Last updateSat, 22 Jul 2017 6am

You are here: Home | Agenda | Sexual rights in India | Written on the body

Written on the body

By Trina Nileena Banerjee

Positive images of the 'independent' woman are everywhere in the mass media: the woman astride the bike -- and the man. But what percentage of these popular images of a woman's body in the visual market are, in reality, produced by women? Between the global open market and the 'traditional' Hindu Right that seeks to control and domesticate her body, where does she stand? Where is her real body?

Manipuri women protest the excesses of security personnel: Their completely autonomous nakedness stated forcefully that the body can be pitted against the world that has marked and regimented it.
During the climax of Manipuri director H Kanhailal’s play Draupadi (based on Mahashweta Devi’s short story of the same name), veteran actress Sabitri Heisnam appears in the nude on stage, having discarded all her clothes one by one -- screaming her protest out to the men who are her rapists.

For this defenceless rebel, at this point, her body becomes her voice. Her nakedness is her power, her only weapon against the political/personal oppressors who have continuously, throughout her life, sought to subjugate and silence her.

Draupadi’s nakedness is her war cry, her autonomous answer to sexual violence. Cornered and desperate, she fights male aggression with the very thing that is the object of that aggression. The only thing in the world that she owns completely is her own body.

For those who are aware of the content of Mahashweta Devi’s short story, the irony and force of this radical statement will be self-evident. Unlike the mythical Draupadi, this rebellious tribal woman has no benevolent Krishna to come to her defence. She has no protector. She must be her own woman, in every sense of the word, because no male body defends or owns her. She claims her body as her own, and, more importantly, claims control over the symbolic potential of her body. She makes it mean what she wants it to mean, turning male lust on its head and making the obscure object of desire/violence into a potentially disruptive object of horror. She demands her right over her own ‘body language’, in the face of the most gruelling odds. In doing so, she subverts the system of oppression with the very thing that is its primary object, turns her ostensible weakness into her source of power. In a profound sense, she is born again -- having, with this act, re-created her own body.

As citizens of India, we will be aware how close this piece of fiction is to reality. It is not just contemporary but proleptic, even prophetic, in its concerns and final statement.

In July 2004, a group of Manipuri women stripped naked in front of the Western Gate of Kangla, where the 9 Sector Assam Rifles and 17 Sector Assam Rifles are housed. The 17 Assam Rifles personnel had picked up old Thangjam Manorama from her house and shot her dead on July 11. The possibility of rape was acknowledged. I quote from a relevant news report that appeared in The Sangai Express:

“Following the naked outburst of anger and bottled-up rage, the district administration of the two districts of Imphal acted swiftly and imposed an indefinite curfew in Greater Imphal areas from 11 am today. The women folk started gathering in front of the Western Gate of Kangla from 10 am onwards and taking everyone by surprise stripped off their clothing and raised slogans to lodge their protest. Banners denouncing the excesses of the security personnel were also put up by the women folk. […] They also challenged the security personnel to come out and outrage their modesty, if they wished. Policemen who rushed to the site found themselves in an awkward position not knowing how to deal with the women who had bared all. The women folk raised a number of slogans, questioning how long they have to suffer, while their sons and daughters are being trampled, tortured, raped and killed by the security personnel.”

I do not know whether these women in Imphal were aware of Kanhailal’s theatre or of the existence of Draupadi as a play. But the complex interface between theatrical performance and political action, once again, comes to the fore when we think about this strange time lag between performance and reality.

And one remembers the words of the Jewish-American poet Adrienne Rich. Rich had once written, in a poem aptly titled Power, that a woman’s “wounds came from the same source as her power”.

Mahashweta Devi’s narrative achieves this radical potential with ease. However, one wonders how this works when translated into performance. Does Draupadi’s nakedness on stage achieve the same goal as Draupadi’s nudity in the text? Indeed, in Kanhailal and Sabitri’s able hands, performance makes the radical force of the text even stronger. It succeeds in reproducing the textual narrative and also takes it one step further. The horror and the jolt of this unprecedented act (pun intended) breaks multiple rules at one go. Initially perhaps, it flouts the conventions of the Indian stage.

The effect of this blow is dual. The shock of this protest affects not only the characters on stage -- Draupadi’s violators -- but also the audience. It drags the spectators together to stand with these men whose violent gaze was fixed on the woman a moment ago. Their horror becomes our horror. Their fear and discomfort turn into our fear and discomfort.

In a deft theatrical sleight of hand, Kanhailal makes us the violators of Draupadi, making us share in the crime that we did not in reality commit. Our reaction is the exact same as that of the men who represent authority on stage. We feel a violent rush of disapproval, shock and disgust, and in doing so become complicit with the crime that we were here to condemn. Her nudity becomes our nakedness. Her power our humiliation.

At the time that I watched this performance, I was in college. Sabitri Heisnam would have then been in her early-60s. I remember clearly that some women in the audience walked out in the middle of this scene. Some sobbed. Some howled inconsolably outside the hall after it was over. Most men were frozen into a stunned, dazed kind of silence.

