The Gendered Nineties

Pandies is possibly the only example of theatre emanating from a college society and moving on to establish credentials as an internationally famous theatre group.

The Gendered Nineties: The growth of the performer/teacher as activist

Crucial decades as pandies moved away from college theatre to establish a vibrant identity. For sanjay these were crucial learning years, radicalising the self and the student community where he teaches. In this quest for relevance and improvement of the social rubric, gender got precedence. The directorial charge was in Sanjay’s hands while a dominant number of young woman in the group buttressed a political feminist stance for the productions.

Macbeth (1993)

Pushed by the college administration, the Dram Soc evolved into pandies’ theatre, with Sanjay as founding president and three colleagues from the English Literature already involved in the plays as the office bearers and a Management Committee  of 7 senior student members. Work on Macbeth had commenced, and auditoriums (7 shows) booked in the name of Hansraj College Dram Soc. In an incredible 3 months, pandies’ theatre was registered as a theatre group and enough money was collected to go ahead with the shows. The challenge before Sanjay was not to re-create the Bard’s classic as a great English renaissance play but in keeping with the agenda of the evolving group to see the play in terms of its relevance to contemporary India and the third world. The play became a critique of the obsessive masculine and how these constructions spell doom for the rubric of our society. The primacy use shifted from the character of Macbeth to centralise the witches and Lady Macbeth and press called the rendering Lady Macbeth and the Witches, both tongue-in-cheek and laudatory. Linguistic experimentation helped. a Prologue was added, the first scene (11 lines) and the porter scenes were translated and performed in Hindi and this small scene was repeated at the end with visuals of Donalbain. The witches/old hags/ women left over after war were shown as a group of Kali worshippers in a prologue to the play. A Hindi epilogue and prologue were added. 

Womanscape (1993)

An early landmark, inspired by the shorter fiction of Doris Lessing, and scripted by members of the group Anand Prakash, Debjani Sengupta and Sanjay Kumar this production brought forth some basic feminist concerns. Focussing on the predicament of women in our city, our time, the 3 episodes focussed on themes of molestation in the workplace, a valorisation and exploration incest – brother sister love and same sex relationships among women in the glamour world. At the level of stagecraft the experimentation was with constructing a rhombus shaped level covering the expanse over the usual stage, providing actors with multiple points of addressing the audience and each other.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1994)

Sanjay’s first attempt at an in your face antifascist play, Brecht’s rollicking farce on the rise of Hitler. The times were better and staging multi staging of this play was possible. A deliberate attempt was made to Indians the set with the use of highway restaurant and a liquor shop as the essential spaces on set. A Hitler is possible anywhere, is it possible to resist his rise? The play was contextualised in the context of the rise of right wing forces (and electoral victories) in the capital.

The Story of Meera (1994)

It was double bill, Arturo Ui and Meera were prepared and presented together. Scripted by members of the group Anand Prakash, Sanjay Kumar, and Sunil Dua/Debjani Sengupta the 3 episode play placed Meera in a secular frame. Not a Hindu saint but woman in history and in the here and now. Her rejection is the final questioning of patriarchy and her love for Krishna is the quest for a better, more woman friendly social order.

Ibsen – Ghosts (1994 – 96)

A major challenge and triumph for Sanjay. Scripting, producing and directing. Definitely the most popular of the nineties phase. This play was af foray into medical activism. Working towards HIV awareness, still pathetically low in India, with organisations like AAG and also under the aegis of the newly created NGO-AIDS cell (under AIIMS), the need fro advocacy through arts was bing increasingly felt. Adapting Ibsen’s Ghosts to Delhi of the 80s and 90s and to AIDS from WHO to various corporate offices that were paying major lip service to the cause to reach the newly found NACO via support from the newly formed UNAIDS cell. Addressing the major scourge for our city, our world, the play also looked closely at constructions of masculinity and male sexuality holding them directly responsible for the spread of the deadly disease. The first full-length commercial play on AIDS in Delhi, it highlighted the decadent masculinity of our world that has left us open to the onset of this scourge. Funded initially by NACO, it went through repeated adaptations and different sponsors from development sectors and the corporate world. It was taken to Bangalore by the NORAD. Large segments of the play were telecast on Doordarshan and STAR TV.

