Sparring with censorship


Set in a boxing ring, Deepika Arwind’s I Am Not Here looks inwards into bruised social structures, says Vikram Phukan

In A Room of One’s Own, the seminal essay written by Virginia Woolf 90 years ago, the maverick author makes a compelling argument for the space, both physical and figurative, that women writers must occupy in order to make so much as a dent in a literary landscape dominated by men. Part cautionary tale and part impassioned call to arms, the essay was based on lectures Woolf delivered at Cambridge in 1928, the year in which women had only just achieved equal suffrage in the United Kingdom. More than five decades later, another fervent feminist text, Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women's Writing, was brought out in Texas in 1983. Written sardonically with tongue- -firmly-in-cheek, the tome underlined the ways in which women, people of colour and other minority groups have their accomplishments repeatedly and effectively invisibilised by the patriarchal mainstream. What was blatant and socially sanctioned in Woolf’s time still persisted pervasively and stealthily in Russ’, and continues to this day.

Primer for fresh work

When the Bengaluru-based playwright Deepika Arwind was considering responding to an open call for entries of ostensibly ‘banned plays’ by the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival, her thoughts went to the vanquished voices of women never quite allowed to rise to the surface, let alone be at the receiving end of a regulatory clampdown. “I couldn’t understand how we could look at censorship in such a uni-dimensional way, because it is far more insidious in reality when it comes to writings by women,” she says. The texts by Woolf and Russ served as primers for her new work commissioned by the festival, titled I Am Not Here, which opened in November last year and was billed as ‘an eight-step guide on how to censor women’s writing’. Directed by Arwind, and performed by dancer Ronita Mookerji and theatremaker Sharanya Ramprakash, the play was created with support from Goethe-Institut Bengaluru. The Hamburg-based dramaturge Theresa Schlesinger, herself an advocate for female representation in the theatre, interacted with Arwind remotely during its making.

Intimate spaces

To be staged in Mumbai this weekend as part of a characteristically eclectic Literature Live! line-up, the first show in Mumbai is only the play’s sixth in more than a year. One reason for this is that it is an expensive show with a less than portable design best performed in intimate spaces where audiences are in close proximity to the performers. “I have an aesthetically realised vision for the piece and I wouldn’t like to create different formats to fit into limitations posed by venues,” elaborates the director.

The site of conflict in I Am Not Here is a boxing ring, which embodies Arwind’s attempt to stage her play as an abstraction of its premise, “I was interested to see what would happen if we took these cerebral concepts and lodged them in the body of the performer,” she explains. To set the pace, the performers come clad in sportswear, carrying kit bags and water-bottles. Even though there is no actual physical sparring, each round of performance ends with the fight bell so distinctive of combat sports.

For a play about writing, I Am Not Here isn’t particularly text-heavy. Even so, Arwind entered rehearsals with a dramatic structure in place, and Mookerji and Ramprakash devised the performative elements that constitute the work. Personal experiences seeped into the process. For instance, as Arwind recount Mookerji is trained in classical Bharatanatyam but found resistance in that ethos to her sturdy physicality, which contemporary dance was more accepting of. “One episode talks about how women are written about so impossibly, that those who exist outside those parameters are not even taken into consideration,” says the director. Arwind looks at her play as an introspective piece that is constantly ‘looking inside’ in the manner it expects of the ‘bruised social structures’ it engages with, while posing the question, “Is it necessary to brutalise ourselves in front of you so that you can see that this is important?”

I Am Not Here will be staged at the Tata Literature Live on November 15, at 9 p.m. at Prithvi Theatre; and November 17 at 6 p.m.; see for more details

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 9:19:52 PM |

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