Some of the stories make you laugh, others elicit sympathy and some may even make you cry. The props on set are minimal, and consist mostly of daily chores that women routinely use in the house, such as brooms, cooking utensils and washing clothes.
Aagaaz Theatre Trust’s play Bhagi Hui Ladkiyan in collaboration with Aagaaz Theatre Trust, explores the life of four teenage girls living in New Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti. Directed in a somewhat experimental form by drama educator, artist and practitioner Dhwani Vij, the play captures everyday stories of the young girls related to ideas of gender dynamics, identity, caste, consent, personal space and sexuality.
The characters—Nagma, Jasmine, Zainab and Nagina—speak in monologues turn by turn to the audience, as if they are talking to a friend. There are stories of husbands drinking and returning home late, brothers being favoured over sisters, girls being bossed over by male family members, and young women dealing with Instagram anxiety.
Somewhere along the way, old advertisements from the 1990s are also played in the background, most of which reinforce gender stereotypes, such as the fact that women mostly cook, clean and take care of their families. The script also throws light on various taboos related to womenand, certain swear words, and labels that are often used to describe women from time to time.
The four protagonists of the 50-minute play, Nagma, Jasmine, Zainab and Nagina (these are their real names), are students who actually live in the Nizamuddin Basti. While drawing attention to the dynamic nature of truth, the actors play themselves in the play. They share their true lived experiences during the show.
The narrative makes for riveting theatre as they carve out their own life paths, different from most young women their age. Sanyukta Saha, founder and Artistic Director at Aagaaz says, “They have been able to resist early marriage, continued education, are working as performers and educators, are challenging notions of gender, class and religious identities not just in their families and their neighbourhood, but also in the larger public domain through their performances. In each of these spaces, each of them is constantly challenging the single stories that people around them would feel comfortable weaving”.
The play was first devised as a short work in progress piece called Urban Turban when it was selected by the Gender Bender Festival in 2016, Bengaluru, curated by Sandbox Collective ad Geothe Institut, Bengaluru. Aagaaz had pitched the idea of looking at how gender impacts everyday living realities in urban spaces. So, they began working on it with two girls who were Aagaaz Repertory members back then.
“The concept was to look at the bodies of the actors in relationship with the highly masculine and majority dominated public spaces that it exists in, exacerbating their alienation through unrealistic notions of beauty, motherhood, perfection and being a ‘good girl’”, adds Saha. The question was how actors navigate this precarious world in their everyday lives.
“Just the process of being in the rehearsal space with them, I realized how similar and different their everyday realities were, and so I explored what was causing these similarities and differences,” explainsVij, the play’s director.
While the essence of the play has remained intact all these years, it has been gradually modified and has evolved over a period of time. One of the major changes has been its ebb and flow as well as the number of people who have been a part of it. Beginning with just two characters, the cast gradually changed to five, seven, three, and then finally, four people.
Over the course of time, the stories have also changed, as dominant narratives in the lives of the actors keep shifting.In its current form, the play also makes many references to a lot of modern-day phenomenon related to social media and the Covid-19 lockdown.
The process of creating the play’s script and storyline was devised in a manner that the persons who were part of its production defined — and were an important influence on — what was finally created.
“Often during our rehearsals, one of us would be late. We would begin our practice with a talking about why we were late,” says Vij. The details and nuances of why people were late started taking precedence over everything else, giving the cast members a glimpse into each other’s lives.
Gradually, a pattern started emerging. They started to focus on everyday stories that define their context in terms of gender, class, caste and religion—and how these factors enable or disable one to do certain things. “It showed us how our choices are defined, in a sense, by this life that we live”, says Vij.
Vij hopes that audiences are able to see (and not see) themselves in the stories shared by the four women protagonists in the story. At the end of the play, the cast literally does that when the characters calls audience members up on stage while talking about incidents, and ask viewers to throw a ball of paper on the stage if they feel they are able to relate to them.
This is the interactive part of the play, which actually gets audiences to step into the shoes of the play’s protagonists and try to view the world from their standpoint. It is probably then that one realizes that the stories, though based out of New Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti, are largely universal, and could be about anyone living anywhere.
“The play is also about the power of telling and sharing. Apni jagah bana ke apni baat ko keh paana—the simple act of sharing connects and empowers both the person sharing and the one listening”, concludes Vij.
Aagaaz’s other productions include Riḥla, an adaptation of Andreas Flourakis’ award-winning play I Want a Country. Directed by Neel Chaudhuri, the play is about young rebels who seek to chart out a course for a ‘new country’, a new identity, fresh values and a space to claim as their own. The play provides a valid and concerning point to start a discussion—“Are we the answer or are we, unintentionally, the eternal question?”
Some of Aagaaz’s past productions are Duniya Sabki and Raavan Aaya. For children, their plays include Samay Kaise Guzra (for 7-12 year-olds) and Agdambagdgam (for 5-9 year-olds). In the coming months, Bhagi Hui Ladkiyan and Rihla will be travelling to public performance venues in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi.
The group is also planning to do a series of performances for school and college students. Further, in November and December,they have shows at Harkat Studio in Mumbai. In December, they will be performing at the Bipin Chandra Pal Auditorium in Delhi.
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