Theatrical conventions had been broken. But something bigger than that had happened simultaneously. A naked woman’s body had refused to titillate, to evoke lust or desire, to assume forms that were publicly considered immoral -- but were implicitly more acceptable than this powerful, horrifying, completely autonomous nakedness.

The worst thing, perhaps, was that Draupadi had refused to ask for our sympathy in this performance. She had said instead, in her wordless scream, “You think this is the body of a victim? Do you desire and pity this body? Look at it. It’s more powerful than anything you have ever seen”. She was screaming pain and rage, but she was not weak. With one swift blow she had demolished all that made a woman’s naked body acceptable to us as an audience -- desirability, vulnerability, maternal tenderness, weakness.

I had never been so horrified by a theatrical performance before. After a point, when I realised what was about to happen, I remember having to close my eyes in spite of myself.

I didn’t want to watch this. She reminded me of my grandmother who was dead. I didn’t want this to happen to her. She was old, for god’s sake. I couldn’t watch this.

This, in spite of all my radical ideas and avant-garde theatrical leanings. I had, however, realised even at that point that something of momentous theatrical importance had just happened in that old auditorium in Calcutta.

In the conclusion to his book The Politics of Cultural Practice, Rustom Bharucha makes an important statement about the autonomous body in performance. I quote:

“I would emphasise that in activising the imagination we -- those of us who are involved in the actual making of cultural practice -- should not lose sight of those psychophysical resources rooted in the body that do not necessarily feed ‘the new global order’ […] It is at this critical juncture that ‘the body’ can be pitted against ‘the world’, even as it has been marked, shaped, regimented, and violated by its disciplinary codes. To imagine an absolute autonomy of the body would be as facile as it would be to imagine the innate freedom of the intercultural. What is needed, perhaps, is a more critical imaginary of the body whereby its relatively uninvestigated agency for social transformation can extend beyond the limited horizons of the existing laboratories of intercultural theatre practice.”

While agreeing almost entirely with Bharucha in his theorisation, I wish to ask a few related questions. Questions that concern me as a female performer in India, as it stands today -- an increasingly ‘globalised’ (putatively) and forever more complex nation: Is it possible for a woman performer today to retain a modicum of control over the symbolic content of her body -- over what her body means, so to say?

What Kanhailal and his wife Sabitri were able to achieve was profound, simply because of the difficulties involved in such an enterprise -- in the ‘making new’ of a woman’s body in performance.

Is it possible for a woman to actively form some sort of autonomous physical language, let alone an independent language for her sexuality, given how inscribed her body is by its pervasive use in the popular media? Given how she is hardly ever the agent/producer of the visual representations of her own body that floods the global open market? Between this ‘open market’ and the ‘traditional’ Hindu right that seeks to control and domesticate her body, where does she stand? Where is her real body? Can there be one ‘real’ body to speak of, or are there many?

Then, how does one negotiate this multiplicity as a performer and a woman? Of the multiple images of the woman’s own self/body that flood her mind and the world outside, which is her own? What is her ‘body language’? How does she find it? These are questions that are not easy to answer, or deal with. 

I would like to clarify that my primary question is not about the alleged ‘commodification’ of the woman’s body in the visual mass media. I am not an advocate of censorship. Nor do I consider the moral/ethical/social ‘harmfulness’ of popular visual representations of women to be within the scope of my discussion and my most important concern. I do not believe that the mass audience’s reception of these images works through any sort of unmediated, unfiltered, de-contextualised ‘direct impact’. In fact, I agree completely with film theorist Shohini Ghosh when she writes:

“…feminists must insist, against the religious right, that the problem with sexist pornography is not that it is ‘explicit, kinky, anti-family… or pro-queer’ but that, like sexist representation in other …cultural forms and practices, it erases alternative representations. In fact, there is little difference between sexist pornography and religious fundamentalism as both discourses naturalise women’s subordination. […] It would make more sense for women to demand space for greater sexual expression on the part of women. There has to be conscious attempt to struggle to create space for consensual erotica in which women are willing and active agents.”

Our concern, therefore, as feminists is not with ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ images or with ‘harmful’ versus ‘moral’ representation. Our concern is with agency -- female agency (sexual or otherwise) in relation to her own body, which must be depicted positively in popular film, advertisement and television.

I anticipate that readers will throw up thousands of instances of ‘career women’ and ‘power girls’ represented positively in the popular media. Surely these are images of empowerment, they will ask. Indeed, it is a fair question. And the answer, broadly, is ‘yes’.

But my concern is with the fostering of difference, with allowing multiplicity to flourish. My concern is with an alternative space. With potentially multiple alternative spaces.

That the development of such spaces is crucial is obvious and beyond question, but what are its chances? What are the odds against which these alternative representations will have to make room for themselves? As a theatre performer and a woman, who is looking continually to create an alternative space for performance -- a space where even a minimal sort of autonomy could become possible -- I need to ask these questions. I need to go a little beyond simply stating that such spaces are necessary and must be created. As a theorist, it is possible to stop there. As a performer, knowing the odds, one asks -- how?

Positive images of women as agents in the popular mass media exist. Undeniably so. There are representations of ‘independent’ women who are, to borrow a ubiquitous phrase, ‘comfortable with their own body’. When examined closely, however, these images will betray a certain pattern -- a collection of well-established signifiers whose meanings are rather simplistically pre-determined.

