In October 2021 I had the marvelous opportunity to collaborate with a group of crazy people that call themselves 'Hers is Ours'. They asked me to join them for two weeks, traveling across Rajasthan in their 'Magic Van', showing feminist films, painting murals and conducting gender based workshops with the communities that we were engaging with. The film festival was aptly called 'The Outsider Travelling Feminist Film and Art Festival' .
Nothing excites me more than engaging with people from different geographical, economical and social strata. I jumped at the opportunity and sat in a train to the first destination- Jodhpur.
The very first day we all went to a community centre run by The Sambhali Trust. Around thirty five girls and women were being trained in Karate. I do not believe that teaching martial arts as a form of self defense to women and girls solves the issue of sexual or physical violence, but I do believe it is good for any person to learn a martial art form to remain physically fit and find strength.
What really attracted me to this bunch to women was the enthusiasm and joy they all exhibited. After they watched a beautiful feminist film, that was curated by the core team - Naomi, Anal, Trina and Ayushi- it was time for my workshop!
Over the years if there is one thing I have learnt about conducting workshops its this. Make as detailed a workshop plan as you can, and then be ready to throw it out of the window as quickly! I realized that this group of people were already so attuned and sensitized to gender politics, I could do a lot more than I had planned.
It is always so much fun to see women loosen up their bodies and minds and become childlike. I conducting theatre exercises and created scenarios of public spaces and how different ages, different genders would behave in the same environments. It was fascinating to see that as I asked the women to depict different genders in ascending ages, the gender gap kept growing wider and wider, until the 'women' became completely subdued and helpless and the 'men' took over the public spaces as though they were their private spaces.
The reflections at the end of the workshop brought up issues of safety, familial restrictions, unfulfilled desires to access public spaces more than one is able to, and eventually, to our own judgements of other women that do not behave as is acceptable in such communities. The group did agree that even though we want to be freer and have more access and safety, we perpetually judge other women and in some ways 'pull them down' to be in situations that we find ourselves in. To break the cycle of restrictions then, we all agreed that we must stop judging other women that are breaking molds and in fact, encourage such steps of rebellion so that one day it will be normalized.
Our rapper friend, Krantinaari then put the icing on the cake by involving all the participants in a rap song that she had written and composed.
The next day, we were at another centre run by the Sambhali Trust and again, the delight to work with women who are already so aware, articulate and empowered was huge.
While Oishorjyo worked with a set of women on an art workshop on desire and sexuality, and Krantinaari got busy working with one set to create rap songs, I worked with a group of girls and women on women and public spaces.
Apart from the exercises that I had conducted the previous day, there is one exercise that stood out for me the most. I asked one girl to walk on an imagined street late at night, while all the other women could choose either to judge her, comment on her or stare or not do anything.
I asked the 'walker' to behave in two contrasting ways while walking the lonely street at night.
In the first instance, she walked as if she was scared, in a rush and was blaming herself to have put herself in this unsafe situation.
In the second instance , she walked without a care in the world, humming a song, greeting and making eye contact with her harassers.
After the girl walked both times, I asked the 'onlooker' women about which version of the girl they liked more- the scared one or the carefree one.
This is where the conditioning came up, most women said they preferred the version where the girl was scared. When I probed further they did say that 'this is how women should react' but eventually they did reflect on how this is conditioning and not really about how safe or unsafe the girl was.
When I asked the girl who was walking which version of herself did she like better- without blinking an eye lid she said that she prefered walking without fear and in fact felt more empowered and safer and more in control when she walked humming a song.
We bid adieu to Jodhpur and reached our next destination - Setrawa. Unlike Jodhpur, this is a village. We pitched tents and slept soundly, all excited in anticipation of the next morning when we would engage with the local community.
Much to my surprise, again, I threw the plan I had created out of the window.
Like in Jodhpur, this centre was also managed by the Sambhali Trust which is doing the most extraordinary work in Rajasthan.
We started with a song that most women knew how to sing and did sing along- an old Hindi film song called 'Ajeeb Dastan hai yeh'.
This led seamlessly into the two folk stories we told the women, one about a woman that hasnt sung or told a story in years, and the other one about a woman whose husband exhibits his wealth with the size and weight of the gold nose ring his wife wears.
These two stories led to some discussions about how women who were passionate about music or dance or painting or any other art tend to blur their passions out once they get married or even when they get their first period! Although many women in the group did say that they do pursue their passions when their 'menfolk' are not at home.
The next exercise was a rather complex one.
I asked one group of women to depict a scene at an outdoor eating joint where they are all playing men. And its late at night. The other group had to guess who they are playing, where they are and what time of day or night it is.
Immediately the women acting like men started talking loudly, backslapping each other, ordering large amounts of food and drinks and cracking silly jokes. Almost immediately, the watching women figured who they were playing, where they were and what time of night it was.
The observation here was the immediate shift in body language, language, the feeling of being free and joyous, that one could do absolutely anything without any fear of being harmed.
Next I asked the second group to depict the same scene, but as women. You can pretty well imagine how it must have gone.
Then I added a third suggestion- I asked the girls to imagine an ideal scenario, or how they would have liked their experience to be, and behave like that.
Immediately, the sense of freedom, safety and joy returned in the bodies, voices and eyes of the acting group. I asked my colleague Oishorjyo to step in the improv as a 'hooligan' and much to everyone's delight, the women put the hooligan in his place and fought for their right to be out and enjoy themselves regardless of where and when.
We left the centre with warmth in our hearts that we atleast know now what it feels to be free and not be constantly scared, even if for just an hour. Its so important to sow the seed of freedom and liberation, to get a whiff of what it could be like, to actually then take those everyday, tiny steps to lead to the realization of that dream.
The next two days we spent making a huge mural depicting a sewing machine (since thats one of the main skill thats taught in the centre) that is spewing out a dupatta of various colours on the wall of the school. Oishorjyo made a woman who is dancing, without a care in the world! Anal and Ayushi took the lead in making sure we finish the large mural within the stipulated time!
The women from the village came and saw us as we painted, some even painted with us, others generously brought us cups and cups of chai and snacks.
We left Setrawa and headed to Jaisalmer- with a lifetime of experiences and memories in our hearts.
The next blog post will talk about our experiences in Jaisalmer and Moolsagar.