Thursday, 11 October 2012 was the first ever International Day of the Girl Child. While it will always annoy me that we are such a threatened species that we need a day to focus attention on ourselves, I would like to tell you about what we were doing last Thursday here in Calcutta.
A four-member team from Arena Stage, Washington DC, is travelling around India right now, hosted by the US Department of State, workshopping with young people and helping them put up plays based on their own autobiographical experiences -- as a part of the Arena Stage Voices of Now ensemble productions. These four, Anita Maynard-Losh, Ashley Forman, Raymond Caldwell and Mitch Mattson, are superb at what they do, sympathetic and open to stories, talented at extracting the dramatic potential in these stories and eventually crafting a thought-provoking performance out of them. (They deserve every superlative adjective they get, they really are that good.)
A motley bunch of nearly 40 odd artistes came together from schools and colleges and repertories around Calcutta and outside. We workshopped with the Arena Stage team for about two and a half days to work out the issues that resonated within us. Surprisingly, given the relative youth of nearly half the group, we found we were constantly referring to gender powerplays, talking about what it felt like to be a woman in this city and how the men have it here. We could have talked about the poverty and pollution or history and tradition that hits you when you reach Kolkata but we talked about gender.
We talked about power and powerlessness: the helplessness of the women who sit at home wondering about the safety of their families in these times of political change, the people who have power or are perceived as powerful (male, Brahmin, rich, or born into the 'right' minority but invariably male -- in a region headed by a female chief minister and where the mother goddess is worshipped in various avatars.)
We talked about how our society perceives a "good" woman: who studies to be a better mother and covers herself up and is a trained dancer who performs only for family and who knows better than to "understand" politics, economics or international affairs. A woman who "does not use her body to express herself in plays" -- a thought that my otherwise cosmopolitan father has been trying to get me to accept for over a decade now.
We depicted through tableaux and words how it is to be a single woman living by herself. Not only are you at the mercy of your neighbours and general junta who have no compunction in tearing your all-important reputation into shreds unless you confine yourself to their extremely narrow definitions of respectability, but you always live with the threat of "burning torches, people out to exorcise the prostitute who'd out-stepped the bounds of her morality." Funnily enough, you can continue to work or party as you wish so long as you have a husband at home. Then the neighbourhood no longer feels responsible for you or your morals. It startled me to realise how many of us felt that in this day and age, that in a city like Kolkata where I have always felt women have more freedom of expression and choice than the other places I have lived in, women continue to be taught that all their talents and learning should only ever lead on to marriage. Because that promises safety and societal acceptance.
Interestingly, we also worked on the restrictions placed on men, how they have no choice but to be the strong one, the breadwinner, and also how to them power comes and goes with career earnings. Who places this burden on them? Is it their women?
We ended with a story from Burdwan, where a theatreperson learnt that she too can bring about change if only by showing the next generation the possibilities of change. It helped remind me that women in Bengal, despite the limitations placed upon them, nevertheless do have certain powers -- the freedom to move, if not freely then still move from place to place, to have careers, to have a say in the upbringing of their children. These are powers that much of India still cannot take for granted.
It was a performance that posed questions. Solutions were suggested but not dictated. I for one had no idea that so many of my concerns were shared by so many of my fellow artistes, but knowing now that they do share them makes me feel, shall I say, a little more powerful.