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Too taboo to handle

From poets and porn stars to comedians and drag queens to mental health experts, Sangeeta Pillai has cast her net far and wide, resulting in a spicy masala of culturally enriching discussions through her open conversations, writes Smitha Murthy
Last Updated 02 October 2021, 19:15 IST
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The words “Besharam! Bathameez!” are the opening lines to Sangeeta Pillai’s widely popular Masala Podcast. It’s a sneak preview of the podcast’s unfiltered, raw, and deeply empathetic conversations with women from South Asia.

Unapologetically feminist, the Masala Podcast won the British Podcast Awards in 2019 and 2020, exploring what Sangeeta calls ‘taboo topics’ around female sexuality, pleasure, menopause, the Kamasutra, mental health, and periods. It’s a podcast that is refreshingly loud, clear in its vision of giving women a voice and creating social change, much like its creator Sangeeta Pillai.

Born in Kerala, Sangeeta grew up in Mumbai in what she describes as a very traditional family. She worked in India for a while before moving to the UK. “I grew up like a lot of Indian women. That my place was only so much; that I had to be married to have value, dress a certain way, not be too loud, not ask uncomfortable questions. It always made me feel angry.” Anger forced Sangeeta to look deeper into the society she was a part of. It made her think that this can’t be right. “For example, growing up in Mumbai, there used to be lots of groping. Every day, someone would grope. It was almost like it was the accepted norm for men to behave like that. It was very much part of my upbringing, and the reality of what I was told was mine.”

Sangeeta would go on to have a career in advertising, but about three years ago, after a mental health crisis, she stepped back, took a deep breath, and relooked everything afresh. “I wanted to really see what I wanted my life to mean. Feminist conversations, I realised, were what I had been doing all my life. This is what I wanted to work with.”

Soul Sutras, her feminist platform, was born out of that desire. “It’s a platform for all bad betis and besharam bibis,” Sangeeta laughs. A place where South Asian women could express themselves without fear, and even more so, without shame.

“I started by doing workshops for South Asian women on taboos and cultures. Then, I turned the workshops into two pieces of theatre.” With the tremendous response she received for both the workshops and the theatre, Sangeeta started to toy with the idea of using other mediums to amplify women’s voices further.

A podcast seemed like the next logical, necessary, almost inevitable step, given the surge in popularity podcasts have enjoyed over the last two years. Sangeeta pitched the idea of Masala Podcast in a competition on Spotify, and that was the beginning of a runaway hit podcast that is now in its third season. Over the last three seasons, Masala Podcast has featured South Asian women such as Anoushka Shankar, Shobha De, Vandana Das, and Leeza Mangaldas in candid conversations on how taboos have shaped their lives. From poets and porn stars to comedians and drag queens to mental health experts, Sangeeta has cast her net far and wide, resulting in a spicy masala of culturally enriching discussions. The podcast airs once a week, with each season featuring 10 episodes.

Masala Podcast now has more than 50,000 downloads with an 81% female audience, most of them from the UK. But her listenership in India is growing too. Almost 22% of her listeners are now from India, listeners who are increasingly keen to have deeper conversations around the many taboos that are considered the norm. “The point of the taboos is to make it okay for us to accept ourselves as we are. Taboos and shame are very closely linked. Shame keeps us in our place — you are too loud or too sexual. But by talking about these things, we realise that we all share the same experience. So, my vision is to create safe spaces. To hear each other talk about these things,” Sangeeta says. She pauses. “To feel that we are okay,” she adds. “And that it’s okay to have these conversations.” The silence settles in. Somewhere, that “okay” carries with it the weight of years of negotiating the dos and don’ts of a woman’s life, years of silence, years of trauma, and years of feeling unsafe. Masala Podcast is shedding that weight one conversation at a time with its authenticity and intensity. And with its bad betis and besharam bibis!

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(Published 02 October 2021, 18:58 IST)

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