Blood, Sweat, Tears

RAINA BHATTACHARYA

Bortandu is a village in the foothills of the Assam-Meghalaya border in the far north eastern corner of India. Visitors are greeted by lush green fields, children with bright faces playing  games, skipping and hopping around, a mongrel feeding her new-born pups and an adopted baby goat, while the rural women bustle around in their colourful sarees. These women belong to different communities, some born and raised in Bortandu while others have made their way to this part of Assam through marriage from far-off districts or migrated with their families from various parts of the country.

Like most rural areas of India, the people of Bortandu have a strong bond with their community. They know each other, share gossip and are familiar with each others’ habits – they know that the Karbi man, Jonki, plays his flute in the wee hours in the morning;  that the theatre veteran, ‘Kajuli’ faced ridicule when she had to play a man in a local village production when the male actor fell sick; or that the ladies of the self help groups have their meetings, events and fairs on particular days. Also, like most rural areas of India, Bortandu has entrenched social systems and customs with strict rules, which do not tend to favour women. For example, some of the main taboos perpetuated over the years centred around menstruation.

Menstruation placed severe, undue, constraints on the women of Bortandu. They were banned from their own kitchens and effectively barred from participating in community events when menstruating. They would be provided separate utensils, beds, clothing and spaces to live temporarily during these four days. They would often spend several hours in a day doing ‘cleansing’ rituals, which could involve heavy chores like washing any item of clothing they had touched to highly cumbersome religious practices, like carrying a bowl of water around to sprinkle every room they happened to enter. As one woman put it, “It feels like we have committed a crime.”

Some of them would step out of the homestead to earn a living as farmers, weavers, tailors to provide for their families. But in ‘those days of the month’, the shame associated with this meant women would go for long hours without changing the cloth they used in the absence of menstrual hygiene products like plastic or cloth pads. This caused leaks, stained their clothing, embarrassed them and caused health problems.

This is what Shreya Mudgal discovered when she visited Bortandu. A bright young fellow with the SBI Youth for India Foundation, she came to Assam to work with a non profit called Rashtriya Gramin Vikas Nidhi (RGVN), where we met each other. Shreya reached out to me as an employee of RGVN and described the situation to me and asked for advice. She made the case that we had the opportunity to create long-term perception and behavioural change among the people living there. Moreover, the entrepreneurial women could be mobilised to make and sell cloth-pads, to turn menstruation from something unacceptable and not talked about to a livelihood opportunity. We agreed to work together on this project so I could help her to start the conversation in a sensitive but impactful way, given my local knowledge and experience in the non profit sector. 

As we brainstormed, an idea began to take shape. I was part of an art collective called East India Poets and had been performing plays on socially-relevant issues. We could use a smilar concept and use art, especially theatre, as a powerful tool to nudge the women of Bortandu to think about this issue a little more critically than they had done before, and maybe start having conversations about this among themselves and with their families.

I read up on local folklore, discovering the story of Mula Gabhoru: an iconic woman of Assamese folklore who could not tie a protective cloth around the waist of her warrior husband because she was menstruating. When subsequently he was killed in battle, she took up arms herself as a protest against traditional gender roles. I set about designing the performance. I met up with local Assames artists performing traditional music to incorporate different genres into the performance. Finally, it was ready: a storytelling performance, punctuated by traditional folk music.

Shreya mobilised the women of Bortandu to create beautiful, hand-written posters and put them all around the village: shops, community centres, halls etc. The children were mobilised to spread the word: on the day of the performance, they went around with drums and a Bluetooth speaker, playing loud, modern Assamese songs to draw people’s attention. The stage was a makeshift shed from which the animals were ushered out so that room could be made for the performance. Children, women and animals all sat down to watch what I had prepared for them. As I started performing, singing slowly, a dog came wagging his tail and sat down next to me. I performed the story, showing the relevant moments from Mula Gabhoru’s life.

We now sat down to discuss the reflections of the women and children after the performance. Numerous thoughts and ideas came from the women: about how they inherently understood that certain practices were wrong and discriminatory but they felt powerless to confront or challenge them. About how they knew these practices probably originated with the intention of providing comfort to the menstruating woman, but have now burgeoned into social evils. They talked about how they were compelled to carry out the demanding rituals by people closest to them. About how such notions led the society around them to believe that women were inherently weaker than men, and were not deserving of same economic and social status.

We discussed what could be done at this stage, and several solutions were proposed. One was to start having conversations at the household level about this, and how some practices can be relaxed gradually. Another was to make sure that these practices are not imposed on the minor girls and young adult women to break the wheel of perpetuation. The third was to sensitize the men of the household to these issues, and make them an equal party to this cause. We are now planning a series of moving artshows to replicate this across the state. We hope to collaborate with East India Poets and their trove of actors to come up with compelling works of art, keeping the cause and the target audience in mind. I am also driving conversations with other people working with menstrual health to bring in more diverse and interesting perspectives. We know we have a long way to go, but we feel assured that we will be joined by allies and communities along the way. The seeds of change have been sowed e 7 Colo