Holding an arm up each, two fingers and thumb raised, three women and a man from among the audience walk up the aisles to join a white-clad actress gently hum-singing on a dimly lit smoky stage. The song: an old Indian classic about society’s transgressions on woman’s honour and love. There are no curtains for this one.
Story by Balkaran Singh
Be prepared to be swept away, wrenched, and emotionally relocated.
Nirbhaya is not just a play. It is an expression of a movement, the tentacles of which smacked, wounded and grazed urban and rural India, and made uncomfortable truths part of our daily conversation. So much so that this movement still has legs, strong ones, within India and abroad.
Nirbhaya is a verbal call to arms. That enough is enough. The call, that was somewhat disjointed in years past, came to a head with the brutal rape and assault of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a young woman aboard a Delhi bus on December 16, 2012, by five adult men and a juvenile. Nirbhaya is a demand for action – against centuries of violence and transgressions against women, and their cultural acceptance, by “both” genders.
Nirbhaya, “the fearless”, was what the Indian press called Jyoti Singh Pandey, since it is prohibited to name victims of rape in India. And the play is fearless as well, with the direction, the actors, their decibels. It tells the story of the violent corporeal invasion of the victim amid a minimalistic stage representing a bus. There’s also the story of women on the subcontinent, with each actress transcending with their personal, or representative, monologues.
Most of the play is conveyed in subcontinental English, but the occasional use of Hindi in its brazen vernacular is superbly executed, and adds to the roots of the story. The Indian cast delivers outstanding performances. Priyanka Bose, Rukhsar Kabir, Pamela Mala Sinha, Ankur Vikal are fluent in dialogue and every emotional expression; Japjit Kaur magnificent in song and playing the ghost of the victim clad in white; and Sneha Jawale is quite competent and sincere.
With cultural nuances a plenty with Hindi, Punjabi, Marathi songs, music, sound, and props, the play transports you to a charged India, where to be a woman means to give up corporal and human rights to a large extent. Some cultural nuances and their importance to the play will go amiss on audiences around the world, but their collective and artistic emotion will definitely make an impact.
On a side note, something this bold is bound to offend gender-equity revisionists and cultural protectionists, and it should, as long as they are brought face to face with the truth and the deceit of their own delusional notion of cultural values. This play is not the entire truth, but a comprehensive expression of that truth.
This is not just about the subcontinent, it is about the universal feminine spirit. I, a man, witness to acts of violence, audience to many more stories, inheritor of privilege, will be an active and conscientious participant in this call for action. And I hope this play, in part, encourages and educates other men to participate, as it did me.
Yaël Farber has produced a poignant gem. Her writing and direction are superlative – and the way she has picked these minute nuances and translated them into such acts of impact and art, is masterful. And to yield something as beautiful as this play from a thorny harvest is nothing less than magical. You will gasp, feel swept, heart-wrenched, moved, emotionally relocated, but you will come out cleansed. This play, is highly recommended. I, for one, wish it was filmed so I could watch it again, and show it, long after the production has passed Vancouver. Brava!
Nirbhaya is produced by Assembly and Riverside Studios, and plays at the York Theatre in Vancouver until November 14, 2015. It is presented by The Cultch, in partnership with Diwali Fest, and tickets range from $23 – 56. Production team: Poorna Jagannathan (co-producer), Triona Humphries (Stage Manager), Paul Lim (Lighting Designer), Rob Jansen (Assistant Director) and Margaret Moll (Producer for Assembly and Riverside Studios).
Besides consulting in the cultural, creative and communication spheres, Balkaran engages in social-justice and political drives. And writes. Among other things.