Has our society regressed over the last three decades? Are we less tolerant now than we were before? Do we propagate a culture of offense? The feminist struggle has been historically rooted in the struggle for equality, of breaking free of stereotypes and building a society with fluid, universal notions of gender.
The performing arts are as rooted in stereotypes as the rest of society, as the "traditional" notions of gender have permeated, over centuries, into the socio-cultural fabric. It was in answer to this that theatre veteran Arundhati Nag, author Vanamala Viswanatha and Deepa G decided to found EQUAL, a new Ranga Shankara biennial. "The idea is to celebrate women and bring their struggles and difficulties to the fore," said Deepa. "We want to celebrate everything that is part of a woman's world and highlight the issues we face as a community without giving in to the aggressive, one-upmanship brand of feminism either."
Stalwarts in the fields of theatre, literature and activism will come together on a common platform over this two-day festival, which includes theatrical performances, music, dance and poetry. Padmashri awardee Neelam Mansingh will stage The License and the Adishakti group will perform Veenapani Chawla's Brhannala.
Gender Hues, by Hindustani classical singer Sumathi Murthy, is a performance by Charu, a transgender and Chandini. "We're going to tell stories from our lives and what we face as we assert our genders," said Murthy, who is based here in Bengaluru. "Classical music is heavily rooted in gender stereotypes - female singers, for instance, are expected to either be married or openly spiritual; even their voices need to conform to a certain idea of femininity, which I am trying to break away from. Gender Hues is a constructed piece with Hindustani classical and Sufi music, dance and theatre."
LGBTQ issues are part of the festival's central theme, which seeks to give the marginalised a voice. Celebrated author Prathibha Nandakumar, who is putting together Anga Sukha Linga Sukha (Physical /Metaphysical), says, "We have a saying in Kannada - A woman is defined by her body. That was to be the focus of it, but Aru (Arundhati Nag) suggested LGBT poetry instead. I do believe that it has really come of age in Kannada literature. We have moved beyond the stage of coming-out poetry. We have Chandini, a transgender, whose poems are being prescribed in textbooks. We are an open-minded society and LGBT literature has moved from the margins into something more mainstream."
On Day 1, K.V. Akshara (Ninasam) and Madhuri Dixit (a scholar of Marathi theatre) talk on women in Indian theatre. "Theatre has progressed a great deal, from a time when women were not allowed on stage and female characters were portrayed by men, to now, when women have their own identities as artistes," said Deepa. An all-women Yakshagana troupe will perform Chitrapata Ramayana, directed by Sanjeev Suvarna and Shabnam Virmani will present Heli Mhaari: The Woman's Voice in Mystic Poetry on Day 2. Neelam Mansingh's The License is the play of the day. The Adishakti troupe will round off the festival with Brhannala.
What: EQUAL - Women's voices for a common humanity
When: April 7 to April 9
Where: Ranga Shankara (JP Nagar) and Jagriti (Whitefield).
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