space, ideas around consent and objectification and slowly transitioned into exploring the notion of pleasure.

Aagaaz’s vision statement says “we relentlessly question ‘what is’ to probe ‘what could and should be’ to learn ways to act and perform beyond just the stage”. We constantly strive to understand the world through theatre, and sometimes we dramatic work based on our lived experience. Being selected for Gender Bender in 2016 ( a festival co-curated and supported by Sandbox Collective and Goethe Institut, Bangalore) with Urban Turban, was more of the latter.

As I watched the three actors perform the work-in-progress piece in Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti on the 23rd of April, I saw how beautifully they are negotiating their understandings and confusions around their bodies, identities, and their worlds through the thin overlapping space between performing on and off the stage. Urban Turban explores how gender plays out in the everyday lives of three girls living in Nizamuddin Basti. The play explores their struggles, their confusions and their attempts to make their space in the world. It explores their stories, yet manages to encapsulate bits of their next-door neighbour’s story, bits of their school friend’s story, bits of my story and maybe bits of the story being lived by a woman you saw walking on the street.

Our director, Dhwani Vij uses aspects of physical theatre, object theatre and immersive theatre to create an experience that makes the intricacies of these everyday episodes come alive.

In the play, we see the girls in their familiar environments doing the things they do. There is a morning routine, going to school, interacting with the neighbourhood and being at home. The theatrical technique is highlighted when the girls start singing about all the things they don’t understand about the world. The lyrics of the song are comical yet powerful. There is a point where the girls say that ‘sadkon par masti nahi karna samaj nahi aata’ and the simple statement blatantly outlines the patriarchal power structures and the restrictions they create.

Coming back to the show I watched in Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti, we performed for the community workers of Aga Khan Foundation. This show will remain in our memories for posterity. It was extremely special. This is the school the girls went to as children, this is the neighbourhood where they live and the audience comprises of the people who co-exist in this environment and share this ‘lived experience’. Performing in these circumstances takes a lot more strength, especially when it has potential to confront reality. There is no possibility for the actors to remove themselves from the context after the curtain call.

 

Process oriented theatre is slow work. Sometimes, it takes a while to notice small yet significant insights that emerge over a period of time. This performance for the community, and a few other instances have marked a major shift in how the girls interact with world. 17 year old Jasmine feels that change doesn’t happen overnight and little interventions can make a difference in the way people perceive gender. She feels optimistic about using performance to challenge mindsets and hopes that these messages would influence her environment at home. 18 year old Nagina was glad to see that the questions thrown at the actors, were answered by the women in the audience themselves. She felt that it signified common experience and a relatable understanding of the context. The play triggered moments of self- evaluation for some of the women in the audience and that was also a crucial response, according to her. A moment from the audience interaction that stands out for me was an older woman in the audience saying,” I am going to stop gossiping about young girls from now onwards.”

16 year old Nagma, has other perspectives to offer. She talks about the fear of performing in front of people who might tell her parents what her ‘theatre’ is all about. At the same time, there is acknowledgement of the fact that performances such as these, have potential to show a mirror to society. She strongly believes that change starts from the self, and Urban Turban is a trigger in that direction.

Suddenly, I am able to see how the girls are understanding th larger purpose and long term impact of their work. They feel the need to create more sustainable and frequent exposures in their community. In addition to the performative element, our Darpan sessions have also seen some beautiful turning points. One such moment happened during a recent workshop exploring personal perspectives on gender. We used improvisation games, embodiments, visual arts and scene work to talk about society and the moral standards it imposes on girls. We also managed to do deeper into it, by looking at our narratives of ‘Ideal Women’ and detecting the loopholes there as well. This snippet from a short piece they improvised during this session, highlights their ability to understand the topic with respect to both context and privilege.

(An interaction between a low caste scholar, a middle class housewife, a wealthy socialite and feminist activist)

Scholar: मेरी बेटी को तो देखो कैसे कपड़े पहन के बाहर घूमती रहती है| समाज क्या सोचेगा?

