'Nirbhaya' gives Delhi rape victim a voice

'Nirbhaya' gives Delhi rape victim a voice

'Nirbhaya' gives Delhi rape victim a voice

When a 23-year-old student was gang raped and brutally assaulted on a bus in India’s capital in December 2012, it provoked an unprecedented wave of public anger in India. But in one Indian woman, the gang rape also brought on a deep sense of guilt.

Married and a mother of one boy, Poorna Jagannathan, an actress in Mumbai, had never spoken about the sexual violence she had faced in her life. While she was watching the continuous television coverage of the Delhi gang rape, she said, she could not help feeling that somehow her silence had helped bring about such a horrific crime. Silence is what actually holds the violence in place; silence is what normalises the violence, she said she thought to herself at the time.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, one of Ms Jagannathan’s Facebook friends, the acclaimed playwright Yael Farber, was also following the news about the gang rape and the subsequent protests in India over sexual violence. After seeing Ms Farber’s Facebook posts about the young woman’s death, Ms Jagannathan contacted her with the idea of crafting a theatrical response to the Delhi rape.

“Women are ready to speak here in India in the wake of her death,” she told Ms Farber. “It has broken the banks of what is tolerable. The silence is coming apart, and we yearn to speak. Come and make a new work that enables us to do that.” In February 2013, Ms Jagannathan invited Ms Farber to India, where they collaborated on “Nirbhaya,” a play whose name borrows the pseudonym (which means “fearless”) that the media bestowed on the Delhi gang rape victim. The play, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, is now showing in India, and started Monday in Mumbai.

In “Nirbhaya,” five Indian women tell their stories about the sexual violence and intimidation that they have themselves experienced. Later, a cast of seven re-enact the assault on the real Nirbhaya, which was committed by five men and one juvenile. (Four of the men are now on death row, one died while in prison.) “I believe in what I consider to be theatre’s true, original intention: to show us to ourselves in our true raw form — in order to be a healthier society,” Ms Farber said in an interview.

Open display

One of the cast members, the astrologer Sneha Jawale, delivers a monologue recounting her marriage to a man who set fire to her in an attempt to secure a higher dowry price from her parents, openly displaying the burns that cover much of her face. “The objective of the play is to smash the cone of silence that often envelops victims of sexual abuse in India,” Ms. Jagannathan said.

“‘Nirbhaya’ is a call to shift your mind-set, by shifting the shame from victim to perpetrator, by breaking the silence, by understanding that silence, apathy and ignorance all contribute to creating a culture where violence can thrive and go unaccounted for and get normalised,” she said.

At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, the play garnered glowing reviews and later received Amnesty International’s Freedom of Expression Award. The play’s organisers turned to the online fund-raising site Kickstarter to raise 50,000 pounds, or $83,000, and received funds from institutions like Oxfam and the Ford Foundation to bring “Nirbhaya” to India. Ms Jagannathan said she had spoken to the family of the 23-year-old gang rape victim about the play, but they declined to get involved, and Badri Singh, the victim’s father, told India Ink that he didn’t have any knowledge of any play based on his daughter.

“They gave us their blessing, though, when we spoke to them two weeks back,” Ms Jagannathan said. Though India was the inspiration of “Nirbhaya,” the play is not aimed at just this one country, Ms Jagannathan said.

“Sexual violence against women and children is a global crisis. Nirbhaya’s death has brought that fact front-centre,” she said. “Making a play about this now is the one way those of us on this project believe that a brutal death like hers does not have to be in vain, and can in fact be the catalyst for change.”

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