After all, in a 30-second capsule, the message must be clearly discernible. The ‘independent, liberated’ woman must know immediately that it is she who is being portrayed on screen, so she knows exactly what to buy and what not, which film to watch and which one to reject. Hence, for very obvious reasons, these representations have a certain pervasive ‘production line’ quality that is determined primarily by market forces.

For example, the woman sitting astride a bike and the woman sitting astride a man in popular advertisement are essentially the same. That posture, the look in her eye, the word ‘astride’ all connote a woman in control. Display that image, and I will know immediately what you mean.

This is a ‘rule-breaking’ image -- this is the ‘unconventional’/‘radically modern’ belt of the production line. This is where, in this open market, ‘I’, the ‘independent woman’, belong. That bike is mine. That man is (or should be) under me.

One needs to ask what percentage of these popular images of a woman’s body in the visual market are in reality produced by women? How many women occupy significant creative positions on either end of the production line?

When Sakshi Tanwar as Parvati Agarwal in Ekta Kapoor’s Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki pulls her pallu over her head in deference to the elders in the family, who has conceived of this gesture? When Mallika Sherawat lets her short red skirt fly, who has told her that this will be ‘sexy’? It is possible, indeed probable, that both these women are completely complicit with their portrayals and might even sometimes be active agents in their creation.

But the force of their most tiny physical gesture is such that I, as a performer on the group theatre stage, must think twenty times before using that same gesture in performance. Primarily because its meaning is not mine to either create or determine. If I, a 24-year-old woman were to appear on stage naked, wishing to make the exact stage statement that Sabitri had made in Draupadi, where would I stand? Could I cut through the sexual meaning of each part of my body to reach a language where I could inspire fear, horror, repulsion? How would I negotiate this thickly pre-inscribed space between my audience and me? If I failed to do so, where then would be that space of creative freedom that I consider indispensable as an artiste and a performer? How would I avoid the jeers within and outside me?

One might argue here that all ‘body language’ is culturally pre-determined. It is the task of alternative performance to remake that language.

Indeed it is.

My point is that this task is becoming increasingly more difficult today. It is certainly a greater challenge now than it was 15 years ago. Regimentation has all but disappeared; it is the time for multiple voices speaking at the same time. True. But the sheer scale and reach of some of these voices, given the powerful media that they speak through, is such that my body is effectively no longer mine.

I want to sit astride a man and mean violence, not desire. I want to pull my pallu over my head, and mean anger, not respect. I want to let my short red skirt fly, and be, not sexy, but horribly repulsive.

But how do I do it? How do I erase the multitudinous simulacra of that act that have flooded the public imagination -– with direct or indirect impact? Where do I begin to break down that planted image? How do I create and re-create my limbs, when they are being written over every minute and distributed all over the world in a matter of seconds? Over no aspect of this continuous, unceasing production and reproduction do I have the least amount of control.

The genius of H Kanhailal of Kalakshetra, Manipur, is here. The genius of numerous other alternative theatre workers and performers in the suburbs of India today is here. Theirs is a mammoth task. Sometimes it is an impossible task.

They must not only create registers where they do not exist, as Rustom Bharucha did when he made two of his male performers kiss on stage in the mid-’80s.

They must also continually break down and deconstruct existing registers -- finding aporia, significant points of weakness with which to unravel the whole texture of these mass-produced ‘bodies’. Create a new ‘body language’ every day. The task becomes doubly difficult when the performer/artiste in question is a woman. The currency and scale of visibility of her body everywhere in this seemingly equitable multiplicity has robbed her of even the possibility of an autonomous language. She is at a loss like never before.

My desire is only that this disadvantage be recognised. That the free play of multiple voices in this pluralist world be seen with a little less theoretical naiveté. Again, my argument is not for censorship. But for the legitimate desire of the marginal to be recognised and respected as such, in this continual and joyous celebration of the popular.

(Trina Nileena Banerjee completed her MA in English literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and a Masters of Studies in English at the University of Oxford. She is a theatre performer based in Kolkata and has played the female lead in a Bengali feature film Nisshabd (2005). She has published a book of poems called Inside a Blue Corridor (2001))


Draupadi can be found translated with a foreword by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Critical Inquiry, 8.2 (1981): 381-402. The translation was reprinted in Writing and Sexual Difference. Ed: Elizabeth Abel. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982
‘Women give vent to naked fury in front of 17 AR at Kangla’, July 5, 2004 (Imphal), in The Sangai Express <http:// e-pao.net/epRelatedNews.asp?heading=12&src=150704> (last accessed October 14, 2005)
In Rustom Bharucha, ‘Afterwords’, The Politics of Cultural Practice: Thinking Through Theatre in an Age of Globalisation (Oxford University Press: New Delhi, 2001), p 201
Shohini Ghosh in ‘The Troubled Existence of Sex and Sexuality: Feminists Engage with Censorship’
See Rustom Bharucha, The Politics of Cultural Practice, pp 112-119

InfoChange News & Features February 2006