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Dia Mohan © 2000


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There are five women on the stage ranging from ages 24 to 56. They have been asked to portray the mental process of a woman who has just been beaten up by her husband for the nth time. It seems to me that they are being asked to imagine something that really happens to most of them. The protagonist is played by a middle-aged lady, Mallika, who goes from person to person onstage and talks to them. These others personify the emotions or options in Mallika's head, with whom she is speaking and arguing.

Minoti: Maybe I should just end all of this by drinking poison.

Mallika: But why should I take my life? I want to live.

Deepika: I should leave home.

Mallika: But it isn't as if they aren't any problems outside the house.

Niru: I can search for work.

Mallika: But who is going to give me work? Everyone will know that I have left my husband. And I don't have that much education? But it is an option I suppose. Let's see.

Kalpana: I am going to ask a Mahila Samiti [Women's Organisation] to help me with a job and help with my family situation.

Mallika: But there are some things which are private. Maybe I can take some of them to the Mahila Samiti, but some I want to solve at home.

Kalpana: In today's world private and public distinctions don't work. It is a woman's duty to seek support in situations like this.

Mallika: Yes that's true. I can seek advice but they can't solve the problem for me. I want to work at my problems with my husband, in the home. It will be hard but I want to try seeking help and try helping my husband in this situation. Time will tell.


This is a story about a woman who called herself a parrot. When Mallika was asked to choose an animal that she would like to be in a theatrical exercise she chose the symbol of repetitive behaviour. I was immediately reminded of the previous day, when she had told me that she was a slave to every member of her family -- her errant son, unemployed husband and disabled daughter. She quickly added that her only friend was her pet parrot, because it listened to her.

I met Mallika when I went to rural Bengal with a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Janasanskriti, which uses theatre in the Paulo Frierian tradition as its central pedagogical tool for political consciousness-raising. The seven core members of Janasanskriti had identified about twenty women who were already a part of a micro-credit initiative in a village on the eastern border of West Bengal. Mallika was one of the older women in this group, brought together by Janasanskriti for a two-week period. I got to know her in the blistering afternoons when most of the participants in the workshop had the option of taking a nap, and did. Her unfinished stories of a particular day had a way of inserting and completing themselves through the next day's conversation and activities. The core group of actors\activists initially conducted various games and theatrical exercises to get people accustomed to using their bodies to express emotions and thoughts onstage. They froze into shapes expressing happiness and sadness, government authority and obedience, strength and weakness, loneliness and collective experience. At other times they had to tell a story around a given theme through silent images. Or they had to invent their own story and weave it into a string of images. These activities formed part of the process of jointly scripting, rehearsing and writing a play.

One evening, through this image-building activity, Mallika and her team debated the facts concerning the recent and untimely death of a young wife. Everyone seemed invested in having their own version of the story performed by the team. Some suggested that the woman didn't commit suicide, that she was killed by the husband and his family. She was never treated well, said one lady. "What's new?", asked Mallika with disdain, throwing me a quick glance. I even suspected a hint of triumph in this staged gesture, a victory for having grasped the right perspective on all of this. Some others suggested that it was an act of revenge on the part of the husband's family since the woman had not brought a requisite amount of dowry with her during the wedding a year ago. Others said that she was just not a good wife and that she had been punished for her laziness. The women brought up other instances from the past or drew on stories from other villages to strengthen their case. Abandonment and ill-treatment of wives, domestic violence and squandering of money on alcohol seemed to be in the foreground of their minds.

Mallika had to fight with her husband to be able to participate in this theatrical activity. She had to leave her family to look after itself for two weeks. And even though her home was forty-five minutes away, the NGO discouraged too-frequent visits home during this two-week period. For a home that is wholly dependent on Mallika's ceaseless work, this was a big deal. So utterly accustomed to Malika's domestic labour is her family that no one else in the household knows how to cook, and Mallika's husband had -- resentfully -- to seek external domestic help. Mallika's husband even came to the theatre site, to check up on her and to observe what it was that had brought her out of the private sphere of her home. I learned later that there was only one woman in the group whose husband had actually encouraged her to participate in Janasanskriti's workshop.

The sessions intensified and so did the quarrels on and off the stage. Mallika and a few others had decided not to take part in the squabbling over protagonist roles and good lines. The first part of the play was formed by taking various images that the women had created through the week: a marriage; a woman whose father couldn't send enough dowry with her; an ill-treated and helpless wife with no money for medicines for her sick child, seeking help from the neighbours and an NGO, suffering more wife-beatings for having sought help outside the home. Having presented the context of a problem in the first half of the play, the helpless wife then looks directly at the audience and asks, "What shall I do?"

Onstage, someone suggested that the mother-in-law was the main culprit, for inciting the husband against the wife when he came back drunk at night. This person suggested that the neighbours should intervene when they hear the cries of the wife. But it was met with the mother-in-law's sharp retort, "You are crossing into the sanctity of our private life, so get out!" A dead end.

