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Nirbhaya – tackling sexual violence

Nirbhaya – tackling sexual violence

March 6 2014

Play about sexual violence is in London before heading to India to be performed there for the first time…

IT was one of the defining news events of 2012 and it reverberated around the world.

The brutal rape and consequent death of a 23-year-old woman on board a private bus in Delhi in December that year came to represent something far more than just the bald facts as stated.

It led to unprecedented protests in the capital with men and women demanding change and issuing the challenge to those in authority to take sexual violence and all forms of harassment seriously.

Last night (March 5) in London, the award-winning “Nirbhaya” – a play dedicated to the memory and spirit of the 23-year-old physiotherapy student who perished following the rape, opened in central London for the first time, having been performed in Hammersmith and Edinburgh last year.

It will play at the Southbank Centre, until March 12, where it forms part of the Women of the World (WOW) Festival, a series of talks, debates, music, film and comedy all celebrating women.

From March 17, “Nirbhaya” can be seen in India for the very first time and will tour three cities there – Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore for a two-week run.

“We made it for India, and now we are going home with it,” Poorna Jagannathan, producer and one of the cast members of “Nirbhaya”, told www.asianculturevulture.com, shortly before it opened at the Southbank.

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Poorna Jaggannathan in 'Nirbhaya'

The play’s origins lay in the tumult caused by news of the rape and death.

For days, there was chaos in Delhi as thousands gathered to protest and vent their anger at  what had happened.

“People came out – men and women – and said ‘enough is enough’ – sexual violence can no longer be cloaked in silence,” explained Jagannathan.

“That was a revolution that happened,” she continued.“We all just ran out onto the streets to protest because we didn’t know what else to do –  but very quickly, we realised that conversation and that fighting spirit can die out.

“What activism and art can bring to the party is keeping that flame alive so that change is  long-term and not just a short burst.”

Actor Jagannathan, 41, a mother-of-one, had moved to Delhi with her family after being cast in the hit Bollywood movie, “Delhi Belly” (2011), and had a body of work behind her on US television.

Like many she was appalled and angered what had happened to Nirbhaya (the fearless one, as she came to be known) and had started a conversation on Facebook with playwright Yael Farber whom she knew.

Multi-award winning Farber, who is of South African origin, is well-known in the international theatre community for writing hard-hitting dramas that often smash taboos and confront issues people would rather avoid. Her last play, “Mies Julie” (2012), was a coruscating examination of love, lust and race in contemporary South Africa and an imaginative retake on 19th century Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s  classic, “Miss Julie”.

Jagannathan found Farber receptive to the idea of a play about sexual violence, tackling the culture that sustains it and called her down to India. Farber has structured and directs the current production.

“After work-shopping the play in India, Yael was very clear that it should be testimonial – and that it should be with performers who have had first-hand experience of sexual or gender based violence.

“It was clear that the need of the hour was to break the silence around sexual violence.”

In “Nirbhaya”, five of the seven involved are professional actors but they all have their own story to tell – there is no invention or dramatic licence.

For both Farber and Jagannathan, it is a crucial device and one that is instrumental too in breaking the silence that ultimately helps and abets both past and future perpetrators.

Jagannathan said: “Breaking the silence is a very, very difficult thing. The hope is that if I tell  you my truth, then you and society will start telling yours.”

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Japjit Kaur in Nirbhaya

For far too long, far too many people have kept quiet.

“There’s an equation: silence holds violence in place. What if you shook up one side of the equation – what if you broke the silence, what effect would it have on the violence? Our hope is that there is a paradigm shift.”

She said people continue to respond to the play with their own stories.

“There was a huge Tsunami of a response (to the play in the UK) from a lot of men and women – they came forward and broke their silence and we continue to receive Facebook messages – four or five, every day, talking about their own journeys.”

What was heartening too, was that the play was having a wider resonance too.

“It was not just people who have endured sexual violence but a lot of people came forward saying that although they themselves were not victims, they wanted to understand how they could help and be part of the change.”

Jagannathan believes India has made progress since the Delhi rape (despite other serious cases coming to light) and believes that casual sexual harassment (often referred to in India as ‘eve-teasing’) is on the retreat.

A change in the law – widening the definition of rape too has helped but she accepts more still needs to be done.

“I live in India, it has changed enormously. The upheaval has been huge. There is absolutely no doubt we’ve got a long, long way to go – there’s no denying that – but in one year it has been a truly colossal change.

“Sexual violence is now as a crime as opposed to ‘a by the way’ incident.

“Everything is being looked at and examined, like the police treatment of a victim, to how the hospital reacts to her. We are exposing every flawed brick and trying to breathe change into it.”

Legislation can only do part of the work, the rest is down to attitudes and transforming the “eco-system” (her words) that supports discrimination, harassment, sexism and violence, Jagannathan believes.

She cites the “Tehelka” case as another significant turning point.

Tarun Tejpal, novelist and editor of one of India’s most respected publications, has been charged with raping and sexually harassing a junior journalist working for the title.

The investigative magazine has a proud and fearless image of uncovering corruption and defending the weak, so it seems incredible to many that it should now find itself at the centre of such a scandal.

Tejpal himself is well connected and told an audience in London in 2012, it was precisely this that allowed the magazine to function when it took on so many in India, with money and power at their disposal.

Commenting generally, Jagannathan said: “It brings home the fact that sexual violence happens everywhere and in so many forms – it cuts across demographics and economics.”

She said its symptomatic of a wider appreciation in India now of what constitutes harassment and discrimination

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Poorna Jaggannathan, Rukhar Kabir, Priyanka Bose, Ankur Vakal, Sneha Jawale

“These cases get high profile media coverage, it’s like seeing what is under the cover – it does not matter where you are or who you are. It is slowly revealing itself as the epidemic it truly is.”

She said the play has changed forms since it was first staged in Britain and that they continue to tweak and improve it.

“Yael doesn’t stop, she never stops – as of yesterday we were still tweaking and making  changes, it’s a very organic process.

“There have been huge differences (since the first run).  The ending has changed several times and that’s how Yael works – always understanding how to tell the story more potently.”

Jagannathan tells her own story in “Nirbhaya” and it must have been difficult because often these incidents are not just intensely traumatic but highly intimate and personal.

“It’s a visceral an experience as there is (for me as an actor and a woman). It’s very hard to pinpoint what that journey is exactly, but I have been stepping forward into my truth obviously – there is no question about that.”

It now travels to India and it will be interesting to see what the scope of reaction will be on the soil where it all started.

“We are really looking forward to performing there. There’s been a lot of heart for the play internationally – we’re hoping it will be as powerful in India as it was here.

“There is a quotation that Yael and me go back and forth with all the time – ‘Nothing is more  powerful than an idea whose time has come’ – from Victor Hugo.”

Picture:Poorna Jagannathan in “Nirbhaya” ©William Burdett-Coutts

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture