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Play about Delhi gang rape means to take violence global

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 1:50pm

Indians have been unable to forget the Delhi gang rape of Jyoti Pandey in December by six savage men inside a moving bus. But despite the emotional upheaval and soul-searching that the 23-year-old's suffering had evoked, nothing much in the Indian male psyche seems to have changed. Gang rapes are still being reported every other day.

The case - and violence against women in general - has, however, troubled South African writer and director Yael Farber a great deal and propelled her to write a play about the incident, which will be staged first at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe next month and then in the Indian capital on December 16, exactly a year after the crime.

The details of how she will tackle the play on the Delhi rape case are not yet known, apart from two things. It will be called Nirbhaya (Hindi for "fearless") which was the name the Indian media gave Pandey before her name was known. And it will be performed at least in part by Indian women who will give their own testimonies about the sexual violence they have themselves experienced. There will also be a reconstruction of some kind of the assault on Pandey, the brutality of which stunned the doctors treating her.

"Like the rest of the world, I was deeply affected by the rape," says Farber. "It's hard to say what it was precisely about this case that broke through the defence systems of numbness and indifference towards the staggering figures and brutal nature of sexual violence around the world. What matters is that it broke the barrier of indifference."

We hope this work moves, inspires and can speak for enduring change. It's a call to arms
Yael Farber, playwright

The idea of a play came about when Poorna Jagannathan - a Mumbai-based actress who was familiar with Farber's award-winning work, particularly Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise - contacted her. Jagannathan asked Farber to take up the subject and offered to collaborate with her.

"Women are ready to speak here in India in the wake of her death. It has broken the banks of what is tolerable. The silence is coming apart, and we yearn to speak. Come and make a new work that enables us to do that," Jagannathan told Farber.

For Farber, who lives in Montreal, the silence that surrounds all forms of sexual violence exists in many societies. And although many commentators outside India depict it as a uniquely bad place for women, Farber takes a broader view.

"I have no interest in making a piece that locates sexual violence in India alone and leaves the rest of the global community comfortable and relieved they are not dealing with the same issues," she says. "Violence against women and children is a global crisis."

A month and a half after the Delhi gang rape, a young South African woman, Anene Booysen, was brutally raped, disembowelled and left for dead on a construction site. She died later in hospital.

Farber says she wants to build on the rage that broke out on Indian streets as people came out to express their horror and shame to stop this "righteous rage" evaporating.

"This anger has to become action. It has to be taken forward - or it creates an even greater sense of helplessness than before. If real change in the wake of Nirbhaya's death is not provoked, then something more horrifying will happen. It will take that much more brutality to break the sound barrier again," she says.

The play may face opposition when it is performed in India. Among Indians who hate foreigners talking of the country's social evils, Hindu right-wingers are the most vocal. They have protested against The Vagina Monologues by American playwright Eve Ensler, which has been touring India for a decade. Some extremist groups may protest against Farber's work, too.

Farber has said she has no intention of sensationalising the story, but she is not afraid of criticism. Her desire is for a better, safer world for her daughter and, indeed, for every woman.

"I want people to stand up and say: 'This happened and continues to happen every day at epidemic proportions around the world.'" she says. "We hope this work moves, inspires and can speak for enduring change. It's a call to arms."

thereview@scmp.com

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