International Women's Day: And Still I Rise

For creative people who also happen to be women, what role does gender, community, tradition have in shaping those hard-won rights and fiercely-cherished achievements?


Sampurna Chattarji









‘Genderole’ by Rukmini Bhaya Nair

An observance that grew out of the American suffragette movement, International Women’s Day has, for little over a century now, been marked as a day that aims to celebrate women’s rights, and honour women’s achievements. For creative people who also happen to be women, what role does gender, community, tradition have in shaping those hard-won rights and fiercely-cherished achievements? As a young writer trying to elide/elude labels, I remember how struck I was by this poem by Rukmini Bhaya Nair, in which the run-on lines that mimicked the inscription of Sanskrit slokas insisted I find a new way of reading, inserting the spaces that my mind needed in order to make sense of what was written. This re-seeing of what feels simultaneously very old and very new provoked the questions I put to the practitioners featured here.

SAMPURNA CHATTARJI, poet, editor, author, most recently of Unmappable Moves

‘I see myself as a neutral body,’ Nimmy Raphel

International Women's Day: And Still I Rise

What is the ‘genderole’ you resist/redefine/reclaim through your work?

I grew up in a village in Wayanad where most people, including my parents, are farmers. I did not grow up with too many restrictions—my folks gave me all the freedom I needed. But I was tutored from the beginning to be responsible for my actions, though not in the sense of ‘don’t do this’ and ‘don’t do that’. When I moved to Adishakti and worked with Veenapani (Chawla, founder of Adishakti, Pondicherry) and Vinay (Kumar KJ), I found a role model. More than gender, just how to be—as an artist and as a person—that’s what they really showed me. Through my work, I realised that I don’t feel any gender on stage. I don’t know how to explain this in words, but I don’t see myself as a female character or a male character. I see myself as a neutral body trying to tell a story. And this has really helped me. I try to be as neutral as I can be, even though it’s very difficult for an onlooker because my body clearly looks female. As a person on a stage, what I do is to become interested in stories and I explore them in a way that is possible for the body to explore on stage.

What role does the community play in the making/unmaking of your work?

I’ve been living in Adishakti for 20 years now. It’s my first and ongoing experience, as an artist and as a person, of living in a community. What it has made clear to me is how an individual aligns with the community—not in a disciplinarian sense, but rather how the individual feels responsible for the community as well. [So], it’s not about ‘me’ as an individual—the community becomes the focus, Adishakti becomes the focus.

Sometimes you strongly feel the need to be in the place but you also feel a need to untie yourself. You feel the need to grow further, and you ask: what kind of growth is the institution providing? When people leave, it’s probably the need to grow further… it’s a larger question, and very difficult! At this juncture in my life, it’s my responsibility to make the space conducive for artists to come and work. Because theatre is going more and more into the margins—it’s becoming very, very difficult to make a play, and tour with it. It is collaborative work, and we also have to play a part that will enable others to do that as well. How can Adishakti contribute—that’s the community work we do. True, Adishakti is localised, we have a physical space, but we also try to move out of the physical space through the work we do, to bring people here, and also to move them out.

What tradition do you align yourself to even as you break/remake it?

I’ve had a strong background of dance, I learnt Kuchipudi and Mohiniyattam at (Kerala) Kalamandalam, though I didn’t finish my course, and it didn’t make me think ‘why was I doing a particular form’ till I came to Adishakti. And then I realised most of the traditional forms—that we see and enact through our bodies—are from a very experiential landscape, created, and accumulated, over centuries of practice. Accessing that is also a big responsibility for contemporary performers like us.

What tradition probably means to me is assimilating a kind of experience, which is also what we’re trying to do as we tell stories—to allow that journey to continue. That’s how I see tradition, not as a frozen, fossilised thing. There’s a lot to learn from tradition: for instance, how it archives processes. Archiving in a purer sense, not like digitising. Passing on a tradition is also a kind of archiving—not lifelessly but like a ball that is full of energy—squeeze it and it will open out [again]. That’s how I see tradition—an archive that has life, that moves forward.

I don’t know if there are women who have played [the mizhavu] before me. I’d seen it in Kalamandalam, had always wanted to play it, but we were not allowed to touch it. I remember feeling I’ll never be able to reach it. But when I came to Adishakti, Veenapani said: “Go ahead and touch it, you’ll be taught how to play it.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! Even now, it feels like a fulfilment of something I thought I’d never be able to do. You know desire itself is very hard to feel, sometimes you may even forget about it when you actually get what you desire. … That’s something we constantly feel in art—to touch things distant and removed from us. Those moments when something comes to us, like new ideas, or you watch a performance for the first time and you say, “Ah, this has happened!” Playing the mizhavu gives me the same sense of joy. Every time. And hence, the feeling that nothing is impossible.

