Performer Kalyanee Mulay, along with Vishnuprad Barve, has choreographed unSeen as a statement of dissent. Her on-stage statements address problems which are relevant in our present gendered world. But interestingly, at IGNITE! 2016, on the evening of Friday the 14th, her poignant performance came with its own set of problems, which are part of interesting debates within the politics of expression, creation, activism and art.
Kalyanee is trained in theater forms and her body is not a dancer’s body in the traditional sense; this is a tradition which is not only classical but also contemporary. In fact, everyday body-shaming in India is probably more of a present-day truth than fifty years earlier, thanks also to the current self-projective consumerist lifestyle and the Western aesthetic hierarchy—simplistically put.
For an urban Indian woman, it comes in the form of distinction/discrimination between fat and thin, dark and fair, hairy and clean, smelly and fragrant, large-eyed and small-eyed, smooth-skinned or rough-skinned, large-breasted and flat-chest and so on. Concrete, physical qualities that then start to come up in complex ways as apparent defining factors of abstract qualities such as not just ‘beauty’ and ‘ugliness’, but dictating qualities (‘strength’ and ‘weakness’, ‘rebelliousness’ and ‘submissiveness’, ‘intellect’ and ‘dumbness’ and so on) behind possibilities of a person being included in or excluded from certain social classes.
It is a violent truth. And Kalyanee uses violence as a primary tool. But her approach—possibly due to being based on a very interesting but at the same time slightly dated incident—does not look so much into the possible range of complexities and remains somewhat limited within a periphery of victim outrage.
Not that the outrage is misplaced. Rabindranath Tagore’s oddly rude written response to Ramabai’s claim that women can do anything other than drinking alcohol, becomes a starting point of this work. Kalyanee reads out the letter, jargonizes it as it should be, and the rest of her work comes as a reaction to that proposition, which has more connotations than what Tagore would have ever imagined, coming from the upper class, upper caste, primarily heterosexual male gender background that he belonged to.
What was Ramabai’s reaction? One feels curious to know.
Being groped at, being subjected to exoticism of motherhood, being identified as the glorified house-maids with no value for their work—these are various everyday problems for women. Problems that assume many forms and degrees for women from different socio-cultural strata. But it is not an exhaustive list of women’s problems today. Nor is it a language of today’s feminist movement, which has gone beyond the sole focus on women’s suffrage and has found itself within other political struggles. That’s why one feels likes asking whether it is in fact a performance that willingly puts itself as a period drama, and who this woman is, whom Kalyanee is referring to in her work.
Because not all problems can be expressed as an outrage towards patriarchy. Sweeping a hundred sanitary napkins off the stage is definitely a statement. But however basic a chord it strikes, that statement makes not much sense to a woman, who is unable to afford it, or, as it happened in a Kafkaesque factory in Kerala, is being strip-searched after a sanitary napkin has been found in a toilet.
If it is an urban middle class woman who is being addressed in this work, then one could direct similar questions at, say, is she a working woman? Does she use public transport? Does she have a maid? What are her relationships with the symbols that Vishnupad and Kalyanee place in the space? The kitchenware, the clay tiles, the bucket, the pipes, even the omnipresent kitchen that Vishnupad used for not just establishing a referential image challenging gender role stereotypes, but also for creating the background music symbolizing drudgery, oppression and violence, and which actually gives the audience a very interesting compositional view at the very beginning of the piece.
In a way, theater seems to be Kalyanee’s most natural abode. But theater can be tricky, depending on how much imagination the audience is ready to invest. For example, a statement regarding body-hair performed with a blade-less razor on a waxed leg may not be the best possible representation of dissent.
Nevertheless, it is some of her rather theatrically performative moments that indeed take this piece beyond the endless cycle of outrage politics, and generates comparatively quiet and refreshing moments of drama. It is not completely uninteresting to watch (however creepy that may sound) the squeezing of the breasts and the buttocks, the meaningful looks delving between anger and pain and dare, and the fashion-walks with domestic symbols adorning the performer’s body (at the same time, intentionally or unintentionally addressing the fact that today’s fashion world—blind to class-caste-gender sensibilities—is already co-opting such symbols).
But it is so much more interesting to watch her quietly stamping her palms (stamps of patriarchal stereotypes for women) like the ritual of a Mehendi, or—as an audience member rightly pointed out—something as simple as lifting her outfit to reveal her protruded stomach with its little defects and marks—making us think about the burden that we all bear, of being marked as defective by intrusive, external minds.
Photography: Sharan Devkar Shankar