To show in India later this month
A single event or object can often encapsulate and articulate an entire universe of experience. The famous photograph of a little girl, naked, and running away from napalm bombs in the village of My Lai in the Vietnam of 1968 invokes the injustice of imperialist war; Rosa Parker’s refusal to vacate her bus seat in Montgomery in 1955, the immorality of racial discrimination.
The experience of a young girl on the night of December 16, 2012 in New Delhi — the victim of a particularly brutalised act of sexual violence — has become one such marker. Nirbhaya, the name she acquired, has become a symbol for the pervasive sexual violence that permeates Indian society. There is unlikely to be a single adult Indian citizen who has not either personally experienced (as victim or perpetrator), witnessed, or become otherwise aware of sexual violence against women.
If because the young girl came from a background that middle-class media-watching segment of India could identify with, or as a result of the unimaginable ruthlessness specific to it, the incident became a turning point, where public awareness exploded into anger, drawing people in the thousands into the streets.
“This was a tipping point,” said Yael Farber, the South Africa-born director of Nirbhaya, a highly reviewed play about the episode, currently showing to packed audiences at the Southbank Centre’s Women of the World festival in London.
“An aperture opens and you have to get in before it closes. The way people were reacting to Nirbhaya’s death … we wanted to do this before indifference steeped in,” Ms. Farber said in a post-performance discussion with the audience.
The play is dark, dramatic and searing — many in the audience wept — and interweaves the particularity of Nirbhaya’s life and death with the universality of her experience. Nirbhaya’s experience and the personal testimonies of other women constitute the warp and weft of the play’s tapestry.
“We wrestled with how to present the actual incident of the rape, which is only for 15 seconds. There is such erotification of rape as an act. We wanted to commit to that moment, yet show that it was not an act of sex but of violence,” Ms. Farber said.
The other members of the production team and cast include Poorna Jagannathan, Priyanka Bose, Sapna Bhavnani, Sneha Jawale, Japjit Kaur, and Ankur Vikal, the only male actor. The group found each other, as it were, in the aftermath of the episode, each eager to commemorate Nirbhaya’s courage through a theatrical representation, but one that would also help other people “break the silence” around sexual violence.
The play premiered at the Edinburugh Fringe Festival in August 2013, quickly becoming a must-see for audiences at the festival. It won the Amnesty International’s Freedom of Expression Award, the Scotsman Fringe First award and the Herald Angel Award for Outstanding New Play. It is slated to be performed in India later this month with shows in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.