I define poetry as celebration and confrontation. When we witness something, are we responsible for what we witness? That’s an ongoing existential question. Perhaps we are and perhaps there’s a kind of daring, a kind of necessary energetic questioning. Because often I say it’s not what we know, it’s what we can risk discovering.
Yusef Komunyakaa, African-American poet
India is in turmoil, with every idea, belief and value system being questioned and turned upside down. A group of feminist women, writers, researchers, social workers and students based in Delhi come together with a noted theatre activist to form Raschakra - a collective to voice their restlessness with everything going around. To overcome that suffocation, Raschakra, an open literary and cultural platform, decided to undertake performative reading of older non-fictional texts and let the audience make sense of the current times. The growing politics of hate, intolerance and victimisation of Muslims, targeting their customs, language, food and increased subjugation in social life by the right-wing Hindutva groups, became the context in which the group decided to locate their work and performances.
The group’s first performance, Hum Khawateen (We Women), was based on the writings of Muslim women published in Urdu magazines like Khatoon, Ustani and Tehzeeb-e-Niswan between 1905 and 1956. It was based on the research done by one of the founding members, Purwa Bhardwaj and her colleague Huma Khan, for the feminist resource centre Nirantar in 2013, published as Kalaam-e-Niswan (women’s words). In the words of Director Vinod Kumar, “in the context of Muslim women being constantly labelled as suppressed, subjugated, unlettered and confined to their homes, a victim of practices like Purdah and triple talaq, these texts felt relevant. In these essays in Urdu journals, Muslim women a century ago were writing about travelling, tourism, marriages, politics, and having an opinion on the societal context, when feminist politics was alien. To say that Muslim women are backward is a misrepresentation.” It was also contextual since Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) led government at the centre was portraying itself as the savour of Muslim women by bringing laws to end the practice of Triple Talaq, a noble intention, but targeted at villainising Muslims.
The texts included Khatoon (Lady) by Aalia Begum on women and their obsession with jewellery; School ki ladkiyaan (school girls) by Zafar Jahan Begum, discussing prevalent stereotypes when young women attended school. Then there was Jins-e-Lateef ki Sargarmiyaan (Engagements of the gentler sex), a report on women’s political activism across the globe and their role in political and socio-economic spaces, published anonymously. The anonymous author brings to light women’s activists involved in the anti-colonial movement in India, labour unions of Nottingham, the establishment of women’s courts in England, and the Khilafat movement in Constantinople. And then there was the famous text by Zafr Jahan Begum, ‘Gavarment hawwa nahin hai (Government is not an ogre),’ which encouraged women readers, to critique the government and turn away their fear.
Purwa in conversation with the author says, “to choose women and Muslim authors was a conscious decision. It was the centenary year of famous author Ismat Chugtai, but given the dominance of men, like everywhere, there was not much known about women writers. No major literary festivals, awards, ceremonies and so on. To dig deeper in the past and bring it to present became a powerful act, and also to turn focus on women writers and their non-fictional writings.”
Thus, the first performance of Hum Khwateen happened on labour day in 2016 in Delhi in front of a well-attended audience and received critical acclaim. Purwa was joined by writer and editor Alka Ranjan, social activist Shweta Tripathi, and PhD student Rizwana Fatima. The next day, they got an invitation for their next show from a well-known feminist in Pune, Maharashtra. After watching the performance, Ghazala Jamil, an Assistant Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), wrote, “why did I not know about this? How could such silence shroud the existence of these writings for over a century?” She further adds, “Feminist use of theatre in activism is not new. However, Raschakra’s performance of Hum Khawateen still strikes one as a pioneering effort because the aesthetics employed in its performance are so much in congruence with the politics and significance of these writings for the women’s movement in India – to bring back Muslim women’s voices and views in the public sphere.”
Raschakra thus evolved as a platform for dialogue between the past and the present through these performances. The motto was clear, organise the programmes and let the audience engage and discuss. There was apprehension that people wouldn’t accept this genre. Shambhu Mitra famous Bengali actor, Nasiruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Farooq Sheikh and Tom Altar, well-known Bollywood actors with a theatre background, have done solo theatre but nothing like this. However, Vinod’s history of involvement with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA, Patna, Bihar) gave him confidence that people enjoy culture even when they don’t know or understand the language fully. This was especially true since the language of these performances was Urdu, almost 100 years old Urdu, not spoken Hindi.
It was not easy for the performers to get the correct diction, so it required a lot of practice, but it was also not easy for common audience. Each of the collective members had their jobs and family responsibilities, and their director was based in Patna, Bihar, so it was not easy to meet regularly and practice. But, Purwa says, the idea of Raschakra was also to revive addebazi culture, meaning informal sittings and relaxed, freewheeling conversations amongst friends.They called it Raschakra - Rasikon ki addebazi, an informal gathering of like-minded friends interested in arts, literature, culture and politics. The practise continued, and so did their regular monthly sittings before the pandemic ended physical meetings. This was kind of a reading club for literature at home, in private spaces, where they were joined by other students and like-minded friends and acquaintances from their wider progressive circle. The only condition was that they would not read their writings but something they read and found interesting.