NIMMY RAPHEL is an actor, dancer, drummer, and co-artistic director of Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Art Research.

'I resist being categorised,' Roshni Vyam

International Women's Day: And Still I Rise

What is the ‘genderole’ you resist/redefine/reclaim through your work?

Being a woman artist, I feel like a free bird. I always recall a sentence from my uncle, Jangarh Singh Shyam, (Do what you like, my dear old goddess). I still remember, when I used to show my small scribbles to him and ask, “Is this good?” he would smile, and encourage me, wholeheartedly.

Later, when he passed away, I realised that people started to put my art in a box called ‘Gond tribal painting’, since I belong to a Pardhan tribe. As a six- or seven-year old girl, I never understood the concept of categories, caste, or gender. Many times, I questioned my parents and my relatives but they didn’t have any answer since they never had to face such things when they were in their village. Moving to a new city, like Bhopal, was quite difficult for everyone, including my parents.

Later on, my own education, and research on my community helped me to understand how the term of ‘Gond art’ arrived. When my uncle Jangarh was brought to Bhopal by the scouts of Bharat Bhavan, he could barely speak Hindi, and he didn’t understand what to call his own art. After some years, his relatives started following his style of expression. So, people thought, since this community belongs to the Gond tribe, let’s call it Gond art. No one was at fault but lack of research and a language barrier created a lot of confusion around the correct term for this art form.

I started practising art at very young age. When I was growing up, I tried different techniques and I got criticised. People said, “It doesn’t look like tribal or Gond art, you should stick to where you belong.” Later on, I came to the conclusion that as an artist, more than any ‘genderole’, I resist being categorised, and restricted to being only one thing or another. I would like to be an independent artist, and do what I like, as my uncle told me, and find my own expression, using different techniques and materials to redefine what I learnt. If I stay connected to the inspiration of my parents (Durga Bai Vyam and Subhash Singh Vyam) and my uncle (late Jangarh Singh Shyam), while reclaiming my own path and identity, people will sooner or later see me for who I am, rather than who they want me to be.

What role does the community play in the making/unmaking of your work?

I feel my artistic journey began with the quest of discovering everything about my community’s history and culture.

As I said, I was very inspired by the big colourful canvases done by my uncle. I used to happily sit beside him, carefree, painting without hesitation and showing my work to him. Suddenly, one day, he was gone. I didn’t understand what had happened, but I could see that my community was devastated, scared and completely lost. Nobody knew what life would be like after him. It was a big shock! However, they recovered and continued working on the [form of] expression that he had started. Slowly, this art became their bread and butter. No one cared to think about what it should be called, they just continued and time passed.

Somehow, I realised that while my community remembered his method of working, they forgot his teachings. He always encouraged us to find our own way in different art forms like dance, music, sculpture etc. He never asked us to copy him. “It’s good to get inspiration from someone’s artwork but one should never copy,” he used to say. This is why when he was teaching painting to the other painters, he used to ask them to fill patterns that were different from his own. So that each artist would have his or her own signature pattern. He never prevented any of his community members from exploring newness. Unfortunately, some people forgot this, and at present, they are just copying him, in spite of a chance to create their own individuality.

When I was growing up, I used to feel a bit suffocated by these untold rules and regulations about my own work that came from both within my community and from outside. But thankfully, that has passed.

What tradition do you align yourself to even as you break/remake it?

I belong to the Pardhan tribe from Madhya Pradesh. We are mainly known as priests and storytellers. We have many beautiful traditional stories. The storytelling culture is a very old tradition in the Pardhan tribe, and has been verbally passed on from generation to generation. Unfortunately, it’s vanishing day by day, because of the busy lifestyle of people. Nobody has time to tell or listen to stories anymore. Therefore, I decided to collect as many stories as I can and make a children’s book. I am writing down the stories my mother told me, and then I will translate and illustrate them. So that, in a small way, I can save my culture for future generations to access and understand. Apart from this, I would like to break the stereotyped mindset of some people in the community about Gond art, as well as those who still think that girls do not have the right to sing our traditional stories or play our traditional instruments.

ROSHNI VYAM is an artist, illustrator and textile designer experimenting with traditional stories and different art forms. She has recently been selected for an artist residency program at The Cité internationale des arts, Paris.

