BY SAMHITA BAROOAH
For the first time in the history of entertainment in public spaces in Guwahati, The Vagina Monologues directed by Mahabano Mody Kotwal and Kaizad Kotwal adapted from the original version in English by Eve Ensler was staged. It was presented during the Ballentines Guwahati Theatre Festival in Guwahati at the Pragjyotish ITA Centre for Performing Arts at Machkhowa.
The audience was full with primarily women in their 20s-50s and a few in their 60s and 70s. Most women came with their girl friends, colleagues, sisters, cousins, few of them with men, while some followed their mothers and my mum followed me. Before entering the hall, my mum kept telling me most of the crowd looks young; nobody has come from her age group. I said that is ok. We took our seats little early and slowly the hall got full. I was keen to watch this play for its hilarious depiction and theatre is still a lifeline of existence for me. Another connect was when renowned theatre director from Assam, Rabijita Gogoi translated this play into Assamese from the original English version and wished to present it to Guwahati theatre audience with Seema Biswas on stage. Such projects needed time and resources to get materialised but my hopes are still alive.
It was indeed a liberating experience for some of us who are always forbidden to speak about anything remotely connected to the vagina in the public space. Vagina discussions would either happen in hushed voices during weddings, behind closed doors, quiet online chats or over trendy WhatsApp messages so far. But this was a grand novelty to discuss vagina centric identities, experiences and erotic aspirations through the medium of theatre. As Joana my friend puts it, “it was a great delight to watch such inhibition-free stunning performances.” At the very outset when the play was introduced the director and actor of the play asked the audience about our inhibition with the word vagina and how many of us could really shout aloud ‘VAGINA’ in public.
For me I used to wonder how linguistic variations and contexts made so much difference. We felt liberated shouting aloud in invisible collective voices vagina which is zoni in Assamese but as far as the vagina goes even a gesture or thought around it is a huge napai (forbidden without a reason). My mother kept laughing and giggling throughout the play but when she came out she said that she felt embarrassed to listen to such issues in front of me (her daughter). For me it was a process of engaging with sexuality through theatre to bridge the inter-generational gaps. I told my mum that now she would be considered as very progressive in watching Vagina Monologues with her daughter. But some patriarchs within men and women would also question her about why she should go for such programmes.
Coming back to the play, it was a splendid display of theatrical traits through voice, expressions, gestures, diverse linguistic accents from different parts of India. It depicted the multiple identities of vagina which was either raw or seductive or it was bruised and wrapped in intersectional layers of class, caste, gender, age, sexuality, race, religion and language. The five voices which emerged in this performance transformed with every changing context which this play touched upon. One could relate to the voices as a composite whole which exists within one woman or one could identify with a particular experience which each of these women depicted.
When I heard Mona’s depiction of the woman with the hookah, I could imagine the forbidden identity of a lesbian woman, again when I heard the same actor depicting the 10 year old child sharing her experience with her vaginal awareness I blended in. Similarly when Delnaz and Swati performed as a duet on the Hindi word for vagina it depicted thrill and vigour while Dolly and Mahabano’s deliberation in duet on the experiences of women from Bosnia and India brought in angst and oppression. The play was a perfect blend of feminist critique of the body which symbolises social, cultural, caste and class specific sensibilities which again gets translated and transformed in Indian panoramic view. I kept thinking wish I could also hear some of the voices from the ethnically diverse North Eastern States as well within the 5 characters depicted in the play. Two hours of the duration slipped away in no time and the audience kept responding to the nuanced presence of the actors with claps, giggles, moans and occasional roars of laughter.
When the question hour started the actors wished for pointed questions to each character which was an indicator of the performer’s charm on the viewers but the questions, comments and observations kept flowing for all the actors on stage. People enquired whether this play had all male viewership to how men have learnt a lot about female anatomy to women asking about whether such plays could be used to create further awareness around sexual assaults, teenage pregnancies and other instances of violence against women. Some people also wanted to know whether penis monologue also was created and whether the topics discussed through these plays would be able to resolve all the problems related to sexuality, sexual violence and bodily harm. People had many questions but only a few could be deliberated.
One of the actors shared that in Guwahati, Vagina Monologue performance was most significant because this is the land where the Vagina is worshipped in the auspicious Kamakhya Temple. An evening which started with curiosity, inhibition and anxiousness ended with a sense of liberated triumph in relating to one’s own body which remains hidden, forbidden and forgotten in the crazy pursuit of making a living.