Still onstage, another suggests that the neighbours' intervention is actually a good idea, but that they should not approach the mother-in-law with hostility. They charm the mother-in-law into letting them meet with the wife and then try to advise her to stay on the women's NGO premises for a while. But the wife denies ever having been beaten or ill-treated. A real dead end.

This frustrates many in the audience since they can see the woman protecting the hell that she lives in. For the protagonist though, hell is the only roof over her head, and living on the NGO premises would result in insecurity and isolation. Going back to her natal village turns into a dead end too, since her mother says that her husband's home is her real home and that she has to make things work out. Still no solution.

People intervene to humanise the husband so that he takes on a different and nurturing role rather than drinking away all the money that comes into the home and beating up the wife at the peak of his own frustration. A humanised husband. "This is unrealistic nonsense!", the women scream. The director of Janasanskriti seems satisfied only when a lady comes up from the audience and suggests that the woman herself will have to change from being her subservient self and actively seek a solution outside and inside the home. For twenty minutes the spectactor who suggests this argues with the mother-in-law onstage. She tries to reason with her. When reason fails she fights with her. The fights lead nowhere because the power of the mother-in-law and the husband reigns in the home.

"It seems there is no solution to a common problem in our midst", says Mallika. "Why are women sometimes the enemies of other women? Why do wives who have suffered turn into mothers-in-law who make other wives suffer?" Despite, or perhaps because of the dead ends, and the absence of closure, Mallika was initiated into the practical and imaginative process of recognising human agency behind social relations. There are many Mallikas in different material circumstances in rural Bengal. They have different degrees of access and control over the nonmaterial and material coordinates of their social environment. Over time, through repeated participation in this kind of pedagogical practice and through the awareness of victories other women have experienced, it is possible that some victims of unemployment, hunger, domestic violence, low self-esteem, lack of confidence and material deprivation are made aware of the socially and politically constructed, and hence malleable, nature of human relations. What they do with this knowledge of the malleable nature of oppressive conditions however, is not a pre-determinable thing: the Frierian idea is that one makes the road only by walking.

Mallika engaged in "Forum Theatre", a form of political praxis founded by the Brazilian, Augusto Boal. It is ideologically structured to provide the space for rehearsing a revolution onstage. And it works. There are moments when the difference between the lived reality and the theatrical fiction is entirely blurred. The construction of the stage is a safe space within which the unspeakable can be spoken, and the unthinkable thought. The emotions and feelings simulated on stage are no less real than those off it. And once spoken and thought, the line between reality and fiction off-stage is blurred, sometimes permanently. Forum Theatre offers a shared learning space that allows participants to make a leap of imagination into the possible fight that Mallika can fight or the possible inner courage and confidence she can muster. Janasanskriti's theatre is one example of a pedagogical practice that offers such a space in an otherwise oppressively rigid social environment.

Even though people knew that most wives do face domestic violence, it was -- prior to the Janasanskriti intervention -- a private knowledge, silenced and unspeakable. Now Mallika knows at least eight other women who have admitted that they have been victims of domestic violence, of which five have husbands who are frequently drunk despite the meagre income they bring into the home. Mallika also knows that in a neighbouring village women took action by breaking the pitchers used to ferment alcohol. She learned that she is entitled to a loan from the government. Onstage, she developed some of the confidence and negotiating skills needed to approach the representatives of government. All of this is now part of Mallika's vocabulary.

The importance of this lies not in an ability to recognise a change in Mallika's life as a direct consequence of her participation in Forum Theatre. The importance lies in recognising where imagination, symbolism and passion break in and subvert the ordered, and all-consuming logic of traditional economic and instrumental good sense. In other words, Mallika's story of resistance is engaging because in the midst of unemployment, domestic violence, and material deprivation, three hundred and fifty people like her have committed time and energy over fourteen years to a pedagogical and theatrical practice that bears no immediate, material fruit. And if there is a nonmaterial fruit, it involves a painfully long gestation period.

There is electricity in the stories that the veterans in this activity tell about their experience with Forum Theatre, and the change they think it brought to their own lives. It seems to drive not only the veteran's own commitment, but also that of newer participants. If there is a belief that political actors must cultivate and nurture, it is that human agency is at the heart of any oppression, however structural it may all seem to be. And thus also that human agency lies at the heart of the possibility for political change. Mallika knows a woman who used to be a domestic worker in a landlord's home for nominal pay. This woman is today one of the leaders of Janasanskriti's activities across the rural landscape of India. She got her father to quit drinking away the family income; she led an anti-liquor movement in her village; she inaugurated a youth club in the village which meets regularly even when she is not there to preside over the meetings; and she got her younger sister educated, among many other achievements. In the Forum Theatre session I witnessed, I might also have seen the birth of an important political actor. Or maybe not. At the end of the two week period, when Mallika said to me, "I will not tolerate the men of my village drinking so much during Durga Puja ever again", her enthusiastic resolve may well have been a parroting of resistance fresh off the stage. Maybe all the catharsis and rehearsing resistance meant little and would never result in renegotiated social relations at home or outside. Maybe. But I look forward to telling you that I must take back those last words about Mallika. For in Mallika's own words, "Time will tell".




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