Using theatre to talk of taboo subjects in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, and the lessons learnt
A few years ago, our theatre troupe, Aatish, had gone to the Central Himalayan region of Uttarakhand, in the Almora region, with our plays on resisting menstrual taboos and pre- and post-natal care for women. Before we booked our tickets, there was a big debate in our team on whether the men in our troupe should go along with us. Would it make it awkward for the women in the audience to interact with us if there were men on the stage too? Would they even come to watch?
We finally decided that patriarchal rules were set up by men and at times implemented by women. So both men and women needed to be part of the discussion. If a man wondered about why his menstruating daughter is not sleeping in a hut outside, he needed to know that it was her right to be as safe and comfortable as the rest of her family. If medicines or nutritious food had to be bought for pregnant or lactating mothers, men needed to know why it was crucial to budget for it.
With some of our apprehensions and nervousness still remaining, we got on the stage on performance day. With our usual enthusiasm, glitches and improvisation, we concluded our plays and waited with bated breath for the audience’s response. The turnout had been promising. But we still bit our nails fretting: would the audience find it worthwhile to come for our upcoming performances in the area or would they reject our choice of subject and actors for discussing what many consider “womanly” issues, or, “ladies problems”!?
After a kind applause, an old woman got up to say, “All right, we need to maintain hygiene during menstruation. But living here in the mountains we face water scarcity. Can something be done about that?” Another man her age shared how his pregnant daughter-in-law was forced to carry water as her spouse worked in the city and the father-in-law was too old to do it himself. We encountered more openness in talking about women’s health than we sometimes find in urban settings.
A local activist spoke of how women need to be healthy in order to function well in society, drawing the analogy of a sewing machine that needs regular oiling. We interjected to say that women need to be healthy because everyone deserves to be, and not just because good health ensures women’s productivity, something that ends up serving others’ interests more than their own. Two girls came to talk to us in private. One tried to explain a menstrual problem but was not very clear. Her friend, standing a few steps behind, came forward and revealed that her friend had been speaking on her behalf, because the girl had been hesitant. She then spoke about the issue herself and asked us if she should see a doctor.
Others in the audience said that the hospital in front of which we performed hardly had doctors or medicines. Someone from the hospital said that is because people do not come to the health centre but prefer to go to ojhas instead. There was a dialogue. We ended up doing a workshop for the NGO that wanted to create a play on basic health issues to show how people could take care of minor ailments (many children in the region had been lost to diarrhoea) through simple measures at home rather than going to quacks and risking their health. There was also demand for a dance performance after all the serious stuff we had put them through! Slightly embarrassed at our lack of skill in the area, we had to excuse ourselves. In the evening, we performed our play on menstruation again on a stage that had been set for a Ramleela performance by the locals. As we tried to break a taboo in our own small way, little heads of Ramayana characters peeped from behind the wings.
Some of the questions that had been raised by the villagers were simpler to answer than the others. The people there probably already knew that. But they wanted someone to listen, which we did. And we learnt and unlearnt. We learnt a bit more about the lives of people in the mountains, and unlearnt some of our own stereotypes. We realised that for all of our efforts to spread “awareness”, we too had not used words like “menstruation”, or “maahvaari”, its Hindi equivalent, as many times in our lives as we did that day on stage. We witnessed that once we had normalised the use of those words, a girl in the audience could also use it to discuss her problem with us. We lived the experience of every effort of liberation being a collective one, not something that gets passed down from one to the other. We saw that the restraint that an urban sense of privacy imposes on middle class or upper middle class conversations is often absent from many rural conversations where privacy and segregated familial and individual spaces are often a luxury. We noted that working at the local level required an understanding of the local context, and not stand-alone, externally imposed “solutions”. We were humbled to see that where fundamental rights could not be availed of, people at times withered, and at others made do with proud resilience. We observed that when representatives in a democracy failed to serve their people, those people sometimes got attached to dangerous peddlers of faith, for the desperate want of something to hold on to in the face of adversity. And we learnt that if we wanted more people to join our revolution, we needed to add some dance to it!
Walking back to our accommodation after the performances, workshops and discussions, we saw a grey-haired lady beat us to the top as we huffed and puffed up the treacherous hilly path. We knew that she and her tribe could leave us behind each time, and we thought of the “development” that had been too slow in reaching them, and yet was ironically leaving them behind.
First published in thREAD, The Hindu, 4 Apr 2019.