“It’s difficult for people to understand the concepts of feminism – it just becomes very easy to show it to people if it’s a video,” said Ishmeet Nagpal.
Nagpal is one of the three founders of Mumbai-based Sexonomics the Band, which uses spoken word poetry to list the ways in which sexism affects women. Ramya Pandyan, Sudeep Pagedar and Nagpal first performed together in May 2017 at the South Asia Laadli Media Awards, at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai. They have showcased their work at more than 10 venues since then. “We are trying to make feminism accessible, cool and fun,” said Nagpal.
A professional digital marketer, 38-year-old Pandyan has been performing spoken word poetry since 2009. Nagpal had already heard her work when she was asked to put together a slew of poetry performances for the Laadli Media Awards. Nagpal, 29, who qualified as a dentist but is now a social worker, was associated with the Laadli Foundation at the time. When she approached Pandyan with the idea to craft a collaborative poetry performance, they got together with Pagedar, 29, to start Sexonomics. Pagedar moved to Bengaluru a few months ago but even with just two members, the message that it seeks to convey remains undiluted.
Sexonomics makes strong and often provocative statements against misogyny and sexism through its work. In its first piece titled Parental Economy, the band said that Indian parents treat their children as investments, measuring their worth by the amount of money they can eventually make from them. This acerbic piece inspired the name of the band.
“I wanted this idea, that parents often measure their children’s worth in terms of the money they will bring, to be a core part about what Sexonomics spoke about,” said Nagpal. “We also started out wanting to explore how Indian men’s affection seems transactional, with their idea that mothers need to be respected because they do so much for their children.”
Another piece titled Chaar Log speaks of how societal assumptions about gender roles impact men and women in different ways. Presented like an infomercial, the piece attempts to humorously highlight how the never-ending quest for public approval affects the life choices of young men and women. In its rendition Chaar log, the band invokes familiar figures, like the judgmental society secretary and the nosy auntie who offers unsolicited critique about young women’s attire, to drive its point home. “We are still learning from every performance and trying to adapt it and make it a more entertaining proposition,” said Pandyan.
Even as they aim to change sexist attitudes and provoke introspection, the band insists that Sexonomics is more than activism. “We do not necessarily speak about things we want to change,” said Nagpal. “Sometimes, it is just things that have happened to us and need to be expressed.”
Although the band hopes to espouse feminism through its content, its form is substantially feminist too. It takes its inspiration from various media, such as cinema, nursery rhymes, advertisements and even traditional nukkad nautanki, and strongly subverts them with parody and satire. “What we are doing still has several elements: we are singing, we dance, we do theatre, we are satirical, we parody things,” said Pandyan. “We are trying to make it engaging, trying to determine how we can make it interactive and how we can bring audience in the conversation.”
Since the band hopes to shed light on the ways that sexism insidiously inserts itself into social situations, its members are constantly required to examine the many ways in which they sometimes unconsciously internalise sexist ideas. In a piece where Pandyan describes how effervescent and entertaining her feminism is, she says, “My feminism gets together with Katniss Everdeen [from The Hunger Games] and Hermione Granger [from the Harry Potter series] to laugh at Bella [from the Twilight series] and that stupid vampire of hers.” When Nagpal pointed out to her that the line had undertones of shaming, she realised that even though she talks about how her feminism does not shame anyone, she still has to question her preconceived notions.
Sexonomics also hopes to highlight how bias against women is deeply connected with caste and class-based oppression. “We have seen recently how there are people denying all other biases,” Nagpal said. “There are so many people who focus only on gender oppression and wind up discounting caste and class. Feminism cannot exist in a vacuum, separate from all other issues.”
Given their determination to voice their message as strongly as they can, the women are often verbally attacked and harassed in online and offline spaces for their work. “We got a very violent reaction in the poetry circuit simply for saying that being a momma’s boy is not a great thing,” Pandyan said. “Or for saying that [a song lyric from the film Darr] like Tu haan kar ya naa kar, Tu hai meri Kiran is reminiscent of rape.”
When Nagpal performed a piece critiquing the portrayal of cross-dressing in Bollywood, she was called a “chhakka” and a “hijra” online. “I am an LGBTQ activist and these words are not insulting at all for me, but it points to how our society operates.”
The attack takes several other forms as well. The band has often been told that what they perform cannot essentially count as poetry. They have also been accused of “man-hating”. “Because everything from zulfein (hair) to qamar (waist) to ankles is yours for poetic inspiration and if I say something about your penis, then it becomes an attack, then I come across as a male-basher,” Nagpal said.
The duo hopes that their message and work reaches more people, and inserts itself into popular culture. “People are so comfortable in their minds with misogynistic references,” Pandyan said. “I just want feminism to also be something that is welcome on the furniture of your mind. It ought to be sitting on the same plush sofa that has been the prerogative of Salman Khan or Honey Singh so far.”