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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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.