In the history of the world’s literature, so much writing has been dominated by men. But often, it’s not because women aren’t writing; but because there’s an understated prejudice against female written work, sidelined and tossed aside as a result of sexism, while their male counterparts receive legendary, heroic status for their work. And to address and counter that, Indian arts company The Lost Post Initiative created i am not here, an eight-step guide in how to censor women’s writing.
But this isn’t just any old guidebook; it’s a dance-theatre production that plays out, of all places, in a boxing ring. Directed by Deepika Arwind, and devised and performed by Ronita Mookerji and Sharanya Ramprakash, the production is described as both dark and funny, as the two performers enter the ring, transforming into men, women, creatures and more, as they address and complicate the difficulties faced by women in the arts.
Before their performance streams online as part of the 2021 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, we spoke to Deepika, Ronita and Sharanya on the conceptualisation of the piece, the situation they face as Indian women artists, and the way the pandemic has affected their work. “For me, I’ve been teaching dance online, and it’s been going surprisingly well,” says Ronita. “Even without a pandemic, I’d have been teaching, but going online has allowed me to reach out to more people, and still conduct my classes and my practice in a new way. It’s been very experimental, performing short work online and exploring my movements in front of a camera.”
“With going online, it definitely brought some new things with it, and it’s re-taught us how to hustle. But I felt the biggest loss was the joy of community, being there at rehearsals, and being in the process of making something in the same room with other people,” adds Sharanya.
“There are times the lights would end up shining on the crowd itself, and there’s a lot of feelings captured in that space. A rehearsal in an empty space with no audience just wouldn’t do justice to it.”
“In general, it’s been a dicey situation because of the pandemic, and even when theatres open, we’re not sure if people will attend shows because of the risks associated with gathering in a crowd,” says Deepika. “And we’ve been feeling this huge loss for i am not here, because it would have been a big international show for us, besides us having various international residencies and tours that got cancelled. We’ve been lucky enough to have other sources of income, like teaching online, but in India, there really isn’t a contemporary arts sector, and hopefully, we can perform and show our work to full theatres again soon.”
Out of all the other performances to be streamed on SISTIC Live, i am not here is the only one that has not filmed a new version, in part because of the restrictions, in terms of financial sense, and in terms of the nature of the performance requiring a live audience and their reactions to be fully felt. “In the performance, you’re surrounded on four sides by audience members, and constantly performing to them all, and it really is the people who make the show, as we look at each other across the boxing ring,” says Sharanya. “There are times the lights would end up shining on the crowd itself, and there’s a lot of feelings captured in that space. A rehearsal in an empty space with no audience just wouldn’t do justice to it.”
“The boxing ring is significant, in that we thought about how we were dealing with how as women who perform, we seem to be constantly fighting for our space and fighting to be watched, and that’s what a lot of women’s work is like, where you have to bear wounds in front of an audience,” explains Deepika, on the reason behind the boxing ring. “Without an audience, the work itself becomes invalid. And perhaps it’s interesting how it is the people who are most marginalised that are fighting for a space and place to depict that, and how difficult a struggle it is. The boxing ring, where you seem to be watched and surrounded on all four sides, just seemed an apt metaphor and byproduct of that.”
“For a dancer, the performance space is sacred, where you’ll pray to the floor and sky above before entering a performance,” adds Ronita. “So far, whenever I’ve performed this show, in this boxing ring we perform, it’s more than just a place to fight. It’s a space where you’re trying to say something, where we tell a story that goes beyond our personal lives the moment we step in. We play with so many stories, transcending our own experiences, to what can relate to people. We’re trying to break out of the box, but when you think about it, within the theatre space, the audience is in an even bigger box, and when you watch the show, you’ll see how the lines blur between audience and performer. The audience’s presence just intensifies the whole piece, elevating what it means to be in that space, fighting for space in that ring.”
“There is so much power play involved in the performance itself, as we see the performers wanting to be voiced equally.”
“You know, initially, people think that we were going to fight against each other,” says Sharanya. “The unusual nature of the space allows for audiences to be surprised when they’re thrust into this place that they don’t expect for theatre, where they come in thinking they know what’s going to happen, watching these women wearing exercise clothes. But we bring all these personal stories and experiences we hear about, like this segment about an Instagram-poet who reads a terrible review of her work at a party, and it’s almost like watching a scene of public humiliation. It may not be our own experience, but we do receive emails and reviews that tell us we’re just ‘getting on the feminist bandwagon’ or told that our grammar is wrong. We draw from those, to present this amalgamated character in a creative way.”
“There is so much power play involved in the performance itself, as we see the performers wanting to be voiced equally, and there’s the same kind of tension that’s built up during a boxing match; not necessarily against each other, but this need for one to be heard over the other,” says Ronita. “The audience doesn’t realise that there’s just so much happening in the box, and in the midst of it, they’ll suddenly realise they’re a part of the performance as well.”
Delving into their own experiences, the artists think back on their own struggles as contemporary artists in a country that prioritises the traditional, and how that has been for them. “Regarding the work that travels abroad, you honestly don’t see much contemporary work, as it may not fit the ‘idea of India’. But in recent years, there’s a greater interest in watching contemporary work without it taking on the classic form, while exploring modern topics in themes,” says Deepika. “Right now, our contemporary arts scene is supported by the kindness and goodness of a few institutions, and finding the right collaborators, but in Europe, you can go to a performance that can afford to be more abstract and conceptual, and that’s because the artist had funding, and the ecosystem is there to support them, giving them to freedom to create a show about almost anything. In India, we do feel boxed in sometimes, not just with regards to contemporary work, but even creating women’s work. We have to find ways to present our voice, and find our form and space.”
“In 2018, I travelled to Singapore for the Kalaa Utsavam Festival and presented a show titled Akshayambara, which was about a traditional dance form performed by men for 800 years, reimagined with women playing the men and vice versa,” says Sharanya. “Even when it’s not contemporary in form, it was modern because of the way we presented it. I’m lucky in that I come from a city instead of a village, and as a woman coming in to re-examine these, I had the space to question the form.”
Ronita herself is trained in Bharatanatyam, and shares her own experience of the traditional versus the contemporary in India. “I never fit the standard Bharatanatyam body type, and I eventually moved away from it when I discovered the contemporary scene,” says Ronita. “In my own experience, choreographers abroad want you to showcase your culture, and sure, it’s an honour, but you can’t help but ask yourself – why am I put in this box, and why must Bharatanatyam always show stories of gods? There’s this ability to mix things up and become more interdisciplinary, and I’ve been slowly discovering these new forms while using my skills in dance and theatre to break past the more popular Western way of looking at Indian arts, instead of always being pegged as the traditional ‘Asian’ arts overseas.”
As The Lost Post Initiative, the company’s members often wind up discussing the place of the female artist in society, as can be seen not only in i am not here, but previous work as well. “The idea of censorship through silencing women is very insidious, because it’s not an outright ban, but criticising them like saying ‘oh you’re not really an artist, you write like a man’ and so on,” says Deepika. “It diminishes the value of the work, and women are often discounted in contemporary art circles. It’s tiring because sometimes it feels that our work has to constantly respond to these issues. Sharanya likes to ask – do we invent this burden and this fight? To which I respond that I don’t think so, because it does exist, but because of that, it can be debilitating, and prevents us from having the full range of artistic freedom certain male artists have.”
“I remember this interview Deepika had, and it was this older man who completely did not understand the work,” says Sharanya. “At times it’s difficult to put our finger on the nature of this burden exactly, and how we’re either ignored, or when people do notice us, external forces come out to quash it and whatever you’re trying to say. We need to address this lack of attention, and to fight the people who try to shut us down when people finally hear what we want to say.”
“I’ve gotten feedback that said that while we were bold, we were not ‘feminist’ enough, and that completely silenced me, because I had no idea how to respond to that; how do you even calibrate that?” says Ronita. “At the end of the day, this is a lived experience for all of us, and it’s a way to create conversation, speak to the audience, and even involve them in it, especially towards the end.”
“We’re three women in a room putting up something together, and there’s this roar of taking back our voice,” says Sharanya. “There’s a scene where I play a man with a dog (played by Ronita) and I love my dog; she has a collar and I walk her and play with her, but then the dog barks and I beat the hell out of her. Only a performance devised by three women would say something like that. When my own father saw the show, he couldn’t stomach it, and told me he never knew how much anger I felt inside all these years”
“Ultimately, the reason I started doing this is because I was asking myself what kind of plays I was doing, these Western performances where I was just reading and following prescribed stage directions. That’s why I wanted to write and devise original work, and create work that speaks to me, work that is important to us,” says Deepika. “i am not here is really to address censorship, and specifically, women and women’s writing. It’s an experiment in storytelling with how abstract it is, but I hope that when audiences watch it, they can see the clash in solidarity, how the anger moves through the piece and really just see and experience something. There’s been a variety of responses to it, from labelling us as privileged women who only know how to write grant applications, but also, this female journalist who was crying after because it reflected how she felt on a daily basis, and perhaps, reflects that for many other people as well, to live in such an industry as a woman.”
Photo Credit: Aparna Nori
i am not here streams from 20th to 26th January 2021 as part of the 2021 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Tickets available here
The 2021 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival runs from 20th to 31st January 2021. Tickets available from SISTIC
For the first time, the Fringe is launching a special stay-home package to catch all performances at the festival via SISTIC Live. For an exclusive rate of $95, get access to all videos on demand of the Fringe performances throughout their screening periods.
Check out more information and the safety measures at venues the Fringe will be held at on their website here