Vagina Monologues- When art impacts life

L to R: Sonali Sachdev, Avantika Akerkar, Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal, Dolly Thakore and Jayati Bhatia — the fab five of the original cast. Image: Kaizad Kotwal

Averil Nunes

11 years running, `The Vagina Monologues`, still gives voice to the issue of gender inequality

A performance of The Vagina Monologues on 30th June 2013, at Canvas, Mumbai, honoured several women and organisations that are making a difference to our world. Haseena Hussain, who was blinded by a horrific acid attack, now reaches out to other blind people. Shweta Katti, who grew up in Kamathipura, a notorious red-light district in Mumbai, has not let her background stand in the way of winning a full scholarship to New York’s Bard University. Traffic warden Anita Lobo is standing up to a corrupt system. Advocate Nilima S. Kasture has been winning the war against violence in courtrooms, while organisations such as Sneha (which has rehabilitated over 2,500 female victims of violence) and Laadli (which battles gender discrimination) have been combating violence at grass root levels. These carriers of the double-X chromosomes are defying statistics that one in three women will be victimized by violence. They are also beneficiaries of proceeds from performances of the play.

Contributions made in kind include the services of doctors, counsellors and administrative help.

Celebrities such as Sakshi Tanwar and Manasi Scott contribute their time and presence to raising awareness. “If you’d like to lend your expertise, we’ll find the best way for you to help,” says Kaizaad Kotwal, co-producer and co-director.
For 11 years, the Indian version of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues has been voicing thoughts and feelings that are typically imprisoned in silence. Has it changed a thing?

Shock, Sense and Sensitivity

“At least people don’t balk at the play’s title anymore,” says actor Dolly Thakore, recalling a time when theatres would request a title change and cities would refuse to host performances. It was staged in Chennai only in 2011; and in Gujarat and Lucknow as recently as 2013. Surprisingly, the play made it past the censor board without a single snip, revealing that good sense sometimes prevails and that people recognize the gravity of the script.

Are there men who attend the play for sheer titillation? Undoubtedly. But the harsh truths and brutalities beneath the humourous surface have had a sobering effect. “Men have confessed how embarrassed they were for mistaking this for a pole dance or some sort of sex show,” says actor Avantika Akerkar. “The Indian audience is almost 40% male. Not even New York gets more than 20% men,” she says. Are Indian men more liberal than we think, or is it a case of wolves in sheepskins? The actors beg to differ. Some men, stunned with the description of birthing, “come back to the performance with their mothers,” reveals another actor Varsha Agnihotri Vadhyar.

While curiosity and the audacious title may have drawn initial audiences, the play has been running long enough for its shock value to have plummeted, so why is it still drawing audiences?

Views, Reviews & Conversations

“It’s like holding a mirror to your life,” says Spatica Ramanujam, the most recent addition to the cast. “It provokes questions, forcing you to dig deeper. To face the fears of another woman. To face yourself.” The play, a staple on the “girls night out” circuit, seems likely to remain so, as another generation of girls is returning with younger sisters, daughters, even mothers and grandmothers, making it a sort of rite of passage. Yet, this is not a girls-only affair. “When I attended it about 10 years ago with a conservative male friend, it started an interesting conversation about how helpless he felt about changing things for his own sisters,” remarks clinical psychologist Sonali Gupta, who works with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). “The play overwhelmed me. It exposed my inability to speak about things that affected me on a personal level. It was liberating, because it raised issues that made me feel as if I was not the odd-woman out. I have changed over the years. I wonder what it would trigger in me now?” That question may explain the play’s penchant for drawing repeat audiences.

Cognizance, Catharsis & Change

Dolly recollects a delegation of gynaecologists from Chennai mentioning, “If all our patients watched your play, 80% of our work would be done,” hinting at the educational potential of the play.

Co-producer and director Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal narrates how one woman, “built the courage to walk away from her abusive marriage, the day she watched the play with her husband,” while another woman who was abused as a child and had never spoken about it, “couldn’t stop weeping.”

“You can watch the women from the bastis shed their inhibitions, as their shy embarrassed giggles turn into outright laughter by the end of a performance,” says Dilnaz Irani.

“When you become brave enough to talk about something and can laugh about it, half the battle is won,” remarks Jayati Bhatia, citing silence as the cause of women’s oppression.

“The only thing that women should aspire for, is to be free. Free to think. Free to be,” emphasizes Sonali Sachdev. And as Indian women are still far from free, we can look forward to another decade of performances.

Check out @Everyday Sexism on Twitter — Women across the world are tweeting about their humiliating or empowering clashes with sexism

Have you watched the play? How has it affected your life?

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