Beautiful Images (1995 – 96)

Based on Simon de Beauvoir’s Les Belles Images, the dramatic script was created by Sanjay and produced and directed the play was first staged at the LTG. Welcomed as a subtle, sophisticated presentation of some of Beauvoir’s complex feministic ideas, the play was revived in `96 at the Shri Ram Centre, New Delhi.

Call Her A Witch (1996)

The first halting step to get those marginal stories ‘in.’  Moved by contemporary articles on ‘Dayan Hatya’ (Witch killing) and combining extracts from Thomas Dekker’s The Witch of Edmonton with contemporary narratives of women being burnt as witches at the altar of decadent patriarchs and patriarchies the play worked in focussing on assaults on women in contemporary societies.  In what was to become a tradition and a hugely successful and empowering partnership, this was the first time that Sanjay approached the women’s group, Shaktishalini. Remember the winter afternoon, sitting on the terrace that was their office then and the first meeting Apa Shahjahan who shared narratives (wasn’t going to show me any documents) of women who had been condemned and killed as witches. The play was invited for conferences and theatre festivals alike.

Mannequins: Sell a woman, Buy a body (1997)

Start of full time activism. This production focused on prostitution, on patriarchal orientation that creates the need for prostitution and the victimisation of the group that occurs in society especially after the outbreak of HIV.  The play focussed on both the kotha (brothel) in a ‘red light area’ and the upper middle class ‘call girl racket’. The play was subsequently picked by NACO for spreading AIDS – awareness in colleges. And another gain for sanjay  was meeting and learning from leading women activists in the field: Elizabeth Vatsayan (AAG), Ms. Virdi (Delhi Police), Dr. Promila Kapur (independent researcher on call girls in Delhi) and members of AIWC.

She’s MAD (1997)

  Sanjay directed this play as a fund-raiser for Shaktishalini. A dense exercise, it did a close grapple with the issue of gender based violence. It sought to explore the issue of madness in women. Interaction with various women’s groups revealed how the label of madness had become the latest method of cruelty against women, to deprive them of their rights and let the husband be free to do what he likes. Relying on data from Shaktishalini files and from like minded women’s organisations, the play sought legislative change.  Apart from proscenium shows, the play was taken to slums, bastis and villages around Delhi and performed in courtyards of houses, streets, lawns and schools and women’s homes. Over 50 performances were held and each followed by discussion sessions.

The buzz created by the play led to a panel discussion with Sanjay and women lawyers as panelists on this issue on STAR TV.

Veils (1998)

This episodic play directed by Sanjay was indubitably the biggest success of pandies before 2000. A stunning, way ahead of its time production, Veils had close to 200 shows spanning 3 years.  Veils cover the women of three major religions of India, it is also what covers what the patriarchs across want to keep hidden. 

It  prioritised the issue of rape. Of a child, of girls in college, in marriage – the expanse was incredible. Why does a man commit rape? What sympathy, succour can you offer a rape victim. 

Does not the present structuring of society make rape easy, almost inevitable? A scathing critique of the male-orientedness of our society, the play sought an attitudinal change and asked for legislative reform. 

The project was sponsored by the HRD Ministry, Govt. of India. The most polemical and probably the best received (at times certain sections of the male audience have been almost hostile to the play), apart from regular proscenium shows, the play was performed at umpteen schools and colleges and in bastis as street shows. An activist’s delight, parliamentarian Dr. Mohini Giri tried to have the play performed at the floor of the parliament as part of the plea for legislative reform on the issue. A multi pronged project rather than a play, Veils had as an accompaniment a workshop based campaign in Delhi’s Yamuna Pushta focusing gender violence and women’s rights, a more detailed reference is in the section on workshop theatre.

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