A warm afternoon in the Bengaluru sun, sleeping freely under an open sky…this is how I marked the fifth anniversary of Jyoti (Nirbhaya) Singh’s gang rape and murder. Yes, it has been five years, and have things gotten better or worse, dear readers? You tell me. What has changed in this time, at least for some of us, is the texture of our response and resistance. We are moving away from the fear of rape and violence to fearlessness, and from hiding to reclaiming our bodies and the public spaces we inhabit.
I was in Bengaluru on the invitation of my friend Jasmeen Patheja, founder of the Blank Noise art collective, whose talk on Shah Rukh Khan’s TV show TED Talks India: Nayi Soch should be out by the time you read this (go see it right away, please!). Together, we lay down in Cubbon Park on December 16 with a group of strangers, mostly women, a few good men, and three stray dogs that joined us.
Our event was part of a global #MeetToSleep campaign — and from Kohima to Chandigarh, from New York to San Francisco, we asserted our right to be defenceless in public spaces by doing something as simple as taking a nap in a public park. Did it change the world drastically? Not really. But as a micro act of resistance, did it empower all of us who took part, to be a little less fearful, a little more fearless? I think so.
A few weeks before our lie-in at the park, I had invited Jasmeen to be on my panel in Mumbai at Barkha Dutt’s We The Women conference that I was pleased to serve as art curator for. We spent two incredible days together. During our discussion, we spoke about the intersection of art and activism. I was also proud to have Nirali Kartik from the band Maati Baani with me — you should see their videos on saving the Aarey forest in Mumbai whenever you can — they’re poetic and beautiful.
My favourite Paromita Vohra was there too, and we spoke about consent and how something as beautiful as a Maharashtrian lavani dance can be used to convey the powerful message of ‘my body, my choice’ to viewers, as her Agents of Ishq website has done through their ‘The Amorous Adventures of Megha and Shakku in the Valley of Consent’ internet video. The highlight of our panel was when we honoured the legend Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal with a special award. Mahabanoo has completed 15 years of performing The Vagina Monologues all across India and the world, and in the process, empowering thousands of women to be comfortable about their bodies and their rights.
Barkha and all of us collaborators managed to do something quite amazing, I feel. We created a space for equal conversations between women that transcended the boundaries of class, age, income and power. So alongside every Sonam Kapoor, Twinkle Khanna or Smriti Irani on stage, there was the 83-year-old sharp shooter Chandro Tomar from Haryana (also known as ‘Revolver Dadi’) or the amazing Kusum, president of the All India Network of Sex Workers, who is leading the call to legalise sex work in the country and offer our sex workers better working conditions and health facilities.
My discovery of the event was Saxophone Subbalaxmi, who charmed us all with her mellifluous renditions of numbers as diverse as Take Five and Moh Moh Ke Dhaage. When she was young, she was dissuaded from playing the saxophone because it was a boy’s instrument. She’s having the last laugh now as one of India’s most famous saxophone players! I also greatly enjoyed speaking to Iqra Rasool, the confident 17-year-old fast bowler from Kashmir, who shared her dreams of playing for the Indian women’s cricket team, just like her role model Mithali Raj, who came for the conference and encouraged Iqra to never give up.
As part of our collaboration, our Culture Lab team curated a range of artworks, both in subject and in medium, in an attempt to open up points of interaction about what exactly constitutes a woman’s urban experience. The idea is to locate women as part of a much wider spectrum of human subjectivities that can be inhabited simultaneously by anyone regardless of gender.
One of the exhibits that we brought to the conference in collaboration with the organisers of the Dharavi Biennale was a life-sized installation of a pregnant woman studded with glass surgical vials. Dharavi-based sculptor Vandana Kori incorporated 11,000 disused bottles to comment on the lack of medical care for women. Each of the vials was sourced from Prem Nagar in Goregaon, from a crowd of tiny work units where they had been dumped for washing.
Another exhibit was done by our friends from the Aravani Art Project. The transgender artists used the symbolic potential of the sari at the venue to drape new lines across the titles, names and narratives given to their own transgender community. It was wonderful to see how many conference-goers engaged with the transgender artists, took selfies, and chatted with them about their lives and struggles.
What we wear defines us — it is also the subject of one of the projects Jasmeen had carried out in the past through Blank Noise. ‘I never asked for it’ launched in 2008 and asked citizens to send the garments they were wearing when they were harassed, and then built an installation using these. So, I was so moved by Jasmeen’s call to action during our panel that I found myself lying under an open sky. At Cubbon Park, my mind drifted back to a few weeks ago — where I had laid down under another open sky, just as freely.
I am talking about the Mahindra Open Sky Festival. Well, the name says it all! At its inaugural edition at Reggie’s Camel Camp in Osian, on the first dune of the Thar desert and just about two hours from Jodhpur, we took glamping to the next level. Luxurious tents, a full crafts bazaar with leheriya dupattas, juttis, lac bangles, yoga sessions, star-gazing, expeditions with the local Bishnoi and Bhil tribes, and the mother of all camel races — this was decadent desert living as its finest!
Then there was the music. Crowd-pleasers like Papon and Ayushmann Khurrana did full sets, as we lay on soft mattresses under the stars, bundled up in shawls, lit by the glow of flickering lamps. Ayushmann in particular was fantastic — I had no idea he could do cover versions of A. R. Rahman and a full-on Aamir-Salman-Shah Rukh impersonation set! But the highlight of the festival, at least for me, was the theatre actor, music director, lyricist, singer, scriptwriter and overall genius Piyush Mishra’s performance.
Mishraji is best known for his work in films like Gulaal (2009) and Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), and also his Coke studio recording of Husna, which has over 3 million views online. The song is about two lovers, separated by borders. One writes to the other, asking if the things are same across the border, if the sun rises from the east there as well and if trees shed their leaves there too…. His live rendition had me in tears. He also performed the powerful Kyon Aate Ho Uncle that dealt with the subject of child abuse — there are young girls and boys who are raped, often by those closest to them — and Mishra’s unflinching verse cut the audience to silence, as did his poem for Nirbhaya, which rang as true when he recited it now, as it did some years earlier.
Resistance and resilience. My two resolutions for 2018, I promised myself, under that open sky.
*This blog post is a modified version of my column Parmesh’s Viewfinder that appears in Verve magazine each month.