Merriam-Webster’s word for the year 2017 was “feminism,” a top lookup for the year with a 70 per cent increase over 2016. The spurt was a result of the debate unfolding around the #metoo movement globally. Swati Saxena wrote in Indian Express that feminism in India in 2017 was centred on four themes: first, conversations around women safety and universality of abuse; second, setbacks in terms of legislations and repressiveness of the state; third, around initiatives from individual brave women and women groups ranging from petitions to protests; and lastly, through global accolades with their unique symbolic value.
The group was conscious of the times. The same year, group’s next performance, titled Sultana’s Dream, revised later as Haqeeqat aur Khwaab (fact and fiction), was staged. The performance was based on Sultana’s Dream, a science fiction, written by first and foremost feminist of Bengali Muslim Society Rukaya Shekhawat Hussain (1880-1932), published in 1905 in a Madras-based English periodical, The Indian Ladies’ Magazine. It is one of the earliest “self-consciously feminist” Utopian stories written in English by an Indian woman. When she wrote this story, she had already attracted considerable attention as an essayist, having published several articles in Bangla dealing exclusively with the subordination and oppression of Bengali women, especially Bengali Muslim women.
Rousan Jahan, Bangladeshi academic and writer, writes in a critical commentary that “Sultana’s Dream” is a Utopian work with solid satirical elements. The Indian context is unmistakable. For example, through the dialogue of Sultana and Sister Sara, the untenability of many of the prevalent Indian notions of “masculine” and “feminine” characters is demonstrated. Sultana extols the wonder of Lady land and represents the Indian stereotype, while Sister Sara presents the outsider’s view. At the same time, she is also the author’s alter ego. Through Sultana, Rokeya ridicules Indian stereotypes and customs.
Rokeya was a feminist, writer, social activist, and educationist. She was taught by her brother and husband, led many initiatives, and wielded her pen to uplift Muslim women and challenge many of the evils present within society. After being widowed at the age of 29, she dedicated herself to community development. She opened Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School in Calcutta in 1911, founded the Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islam, Bangla (Bengali Muslim Women’s Association) and kept writing fiction and non-fiction in Urdu, Bangla, and English. Rokeya focused on women’s need to attain more education and challenged customs like child marriage, Purdah, and the veil.
The performance included Rokeya’s another essay titled “Degradation of Women”. This highlighted that the critique was coming from inside the Muslim society and women themselves a hundred years ago. The government doesn’t have to claim the role of Messiah and saviours of the Muslim women. This performance brought in new members, feminist and educationist Purnima Gupta, writer Vandana Raag and engineer and IPTA activist Rashmi Sinha.
The group’s desire to be relevant and contemporary led them to their third production, Har Katra Toofan (every strand a storm), in the context of celebrations around 150 years of Gandhi’s birth. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often invoked India as the land of Gandhi and peace when abroad; still, his own party members and affiliate organisations of BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have idolised Nathuram Godse, who killed Gandhi on January 30, 1948. Raschakra’s members, believers of Gandhian politics of non-violence and satyagraha, but also a critique, took upon themselves to say something.
Gandhi is not only celebrated but also critiqued by the right-wing religious fundamentalists, and feminists and anti-caste activists, though for very different reasons. Since Raschakra was primarily a women’s collective and didn’t treat him as God, they decided to bring to the public what women had written about Gandhi. They chose writings of noted Hindi writer Mahadevi Verma, Ismat Chugtai, poet Sarojini Naidu, Urdu writer Taj Sahiba Lahauri, Danish journalist and writer Ellen Horup, Danish Missionary Anne Marie Petersen, and academic Emma Tarlo amongst others.
These writings brought out different facets of Gandhi and his politics. If Mahadevi Verma described Gandhi’s physical beauty, Emma and Anne Marie wrote about Gandhi’s experiments with clothing and education. After his death, Sarojini Naidu, a lifelong friend and critic, wrote letters to Gandhi from her travels and a moving obituary. These women engaged with Gandhi, his politics, his views and often challenged him. They were not blind followers but companions with opinions of their own. Ellen Hørup looked at Gandhi as “the apostle who would bring, not only to India but to the entire world, the gospel of the future – the abolishing of violence from mankind”. She later drifted away from Gandhi on many issues, including caste, class struggle, and religion.
The effort through the performance of Har Katra Toofan was not to show Gandhi’s heroism but to show his human interactions with equally remarkable women. Gandhi’s letters and correspondence has been part of many books, articles one such is his conversations with three Danish women Anne Marie Petersen, Ellen Hørup and Esther Faering published in Urdu by Nasir Malik. He writes that for Gandhi, "Love and truth are convertible words that can conquer all. Love and truth are two faces of coin and both most difficult to practice. A person cannot be true if he does not love all God’s creatures; truth and love, therefore, demand complete sacrifice.”
