Sometimes censorship takes place through banning or laws that forbid certain kinds of expression. At other times, it happens in more insidious ways by ignoring some perspectives, or treating them as unimportant, silly, marginal.
i am not here, a play by theatre maker, playwright and Bangalore-based performer Deepika Arwind and supported by Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan Bangalore, explores this theme, considering different ways in which women’s writing gets flicked to the fringes.
The play describes itself as an 8-step guide to censoring women’s writing. It unfolds as different rounds in a boxing ring where the two performers, Ronita Mookerji and Sharanya Ramprakash, use dance, movement and their incredible ability to embody different characters – from a fictional sister of Shakespeare who wasn’t allowed to write, to an Insta poet reading out a harsh review of her poetry at a recital – in order to enact scenarios in which women’s voices and creativity get muffled.
Deepika spoke to Agents of Ishq about why and how she created the play.
What sparked the idea for i am not here – what made you interested in exploring censorship of women’s writing?
In 2018 the Ranga Shankara put out a call for texts that had been banned or censored in any way – they wanted to make a festival of such plays over time. I felt if they were going to talk about State censorship, it was just so far away from the other kinds of censorship that exist for women writers and there was a more interesting way, or rather I would say a deeper way, of looking at it.
In terms of reading material for this play Nisha Susan of The Ladies Finger pointed me to How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ, and along with Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, the texts served as diving boards.
What are these other ways women’s voices get censored? If you had to give two examples, what would they be?
There are many things women writers have to battle before they can even get to a point where their work is considered serious enough. If you dismiss or demean women writers for only writing about the domestic space, about the kitchen, and children, and embroidery, that is a kind of censorship. What else are they going to write about, other than the space that they know most intimately? That space is also extremely political, and it says a lot about their relationship to the world and the way society is structured.
Even praise can be a double-edged sword. If you say you feel this woman’s book is very good because she wrote like a man, then you are saying that there is only one way of evaluating women’s writing and that benchmark is set by men.
Why does the play take place in a boxing ring?
Of course it has to do with the audience being able to see the stage from different angles, but it’s a metaphor too – a playground, an arena, a place for fights.
It’s also about being watched. I think there’s this idea of women’s work and art being presented a certain way and I tried to complicate this idea of being watched, and complicate the relationship between the audience and the performer.
In a sense the women enter the stage knowing that they’ve come in to fight. Everything is a round, a game. And the terms and conditions of the game keep changing.
In what ways are women’s work and art usually presented and what do you think contributes to their work being more watched or scrutinised?
Often with any disenfranchised group of people, they have to make a case for themselves even though they have been disenfranchised. With women, we are required to sort of brutalise ourselves in front of the audience, or even if it doesn’t have to be as extreme as brutalising yourself, I guess you constantly have to show a wound. It’s like when we read reports of violence against women, especially of sexual violence. The more heinous the report, the more details we want to know.
In the boxing ring, what I tried to do was to show it as both a playground and an arena. It is a place where the performers watch themselves and also let the audience watch them, and both are aware of this spectatorship. Sometimes it’s used to heighten it, sometimes it’s used to complicate it.
The play has many scenarios in which women’s voices and writing get shut down. What do these scenarios draw on, and what was the process of creating these scenarios like?
For example the Bharatnatyam scene (where a student in front of her guru performs through dance the metaphors we use to describe women’s bodies, like “she walked through a garden with the grace of a fish”) draws on how women’s bodies are written about, holding them to impossible standards. There is only one kind of body that becomes classical or acceptable, so we can only start writing about women like that. That is also a way to censor women, right?
This was some of the visual and textual ‘material’ that I came in with, and some things were created in the flow of collaboration, like the dancer’s solo where she asks the audience, “Am I good enough?” She’s a dancer herself and she’s experienced censorship of the body in both Bharatanatyam and contemporary dance. It’s this kind of complex relationship with her body and dance that she has from her personal experiences – but that also had a theatrical curve, a theatrical history.
There is a sketch where an Insta poet is reviewed. It’s not about the poetry itself, but about how a woman like her is talked about. And you can actually dislike her very much as a character, you can hear her poetry and you may think it is terrible poetry. But the point is not about whether you like her work or not, I think the point is what do we grudge women like her? If it were a man in the same position, how would we react? I think we all have a part in the way we perpetuate caste and class, and by our very existence we perpetuate the inequities in the world. It’s important that we think about who we are angry with and why and what about someone irks us.
What do you feel are the everyday ways in which people knowingly or unknowingly suppress the voices of women? What are the ways in which you’ve experienced this yourself, as an artist?
We see it all the time, from a boardroom where a woman doesn’t get a word in, to, say, interviews that I’ve seen with men directors and women actresses where the actress is asked something but the director chimes in. I think it’s all-pervasive and comes in different ways from actual physical silencing – like throttling someone’s voice through violence or brutality – to the more insidious, cultural ways, which is the kind that the play deals with. Do I experience it? Well, even today, if you go to a theatre festival and look at the line-up of plays, the number of playwrights and theatre makers who are women is less, and it isn’t balanced yet.
I find that playwriting, even in terms of form, is quite a masculine area so this play as well as my previous work No Rest in The Kingdom are very much about finding a new voice in theatre that is truly autonomous in her expression. So it’s not just about representing women, but also about finding new, inventive, autonomous forms that aren’t linear and traditional but abstract. Even i am not here plays out in an episodic way, with these rounds in the boxing ring. It experiments with form and is not just a text-based production.
Do you think dance and movement lend themselves in particular ways to talking about gender?
Yes, I think dance has a lot to do with the body, and gender and the body are related in many ways. Personally I like to work with dancers as they bring another grammar with them and lots of things about working with dancers are exciting for me – primarily, the absence of text.
I also like to see the actor chronicle her own personal conflict on stage. And the idea that she inhabits characters, or that she becomes other people constantly, is very exciting for me. My work is around the female performer’s body, and her body as a site of protest, of potential and possibility.
The body interests me as a tool, as a place, as a collection of history, as an idea for the future. In this particular show you have a dancer who looks deceptively small but is very muscular, almost androgynous, and so agile you look at her body with wonder and fascination and wish you could do the same. And at the same time the same body speaks of oppression, speaks of being discounted, just in the way that women’s writing has. In that, there is no difference between writing and dance, the idea of the body and writing and creation.
What do hope your audience gets out of the play, what do you want them to feel after watching it?
I don’t think it’s important that they feel specifically what I want them to feel, but hopefully they end up feeling like they were moved in some way, by the performers and the experiences they show, and that they saw something that they felt like they could relate to in their own lives.
How can censorship of one’s voice be resisted?
By just creating more work, as we always have, writing books or making films. Keep doing what you’re trying to do, and finding new ways to do it. You don’t have to go by a formula, there is a listening audience or a readership or viewership for your work that you need to find.
Where is the play travelling to next?
There will be a performance in Delhi at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav in 2020 in February.