'If the core is strong, you won’t break that easily,' Fouzia Dastango

International Women's Day: And Still I Rise

What is the ‘genderole’ you resist/redefine/reclaim through your work?

I am always resisting. There were no female dastangos. People find it very hard to accept a female dastango. I am redefining, resisting and reclaiming through the work I do, on Nirbhaya, on Bhavri [Bhanwari] Devi with Dr Arshiya Sethi. Some people say, we’ve seen female dastangos perform, and I ask, where? I never saw them; they were not in the public domain. There’s no mention of female dastangos in the records. All I’m doing is trying to make my place in a man’s world. When I worked with Danish [Husain], I learnt so much from his experience, his range, from the perspective of theatre. But being a woman, it’s up to me to decide what are my nuances, where are my pauses. Male and female voices are different, our aura is different. I understand the chemistry, of course, but I can’t be Danish, and he can’t be me. We have to maintain our gender-based roles. The best part is performing together—he is very energetic, I am also very energetic, and finally it’s about matching those energies.

What role does the community play in the making/unmaking of your work?

In my case, I’ve had both. The community made me because they accepted me as a female dastango. They gave me the opportunity to perform, before men. Some of the senior writers like Rakhshanda Jalil really believed in my work. Rakhshanda aapa always talked about my work, supported my work, she always encouraged me, “do this, do this, do this”. In the other sense of being ‘unmade’, there are people who think this is our turf, only our women will do it, ‘no dastango can perform without our permission’—that kind of sentence in emails sent to me, these are some of the ways the community unmakes you. It’s very destabilising. Rakhshanda aapa told me: “The only answer you can give them is to go on doing good work.” When I was crying and feeling disheartened, she said to me, “Yeh sirf ghutno ki chot hain—inko jhaar ke uth jao” (these are just grazes, get up and dust off your knees).

Ultimately, the jawab is in your work, what else is there, and what can anyone say to that. If the core is strong, you won’t break that easily. Suppose I was a famous scholar’s daughter, it might have been easier, I might have moved in different circles. Being self-made, I’ve had to work very hard. It’s been over 15 years since I started in 2006 with Danish Husain, so I’ve been keeping the faith for a long time.

What tradition do you align yourself to even as you break/remake it?

Dastangoi is an ancient tradition, a 16th century form of storytelling that was practised in Akbar’s court. (Akbar commissioned The Hamzanama.) In 1928, the last dastango, Mir Baqar Ali passed away. Coincidentally, I was born in the same house in which he once lived and died. Not just the same neighbourhood, the same house! So, I feel this is my destiny, and I feel that ancient connection, whenever I remember this. I always take Mir Baqar Ali’s name before I go on stage. I see him as my guiding force. Anyone can teach you all the techniques, but you have to do the riyaaz yourself. In that sense, these are my ancestors, to whom I have a huge responsibility.

Having broken all the stereotypes, when I do contemporary work like Dastaan-e-Mahabharat, or Dastaan-e-Ram in Urdu, or Jashn-e-Benazeer with the University of Sheffield, my main focus is—what else can I do through dastangoi? I want to spread my roots, and go deep and strong. Nowadays, when people do dastangoi, they feel it’s very simple—put on some white clothes, memorise some stuff, and get on stage, that’s it. But no, it’s not! It’s like classical music, you have to do the riyaaz. That’s what the tradition teaches you. And I still feel I have a lot left to learn. The process of becoming a dastango is an endless process. The female voice is inextricably linked with gender. It’s a source of power, not of weakness. This channels into the work. First when I did the dastangoi for Nirbhaya on Quint, then on Safe Motherhood with NGOs, now on Bhavri Devi, which Dr Arshiya Sethi and I are working on. Bhavri Devi is still alive, and this is the first dastaan ever, about her. This is how I link back with tradition. When I sit and tell her story, people cry, get goosebumps. I am not doing a dharna or naarebaazi or giving a lecture or a seminar to talk about the trauma of her life, I am doing it through my art. When people say, after the show, “We want to meet Bhavri Devi”, that’s it, our job is done. I raise my voice through my art for the causes I believe in. That’s how it becomes feministic—internally. My mother is a feminist. She was not educated, she studied only till class five. She allowed me to do what I wanted. She dared to support me. In my Muslim area, in old Delhi where I come from, the people are so orthodox, they don’t like to send their girls to the stage, and see them as performers, they feel ashamed, they don’t like it! But my mother, Ishrat Jahan, she stood by me, and said do what you have to do. She was also supportive of her sisters, her nieces, as was my naani.

