Body and spirit

'I was tired of hiding': Delhi-based actor Mallika Taneja turns onstage nudity into act of protest

'Thoda Dhyaan Se' highlights the flawed logic of victim blame in cases of sexual assault.

The small, dark stage at Studio Safdar in Delhi is littered with shorts, scarves, slips, skirts, pants and scarves. From behind the wings, a woman steps into the circle of light and stands facing the stunned audience. She stands naked and silent, for what seems like an eternity (it is actually about six to seven minutes) and locks eyes with everyone in the audience. Her own face goes from impassive to thoughtful to mildly amused and finally weary. The audience response varies, some shift their gaze elsewhere, some fix it at a point of the bare body, others refuse to censor their eyes. Most choose to play safe and lock eyes with her.

It is only when the nudity becomes an established reality onstage that Mallika Taneja finally speaks her first lines:

“Thoda dhyan se rehena chahiye, aapko pata hai na zamana kharab hai? Jab aapko pata hai zamana kharab hai to thoda dhyan se bas,” or, “You should be a little careful, you know that the world is a bad place, right? When you know the world is a bad place, then just be a little careful, that’s all.”

For over three years now, Taneja has been travelling across India and the globe with her short act Thoda Dhyan Se, or TDS. A darkly funny, one-woman show, TDS starts with the actor appearing onstage in her underclothes and builds up to a hysterical climax, with her trussed and helmeted in readiness to repel the male gaze on an evening out. “Thoda dhyan se rehna chahiye, bas” is the flawed mantra for women to stay safe on India’s streets.

The play’s everyday setting throws the ridiculousness of victim blaming in molestation and rape cases into sharp relief. It has worked so well that that Taneja has performed it over 100 times, from college auditoriums and basements to intimate salons and at International festivals.

Then a little over one year ago, Taneja decided that it was time the bold but lovable skit turned a darker corner: there was only one boundary left for TDS to cross, for the actor to take the leap to total nakedness on stage. The opportunity presented itself at a show on August 15, 2015 at a theatre festival in Zurich. “It was terrifying even though Europe is used to nudity on stage,” Taneja said. “But even there, audiences were uncomfortable, they are not used to a nude body looking at you looking at it.”

( Photo credit:  Shubham)
( Photo credit: Shubham)

The bigger challenge of stripping, in order to make a political point, lay back home, in India. The only other woman to use her bare body thus was Sabitri Heisnam, the fiesty Manipur actor. In 2000, when she was performing the role of Draupadi, directed by theatre veteran (and her husband) Kanhailal, Heisnam ripped the clothes off her body as she railed against her rapists on stage. Her lines from that show are the stuff of legendary theatre – “Counter me, encounter me” – was a barely veiled protest against the Armed Forces Special Power Act’s excesses. Four years later, when 12 Meitei women stripped naked at the Kangla Fort to protest the rape and killing of Thangjam Manorama, many linked it to Heisnam’s defiant stage act.

“It is from those women that I learnt about the naked body being used as a site of protest,” Taneja said. “That incident has stayed in my head, deeply affecting all I do.”

After some small, very private salon performances, Taneja decided to appear unclothed onstage to a large Indian audience, at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala, in Thrissur last year. “I was tired of hiding,” she said.

The response at the Thrissur festival was predictable – it is reputedly one of the most formidable theatre audiences in India. “There was pin drop silence and a collective ‘Aiyyo!’ from the 300-strong audience,” Taneja recalled. “The response that followed the play is something I have yet to come to terms with.”

A Facebook post Taneja received later encapsulated the confused response of a repressive society: “Hello sister, first time I saw naked lady.”

The bolder version of TDS has been playing to limited audiences, in protected settings – the audiences are required to leave their mobile phones outside the venue and there are no videos of the show or explicit publicity photographs either. Despite the fact that it has played at venues across India, the fact that the play has broken the final taboo remains unknown outside a small circle.

( Photo credit:  Shubham)
( Photo credit: Shubham)

The first time the revised act played to a ticketed, totally unfiltered audience, was in February, when Taneja performed at New Delhi’s Studio Safdar. Sudhanva Deshpande, actor and director with the Delhi-based theatre troupe Jan Natya Manch, saw the play evolve from its nascent stages. Deshpande calls TDS’ current version an extraordinary act: “The simplicity of just standing there, ordinarily, without making a statement, not daring anyone, not showing off…the stance just said ‘this is a human body, no different from yours, how you look at it is your problem not mine’.”

By not sitting down, posing or doing anything in particular during the time she is unclothed on stage, Taneja demands a response from the audience – you cannot simply sit and watch. “The way I see it, once you are past the idea of a naked body you can get on with the job of making your point,” she said. “Enough, now let us talk. Is it a big deal? Well yes, it is. No matter how protected the space and how sacred the stage, there is always the threat of violence, isn’t it?”

Over the months, the actor said she has often questioned herself. If the audience looked at her with a voyeur’s gaze, how much of it could she take? Would that mean she was sexualising the space? Was it an intrusion or were they just looking?

After all these shows, it is still not easy, Taneja said. She has become better, more skilled at handling the space, but the moments leading up to the first appearance are still filled with anxiety. The fact that she is petite, she said, doesn’t make it any easier. “Like all women, I have body issues, but the fact is that it had to be done because you can’t trump this, when it comes to starting a gender conversation,” she said.

The one time she found herself floundering to deal with audience response, was in Paris. “There were a bunch of 16-year-old kids and they giggled and sniggered through the play,” Taneja said. “It was very very humiliating and grossly uncomfortable. So the play was performed in a rage, I ploughed my way through it.”

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.