Outreach at Shaktishalini shelter
pandies and Shaktishalini
Pandies connection with Shaktishalini is the oldest and possibly the deepest of ties among like minded organisations. This tie graphs the growth of the writer director over decades of performance. Sanjay’s interaction with Shaktishalini started 1996 while researching on cases of Dayan Hatya (witch burning) for the pandies’ production Call Her A Witch (1996). It was the first meeting with the iconic women activists, Satya Rani Chadhha and Apa Shahjahan. Seeking data and advice on gender issues for scripting and performance became a usual practice with the pandies’ focus on feminist themes, especially prostitution (Mannequins – 1997) and consensual sexual relationships (Veils – 1998).
Establishing itself as a premier women’s organisation, Shaktishalini has spread out and deals with all kinds of gender based violence. Pandies and Shaktishalini – different in terms of the work they do but firmly aligned in terms of ideological beliefs and where they stand and speak from. It is mutual learning space that has survived over 25 years. Collaborative and interactive, this space creates anti-patriarchal and anti-communal street and proscenium performances and provides engaging workshop theatre with survivors of domestic and societal patriarchal violence. Many times we have sat together till late night, in small or large groups debating what constitutes violence? Or what would be gender equality in practical, real terms?
It was with She’s MAD (1997) that the relationship went to another level. Ten years since registration, Shaktishalini was seeking a celebration and a fund-raising. She’s MAD was started with this in mind. The organisation pulled out cases that it had dealt with regarding the abuse of the Mental Health Act (1987) to deprive women, specially married women, of their rights including property and custody of children. Short episodic scripts, about 30 minutes each, culled from the full script, were presented in marketplaces, communities, schools and colleges with a view to increasing the community outreach of Shaktishalini. Intense discussions followed the plays and women were nudged to approach Outreach Centres of the organisation in case of oppression and harassment and any kind of violence.
Changes in the 2 organisations led to destabilising of a linear development of this trend. However the trend of using the Shaktishalini’s feminist inputs and collaborating on street theatre and subsequent outreach counselling sessions continued. There were detailed outreach initiatives in the slum zones of Timarpur with a series of street performances on gender violence. When pandies did its first series of workshops on LGBT in 2003-4, many on ground contacts and inputs came from Shaktishalini.
Workshop theatre with Shaktishalini Residents
It was around 1997-98 that Sanjay started workshop theatre for theatre based therapy in the women’s shelter run by Shaktishalini in Nizamuddin. It was difficult. The women come from different locales, the class levels too vary a lot as do the education levels. And a lot of flux, with residents coming and going from the shelter.
Theatre of Sharing
The desire to create with women residents came to the fore in full form with theatre of sharing from 2017. A lot of changes had taken place in the two groups by then. Pandies was no longer a nomadic group, we had a little studio, a performance space for intimate theatre, for conducting workshops and for rehearsing. More important, located within a residential colony, it meant security and privacy for the women as they came from the shelter to the studio. The Shaktishalini shelter had shifted to a new place and had less sanctions than before. The organisation too was revamped with many young people bringing new ideas ensuring a good space on the social media and seeking and obtaining sources of funding.
As Sanjay led the course, the process was the treasure. Once a week the facilitation would take place in the shelter and once in the studio. From story telling to enactments to performing scripts, the entire trajectory is covered again and again, as women join the shelter and also leave to strive beyond. Most heartening has been the fact that many of the women who have left the shelter have continued participation in the workshop.
Sharing – the performances took place on weekends at the pandies’ studio, studio 81. Heart rending narratives of oppression and violence presented by survivors. Absorbed and impacted on a largely middle class audience, the invitation to share meant stories and narratives, even poems from members of the audience. It’s a unique mode of sharing where you give a creative rendering of pain back to the person who shared that with you as an act of healing.
May 2017. Two narrators, two stories, one from Afghanistan and one from Punjab. A live wire discussion and sharing ensued. Tense and intense.
October 2017. The exercise continues, some women leave the shelter, others join, there are those who become constants. This performance 3 had enactments based on life stories of some of the residents, stylised performances, enhanced with use of lights and music. Another girl from Afghanistan recited some of her poems in Persian, these had been translated into Urdu and English and were read immediately. The audience, invited to share their experiences, talked about their experiences with patriarchy, as daughters-in-law, as wives, as mothers.
January 2018. The 3rd production under the Theatre of Sharing rubric, some of the girls had already been under going theatre training with us. And some were very new. The women were now making stories from their stories, displacing their feelings and stating how it could have been, should have been. Also germane to the attempt was the enacting out of each other’s stories. We moved from dystopias to fantasies and desire. The highlight, a rape victim creating a story of gentle love, where the woman rejects the man to be reconciled to having him slowly and the man waits for her and appreciates her.
This performance was memorable for another reason. It marked the beginning of taking these performance to the communities around as part of Shaktishalini’s outreach.
July 2018. Another performance evidencing the growing abilities of the performers as they experimented with interesting forms of Dastan goi and kissa goi for their performances.
November 2020 – Story telling festival. And then the pandemic struck. But for a brief hiatus, Theatre of Sharing continued though now online. We reconnected with the residents of the shelter in September 2020, a series of workshops online with many members of pandies. We were getting in abundance a narration of experiences of the pandemic. Stories. What happened in the pandemic, what was happening in the pandemic. In November 2020, pandies organised a cyber story telling festival focussed towards its outreach. Apart from Shaktishalini it included youth from Nithari and refugees from Afghanistan. The Shaktishalini story telling group was diverse.
We got 5 stories (4 stories and one set of loosely strung narrative poems), not stories of sporadic violence, of a boy friend or a lover or a husband but of sustained violence against women being a part of the very process of growing up. And the normalisation of violence. In the online mode, while answering queries they were counselling young people in the audience how to combat depression and suicidal tendencies.
March 2021 – An enactment of a script created by them, Ubermensche, followed in march 2021. Led by one of the residents of the shelter, with its boundless energy it was a big success. Using a Bollywood song as a connector, they bound together many stories and incidents of patriarchal privilege and the downgrading of women for an in your face performance.
The outreach workshop tradition was also revived, as partners of Shaktishalini we organised 6 theatre workshops on gender sensitisation for the young of the slum community around the shelter.
October 2021 – Purple Dreams (Ek Lihaaf Aisa Bhi)
Post the second wave, pandies online workshops continued, the variations in numbers of participants continued but the heartening thing was that most of the women who left the shelter to venture out on their own continued with the theatre workshops.
Heady discussions on the themes of same sex partnerships started at this time. While some of the participants were not only comfortable with the idea but also willing to go into personal experiences of experimenting, for others it was a fearful almost dirty word. But they all decided to go with it. Purple Dreams was a first in many ways. The first time that the participants were working on an existing outside script. Presented in a pandies’ collage (Danger Zones 2007), the 40 minute script was offered to the girls for appropriation and adaptation. And for a month and half they worked in close co-ordination with their facilitators. Another first, an experienced actor from pandies joined to do the main (negative) male lead, making the performance a gritty genuine collaboration. Screened live in October 2021, the play was the most successful yet in the collaboration.
Many women had joined the shelter while Purple Dreams was getting prepared. After the play, we decided to go back to the roots of performance. And collectively charted a programme of visiting the nuances of creating a theatrical performance. Three separate modules work together. One on story telling, one on the nuances of acting skills and the third on nuances of art – creating sets and costumes and the use of song and music. The collaboration continues…