These women have no power in their homes, they are not decision-makers, but they support their tribe. A lifeline is created through the generations, through a huge act of courage. And it’s my mother who gave me that courage, to fight against the wrong.

FOUZIA DASTANGO has been recognised as ‘India’s First Woman Dastangoi Artist’ by the ministry of women and child development, and has over 400 performances to her credit.

'Everybody has an important story to share,' Anurupa Roy

International Women's Day: And Still I Rise

What is the ‘genderole’ you resist/redefine/reclaim through your work?

The ‘genderole’ that I resist is being viewed, and identified, as a woman, and what that entails. Not looking at my practice as an artist, but asking me what I am as a female artist, or looking at my work as a female director. That’s something I choose to, and hope to, redefine. Also, by asking questions of my own practice and the way I hold a space in a company, and the way my colleagues are represented with/as their gender or not. This is something I often ask myself. The way I’ve chosen to redefine it is to be a director, and claim that space as a director. Very often we women call ourselves many things— producers, enablers, facilitators—while we are directing on stage. I choose to be very clear and assertive when I say I’m a director, a designer of puppet theatre, and I say so very consciously. I also perform with puppets and build puppets but a director is primarily who I am. I feel that is a very clear assertion and I wish more women in the future would feel comfortable doing that. I think puppet theatre occupies a very unique space in India. It is either very, very traditional, or it is this very new form which is often very western. I’m trying to see what is the space in between. I would add that it’s also the space for mentoring. For many years, when I was mentoring people, I sometimes felt unacknowledged as a mentor, but now I feel more confident saying I am a mentor, helping to create a space where other puppeteers can make their journeys.

What role does the community play in the making/unmaking of your work?

Community is a very big aspect of the work that I do. This starts with the puppetry community, not just my company, but the larger puppetry community—puppeteers across the country, across the world. Keeping conversations going with this community exchanges, asking the question “what is a true collaboration”—this is one aspect of community. The other aspect is around location. [My company] Katkatha Puppet Arts is located in the village of Jaitpur, just outside Delhi, in a locality called Badarpur. It’s semi-village, semi-city, the usual phenomenon when cities expand and absorb the surrounding spaces. The community in Badarpur is very critical to what we do. We don’t just parachute into the community, rehearse and get out—we keep our doors and windows open to what is happening around us. This has meant that over the last eight years we’ve built a community theatre space where every Sunday for sure—and also sometimes other days of the week—the children watch plays, or borrow books, or do workshops. They make their own theatre productions, and that has been very critical to our work because, one, everything we create, unless it’s not appropriate for children, we perform for the community, and they give us feedback. Two, our work doesn’t feel exclusionary, being viewed by local audiences at several stages and levels. Three, there’s a constant dialogue with the mohalla we’re living in. We know what’s going on there, who’s thinking what. Four, we get invited very often to work in communities that are not in Delhi, or our immediate neighbourhood. This is something we have done over 20 years—to go to a set of people who could be identified as a community, say a school or a club, an association, an NGO, and we work with them. This relationship at various levels is very vital to what we do, and the only criteria is that the community stories are told through the puppets. The belief is that everybody has an important story to share with the world.

What tradition do you align yourself to even as you break/remake it?

In my case, tradition and the traditional puppet theatre itself has been very intriguing. I started out knowing very little about it, went on to discover it, became fascinated by it, began an engagement with it, kept collaborating with practitioners, and now what fascinates me is that I draw the very idea of ‘why I am a puppeteer’ from the tradition itself, even though I am not a practitioner of the traditional form. I think I am beginning to understand the role of the puppeteer in society.

From the perspective of an audience, we as contemporary puppeteers are secular puppeteers. We don’t perform ritual functions, we don’t perform in temples, but at the same time, the minute we start to perform with a puppet theatre, we create rituals of our own, even if they are not religious rituals. Because we enter a sort of contract with the audience that is watching ‘dead material’. As we bring movement to that dead material, it’s as if we are breathing life into the inanimate, for the duration of that performance. This is very special. And the more I look at it, and the environment it creates, I see so many things happening that are not just performative. This is true of the actor’s theatre as well. Traditionally, the two are enmeshed together—rituals are so performative, and performance is so ritualistic.

I increasingly feel that the two are very deeply connected. The contract between audience and performer is not about entertainment only, not about illusion, so many other things start to happen. I’m very interested in the psychological aspect of tradition, the atmospheric, the suspension of disbelief, the healing aspect of it.

ANURUPA ROY is a puppet theatre director, designer and performer. She is the founder and managing trustee of the Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines