A lady’s gaze pierces you for a full five minutes before the words flow. They then start flowing – in bursts – erratically, smoothly, in turns. Her words ask you to be careful of how you walk, how you talk, how you attract the wrong people, how you attract them at all. It is a passionate monologue about issues we deal with everyday.
Only, she begins by doing it completely naked.
Delhi-based theatre artist Mallika Taneja’s piece Thoda Dhyan Se is a stunning satire best described as experimental.
Her performance at Ahmedabad’s Conflictorium recently went to packed houses and she made a thoughtful observation about how people respond to her unique piece:
"I have performed in cities across the country and world, but I met a lot of lowered gazes here. And I really wanted to reach out to this one young college girl who looked like she was about to burst into tears."A Performance to Stun You Into Silence
A piece that begins with Taneja in the buff for a solid few minutes has a lot to say about the human gaze. The artist has seen many; from people looking, people looking away, people smiling, crying, loving to hating.
"It’s a beautiful and powerful thing when so much can be said and heard just by looking. But there is also great discomfort – as sometimes people write to me later, commenting on my body. A lot of times, they send me their own stories."
Her performance is a caricature of the society we live in; she starts the piece by looking at each person's face in silence for several minutes before moving on to the next part, that of her donning clothes, one on top of another, while talking haphazardly about all the things women need to be careful of.
By the end of the show, she piles 50 items of clothing on herself, jabs a helmet on her head too, and yet, the atmosphere is laden with a question she doesn’t ask – that if by being this careful, she can finally be safe enough?
Thoda Dhyan Se has been showcased nationally and internationally for over 5 years, but the content keeps evolving each year.
"– Or rather, with each incident that occurs. I began writing it when the Shakti Mills rape case happened, but to be honest, I think we collect triggers all our lives."
Truly enough, most women who come for her show can relate or cite a number of instances where they have been violated and/or made to feel unsafe.
Raising Hard-Hitting Questions
Taneja, who is deeply inspired by the Meitei women who protested naked against the rape and killing of Thangjam Manorama, decided nudity to be essential to her art only after much thought.
She had initially begun her piece by wearing underwear, in an attempt to be in sync with most people’s sensibilities.
But as her piece raises questions on issues like sexual harassment, body, shame, freedom, equality, gaze, blame and responsibility, she decided there was no other option but to start the act by presenting a completely naked female body.
"Earlier, I was uncomfortable with the idea, nervous of doing it. Every time I went on stage, I had anxiety. That has gotten better with the years. I remind myself that it serves a very important purpose...."
...That of starting a conversation on gender – or simply stating, through that act, that victim blaming in gender crimes is ridiculous.
The piece has found solid takers, even though Taneja, who took to theatre as a lifeline after the early passing of her mother, performed her piece in small circles, college auditoriums, private salons and basements at the beginning. When it came to committing to the already bold skit a little more, Taneja took the plunge towards total nakedness at a performance in Zurich.
It was only at the International Theatre Festival of Thrissur a few years back that she appeared naked onstage for the first time in India. The collective response of several hundred people made her realise the impact her work was making.
"The country we live in today, or rather, those ruling the country fear a strong voice, especially that of a woman’s, because for them, this ‘transgression’ is too much – not only does she disagree, but she dares to speak about it! They fear camaraderie so they kill dialogue and divide citizens based on religion, caste, gender. But art bridges all these differences. Art can pose a real threat to our increasingly fascist state machineries."
Taneja, incidentally, has a Masters degree in English Literature and is inspired by artist Maya Rao’s works.
‘Piling On Clothes’
In her poignant short sketch, she says animatedly, “zamana kharaab hai, toh thoda dhyan se chalo, bas.”
She also speaks of how ‘responsibility’ as a word is thrown around carelessly at women – because, ironically enough, they are expected to do everything possible to keep themselves safe from predators.
To complement her words, she piles on clothes, one after the other, on her bare skin until she is burdened and invisible by their weight. At a certain point in the act, she resembles a Haryanvi woman with her ghunghat, at another, she resembles the women who sing mata ka jagrata. Her process aims to lay bare the unreal standards of our society.
"We still live in a democracy, even though it is fast disappearing. The arts must be an ally to all our movements on ground. And women must be at the forefront of it."
(Runa Mukherjee Parikh is an independent journalist with several national and international media houses like The Wire, Bust and The Swaddle. She previously reported for the Times of India. She is the author of the book 'Your Truth, My Truth (https://www.amazon.in/dp/B076NXZFX8)'. You can follow her at @tweetruna.)
. Read more on Women by The Quint.‘Thoda Dhyan Se’: This Woman Tears Down Victim Blaming, Act by ActHanan Hamid: Story of Teens Struggle Turns Into a Nightmare . Read more on Women by The Quint.