Picture above: Zanana Ensemble Performing in Shaaheen Bagh. Credits: Meghna. Reproduced by permission.
The proposition of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India exacerbated the vulnerabilities of marginalized sections like Muslims, Dalits, queers, transgender persons, womxn, people from nomadic communites etc. by attacking their citizenship. The marginalized were more precarious than usual as they did not have proper documentation to “prove” their citizenship. Muslim women and womxn, queers from different communities in solidarity registered their protests by claiming public spaces. This in itself was a reclaiming of the spirit of the constitution and its guarantees of equal citizenship and democratic ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity and the spirit of standing against violence and discrimination.
The Zanana Ensemble came together amidst these protests in January 2020 with a play “Zanana ka Zamana”(The Era is feminine) as an act of expressing solidarity through songs, poetry and conversations. Deeply inspired by the resilience of the movement and in an attempt to echo its strength and struggles, Theatre practitioner Mallika Taneja gave an open call for Twenty Women to be a part of a play on “resistance and the everyday” in an attempt to try and bring together an army of women on stage and to speak to the women who were sitting in the protest sites. Despite the movement being led by women, she recalls that:
The stages were largely occupied by men as there are very few women performers. It annoyed me that the ears that were listening were women’s and the voices that were speaking were men’s .Theatre practitioner Mallika Taneja
Since it was felt that this was not the space for a singular body and that the body on stage must reflect the watching body, an attempt was made to have multitude of voices and bodies as a collective on stage.
However there were differences with respect to class, religion, etc between the watching body and the body on stage. The attempt was to look at ways of starting conversations with these women (in protest sites) without seizing too much of their space. The Ensemble was not created by auditions but by an open call and was a multi identity group that comprised of womxn from different religion, ethnicity, sexuality etc. The members of the team chose to be a fluid Ensemble rather than a single piece for the purposes of long term resistance. This meant that available members would get together for performances and would join in whenever they could which gave space for rest and recovery within the team amidst constant resistance.
“We didn’t want to make a play about the pits and falls of CAA, since there was no need to educate these people. I felt like these women sleep here, wake up here, get tired here, menstruate here, go back, eat, their children are here, even if they get a flu they are here. This is an everyday protest and resistance much like our lives- the walks we take, the way we step out of our house. How women resist on a daily level and keep making space through everyday resistance.”Mallika who also directed the performances, on her interest in everydayness of resistance.
It is for this reason that the performances addressed the “everyday” and the “mundane” of resistance and primarily spoke to women through themes like dreaming, sleeping, stepping out of the house in the context of CAA. The origin of the piece is from a children’s book called “The world belongs to you” which was translated as “Ye Duniya Hamari hai” (This world is ours). “The language of the play was kept simple since it catered to a colloquial audience and catchy popular words with sounds were used to make the script interactive and receptive” shares Rajesh Nirmal who wrote many poems for the play. As far as the songs are concerned, a Hindi translation of Bob Dylan’s “The answer is blowing in the wind” was used. Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem “Hum Dekhengey”(we shall see) which had a history of being used to resist fascist regimes had become the anthem of the movement. It was being banned by many institutions in the country and thus was used as a peaceful tool of resistance in the play. Many poems were written by the team internally and many songs were chosen collectively. The play was improvised according to changing contexts that the movement survived, for instance the state sponsored pogrom in North East Delhi, police violence etc.
Picture above: Art Made By Khushboo from the Ensemble. Reproduced by permission.
The performances were received with overwhelming love and warmth in various sites. There was reciprocity and mutual give and take of emotions and imaginations around resistance which captured it as a space of solidarity. Aman Mohammadi, one of the actors in the play commented that “It was a dialogue, collaboration, an exchange of energies, hope, vision, camaraderie and strength. Women of all ages chanted slogans with us. In that moment we were together. There was the magic of female bodies-a sea of women together.” The protest performances took place at a time when there were increasing anxieties, fear, trauma, grief, shock and violence in the country and so creating a space of solidarity, hope, resilience, strength, care and love was an important political act of resistance in itself to uphold the constitutional ideals. The Ensemble has now survived almost a year of togetherness.
Shwetha Gopalakrishnan is a Bharatanatyam dancer. She is a part of Zanana Ensemble and the cofounder of “Nritically Yours”. She has pursued her masters in Sociology from Ambedkar University and her Bachelors in Psychology from Lady Shri Ram College for Women. She currently works as a Mitigation Specialist in National Law University Delhi.