Their next performance was Mohabbat Zindabad (celebrating love) which included a reading of 51 poems by celebrated Indian and international poets and writers. It gave other members of the Raschakra literary meetings to participate in the performances as well. It was also different, since it not only included fictional writings, but also writings by men. The realisation was that if they wanted to say something that has got men’s writing, they should take that. Mohabbat zindabad had different shades of love, not only romantic. Poems by famous writers like Nazeer Akbarabadi, Ibn-e-Insha, Ashok Vajpeyi, Manglesh Dabral and others were included
And like every performance, Mohabbat Zindabad too had a context. Valentine’s day has always been a target of right-wing religious groups and has often been labelled anti-Hindu and influenced by western cultures. However, in recent years, Hindutva groups have targeted inter-religious love marriages and have received legal sanctions from the BJP ruled states. The state governments of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Karnataka have already passed anti-conversion laws, which has been used to arrest, harass and stop inter-religious weddings between Hindu women and Muslim men. The Indian Constitution though gives freedom to profess and practise their religion and the right to two adults to marry of their own free will. Apoorvanand, one of the associate members of Raschakra and a noted writer and rights activist, writes, “from its contentious anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Bill to its criminalisation of Muslim “triple talaq” divorces, the BJP has made no secret of its desire to use legal means to silence, disfranchise and alienate Muslims in India. The new “anti-conversion” laws are just another weapon in the ruling party’s anti-Muslim legal arsenal and should be opposed.”
Most of the shows were supported by different organizations. It helped the group reach very diverse audience. They had an understanding of such issues, and thus the performances received less resistance or criticism. They received feedback on the language of the Urdu texts being complex, but they wanted the audience to own the language since it’s part of the composite Indian culture. Raschakra members add that it has become more critical to perform in Urdu today because it has been targeted, and used to target Muslims. Urdu is a language of the country, not a community alone. It has been a challenge, but they are not ready to simplify the language. So, the choice of language was intentional too, as much as the themes of every performance.
The group didn’t start it as a position, but they also don’t deny that they didn’t selectively choose the texts and themes. Every member of the collective is political and rooted in progressive politics, and is worried about the country’s current state of politics.
Vinod Kumar, the Director of the group, says that it’s encouraging to see the explosion of different forms of cultural expressions in diverse languages. They see it as a positive reaction and part of wider resistance. He adds, “our performance itself is a reaction. We see a painting, and we don’t always understand everything, the abstractness, but we appreciate it nevertheless, the way it’s done, colour, patterns and so on. Even then, people go and watch paintings and exhibitions. So, in today’s India, we need to talk about it and talk in a language which is ours too.”
In four years, the group has done some 30-40 shows, with covid disrupting their physical performances and practice. They are looking forward to experimenting with their presentation and staging of classic Hindi poetry-drama, Andhayug (the age of blindness), written by Dharmveer Bharti in the 1950s. The play located in the backdrop of the Mahabharat focuses on the end of an era with the war at Kurukshetra and how it symbolised the beginning of a dark, blind age. Anushree Joshi, a young literature student, reflecting on the current times and the relevance of the poetry-drama, writes, “in 2020, one wonders if the citizens and leaders are themselves an embodiment of the tired, fallen king, with their passive participation in the oppression of dissent when academicians and activists like Hany Babu, Anand Teltumbde, Safoora Zargar, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Sudha Bhardwaj, and countless others are kept in captivity by Indian State.” The play is relevant also for the current state of the Indian media, which is a cheerleader for all the surrounding darkness and corruption and not exposing them.
But, as they prepare for Andhayug, the condition of Afghani women facing restriction on their freedoms, under Taliban regime, is making the collective more anxious. They are working on a production ‘Afghani Dukhtaran’ (Women of Afghanistan) which will have stories of women resisting oppression and violence. The performance would include stories of powerful Afghani women, 30-year-old Meena Kishwar Kamal who fought Russia-backed Mujhadin, founded RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) and was assassinated in 1987. It would also tell the story of 27-year-old Farkhunda Malikzada who was mob-lynched on pretext of religious sacrilege; 25-year-old poet Nadiya Anjum murdered by her husband; and 34-year-old Shamsia Hassani struggling graffiti artist among others.
Raschakra hopes their effort and collective will continue to perform. The group doesn’t have any resources, that’s a constraint, but then they decide to keep it that way, not institutionalise it. Keep it as a collective, supported by friends and well-wishers. As for the ability of the cultural resistance to defeat the rise of Hindutva politics, they say, not sure about the defeat, but there is a role for them and there is need for more. They hope the intensity of the cultural resistance will increase in times to come.