Cityscapes

How a dowry death in Delhi gave birth to feminist street theatre in India

The year 1979 was seminal for both the feminist and the theatre movement in the country.

In Delhi of the late 1970s, dowry deaths were so commonplace that newspapers relegated them to city briefs. But Hardeep Kaur’s murder in October 1978 in Jangpura, a middleclass colony, was so brazen that it refused to be shrunk into three lines in a single column: her death screams were heard by a neighbour, as she burnt in the sitting room of her home.

Kaur’s story became the core of one of India’s first feminist street plays, Om Swaha, staged in late 1979. It was a powerful work which women’s groups used to rouse public outrage against dowry killings, setting in motion events that ended in a landmark anti-dowry legislation in 1980.

The story of Om Swaha and other feminist street plays of the early ’80s and their evolution over the next decade is being told by scholar Deepti Priya Mehrotra in her upcoming book, Feminist Street Theatre, Histories and Stories. Mehrotra herself was a part of some of these pioneering plays.

“There is so little known today of the feminist street theatre movement of the time,” said Mehrotra. “These were intense works based on shared experiences of women, a part of feminist activism itself, and a powerful mode of communicating gender concerns to large sections of people. They played out in streets, homes, courtyards, colleges, at protests, reaching out to as many as possible.”

Mehrotra read from these plays recently with actors of Jana Natya Manch at Studio Safdar in Delhi.

Dramatised readings from feminist street plays by Sampurna Trust. Image credit: Kriti
Dramatised readings from feminist street plays by Sampurna Trust. Image credit: Kriti

She and other early feminists point out that plays like Om Swaha, Aurat, Ahsaas, Mulgi Zhali Ho and Aurat aur Dharam were born of the activism of the time but gave a bigger voice to the women’s movement. These were entertaining works, full of humour, folk music and colour even if the stories they told were grim. At least two of them, besides Om Swaha, were first staged in 1979. Safdar Hashmi’s Janam Aurat went to become hugely successful and ran to full houses for 20 years. Meanwhile, Ahsaas, a street play with vignettes from an average woman’s life, was also enacted in middleclass homes in Lajpat Nagar, taking theatre into the homes of the play’s characters.

This feminist street theatre was Hindi and beyond, says Mehrotra. “There was Jyoti Mhapsekar and Stree Mukti Sangathana’s phenomenally popular Mulgi Zhali Ho and various other street plays in the making in other parts of India, especially Chhattisgarh and Karnataka,” she said.

Here is the story of how two of the most successful feminist street plays of those decades evolved:

Om Swaha

Writer-publisher Urvashi Butalia recalls the quiet afternoon of October 18, 1978, lunch just over at her Jangpura home, when screams rent the air. Across a colony park, framed against the bedroom window of a wealthy business family’s home, they could clearly see a young woman engulfed in flames. There had been talk that she was being harassed for not bringing enough dowry.

Though an entire neighbourhood watched Hardeep Kaur’s public death, only Subhadra Butalia, Urvashi’s mother, and a pioneering feminist activist, agreed to be a witness.

Stree Sangharsh, the nascent feminist group set up by Subhadra Butalia, had brainstormed: how do we take shake up the numb colonies and streets of Delhi, get communities involved? By then, many more women had been killed for dowry, including Tarvinder Kaur in Model Town.

How about a street play weaving the lives of the two women, someone suggested? The irrepressible Maya Rao and Anuradha Kapoor were roped in for script and direction. Tripurari Sharma was brought in to help hold workshops to ease activists into a new role.

A performance of 'Om Swaha' in 1980-'81, featuring Subhadra Butalia, Ayesha Heble, Sharda Behn, Rama, among other actors. Photo credit: Sheba Chachhi.
A performance of 'Om Swaha' in 1980-'81, featuring Subhadra Butalia, Ayesha Heble, Sharda Behn, Rama, among other actors. Photo credit: Sheba Chachhi.

Om Swaha, a play about the two Kaurs, friends and victims, was staged at Indraprastha College in late 1979 and everyone who saw it says it was an incredibly moving experience. Maya Rao, playing Hardeep drowning in a sea of flaming red dupattas, was so believable that audiences froze in horror.

“The scene where she is being killed, I remember there was pin-drop silence,” recalled Urvashi Butalia. “You could only hear two things – Maya’s scream and the traffic on the road. Even when we played to mostly all-male gatherings during lunch hours in Connaught Place and Patel Chowk, there was no hostility. Just compassion.”

Men were an important part of the play. Filmmaker Pankaj Butalia often played the role of the scooter demanded in dowry, vrooming down the street. Later three doctors from Safdarjang Hospital played male roles.

“Fiat ki gaadi, Binny ka kapda, Bata ke joote, Garden ki sadi, chahe ladki pis pis ke marjaye/Godrej ki almari, Weston ka TV, Gwalior ki suiting, Khaitan ke pankhe, chahe ladki pis pis ke marjaye,” went a ditty in the play, listing popular dowry demands of the time.

Maya Rao says the play was a revelation for most people. “This was the first time they were seeing ordinary women, in saris and salwar kameez, in groups, on streets acting and talking about issues that were supposed to be private, family issues.”

A performance of 'Om Swaha' in 1980-'81. Photo credit: Sheba Chachhi
A performance of 'Om Swaha' in 1980-'81. Photo credit: Sheba Chachhi

It was also a huge learning experience for her. Should the play preach “na dahej lenge na denge” or simply exhort audiences to treat sons and daughters alike?

“A no-dowry society seemed like wishful thinking, our audiences were largely male,” recalled Maya Rao. “We decided to not do extreme advocacy. It was more important to make an impact than to state our stand on the subject.” She later set up Theatre Union with some of the cast and did many shows of the play.

Om Swaha more than succeeded as activist theatre. It travelled easy, was performed by many groups. Urvashi recalls jumping into buses and heading out to Delhi’s innards and outlying areas with the play, surviving on tea and pakodas.

In the colonies and bastis of Delhi, people watched, heard and responded. Post-play, aggrieved families would walk up to the group and talk of their own troubles, seek help and legal aid. From these conversations sprang many crisis intervention groups.

Aurat

“Your vocabulary only speaks of women with clean hands and soft bodies, delicate complexion and fragrant hair. But I am a woman…with skin like the desert and hair that stinks of factory fumes.”

Aurat began with this poem, translated by Janam’s actor-director Sudhanva Deshpande in the book, Theatre of the Streets. The play, scripted by Safdar Hashmi and Rakesh Saxena, premiered at the first north zone Working Women’s Conference in Delhi in March 1979. It was staged at a dharamshala in Roop Nagar in March 1979.

Aurat told three stories – of the struggles of women in different stages of life and issues related to livelihood, sexual harassment, social oppression and poverty. It had one woman character, played by Moloyashree Hashmi, and seven male characters.

“The first show was very well received,” said Hashmi. “The play was so strong that even when we were not at our best – we were travelling, tired – it worked as great theatre. The scenes were pithy, the language was excellent, the script was comprehensive and layered but simple. Not once did we ever feel that the play was not connecting or wasn’t understood.”

The play wrapped up late 1990s, but by then it had travelled across India, doing about 2,500 shows. It had been translated and freely performed in many Indian languages and travelled to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

“In those years, feminist street theatre and women’s movement, both provided impetus to each other, creating a sort of continuity,” said Hashmi. “There was constant churning and movement between the two.”

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