Activist: उसे जो करना है करने दो| समाज समाज समाज!! क्या समाज तुम्हारी थाली पर खाना रखता है या तुम खुद?

Housewife: हम इस समाज का हिस्सा हैं और अभी हम यहाँ से बाहर नही निकल सकते| ह्मे खुद को लोगों की बातों से बचाना है, क्योंकि ह्में ही सुनना पड़ता है|

While dialogues in Nizamuddin are becoming more nuanced by the day, we are still quite new to creating similar spaces with unfamiliar adolescents. Our work at Pehchan Centre in Jaitpur, is taking a different trajectory. Recently, we realised how engaging with the arts consistently can transform an exercise from an intimidating instruction to an opportunity for personal expression. And this hardly took us a few weeks. However, the challenge now lies in pushing ourselves to go deeper into the ideas and the processes.

Vagina Dialogues with Haiyya

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We began our Sexual and Reproductive Health-Gender workshops in April 2016. Engaging intensively with a group of adolescents, talking about the changes in the body, decisions that are made about the body, relationships, sexuality, and conversations about gender seemed more and more urgent. The aim is to create a non-judgemental, safe space, where the participants as well as the facilitators can engage with thematic areas and ask questions without any fears.

It was during a conversation with Zarina’s mentor Gayathri, that she suggested we tie up with Haiyya to facilitate a session with gynaecologist. Haiyya’s  mission is to strengthen participatory democracy in urban neighbourhoods across India and to build an aware, deliberative, and active citizenry by implementing, supporting, and sharing community organizing strategies to hold our government – and people – accountable for solving civic issues. One of their campaigns is around the reproductive health and rights of single women. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for not just the girls in the core team of Aagaaz, but also their female mentors to know more about their body and their rights.

The session was organized for the 26th of March in Gayathri’s living room. Mrinalini from Haiyya and Dr. Ankita, a 29 year old gynaecologist along with Gayathri led the conversations. The group as always was full of curiosities. Conversations and questions ranged from an understanding of the female reproductive system, to childbirth, contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases, rape, legalities, rights, and much else. In Dr. Ankita, the group found a friend, who was talking to them without any moral strictures or even assumptions. The mentors too were active participants in the conversation. We realised that sexual and reproductive health is such a taboo and veiled zone that even those with more access and education often don’t have the right information.

We ended the conversations by creating lines of communication for the girls in case of any distress related to their bodies. Dr. Ankita, Gayathri, Mrinalini, all volunteered to be available in case a need arose. The evening was full of information, laughter, thought, and some brilliant sweet and savoury snacks Gayathri made along with chai. The 19 girls/women lingered on in the room till much after goodbyes were said and photographs taken. Few more friendships were forged that evening. Ankita will be back with us in a couple of months for another session – this time on cervical and breast cancer.

Sexual and Reproductive Health Sessions

While working with adolescents we have realized the importance of the emerging questions and ideas that shape us when we come of age. The group at Nizamuddin has a variety of growing individuals who are beginning to learn more about their bodies, their relationships, their sexuality and the gender roles they play.
Discussions and dialogues around sexual health and gender are closely interwoven into their understanding of themselves as individuals, as actors and as active critical thinkers.  Based on their questions, we have had several sessions with the group about menstruation, masturbation, changing bodies and stigma of blood. We have also tried to facilitate separate sessions for girls and boys and encouraged them to share the observations and factual information with people of the opposite sex as well.
Lately, a lot of work has happened around topics connected to personal space and consent.  Since these topics seem to be currently connected to their lives, it made sense to understand their perspectives and give them an opportunity to see things differently. We made use of theatre based games, discussions and videos such as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZwvrxVavnQ.
Additionally, we have been talking about notions of masculinity and femininity. It’s still an ongoing discussion and a need to delve into other aspects of gender-based education has also surfaced.
Do visit our website for more information on this aspect of our work and the resources we use: http://aagaaztheatre.org/sexual-and-reproductive-health/ .