Kalpana Mehta

Too long a period to recollect from, more than thirty years in the movement. Our young enthusiasm started us on trying to be different from the big leaders and looking for means to communicate our ideas through pictures, songs, plays, stories exhibitions etc., suited me very well because I was never a great orator.

I think it was in 1980 that we had gathered at Karol Bagh, in Delhi, on March 8 and an attractive exhibition had been clipped on to a string tied on trees. Then, there was Om Swaha—a street play on dowry deaths that was taken around the city and performed in many localities where killings were getting reported from.

Saheli also put up an exhibition- Aurat Ka Chamatkar, to increase understanding on matters related to reproduction, contraception and child birth etc., We took it far and wide including to other cities like Kanpur.

By 1983 we were so charged up about alternate means of communication that we had organized a festival— Kriti, to share ideas nationally in which women belonging to different groups came from all over the country to share, exchange and learn from each other through activities like poster-making, printing, singing, street plays and creative writing. In all, there were about 183 of us, staying at Aurobindo Ashram working and sharing and dancing through the week.

Our demonstrations, those days, used to be equally dramatic with the Bhopal disaster being protested by activists covered in white sheets. But that was an era when the streets and boat club were all open for collective expression.

1984 was a really bad year with communal riots taking place in many parts of the country and not many willing to name the perpetrators- the Khooni Panja of Cong(I). I still remember walking in a march in East Delhi with police surrounding the marchers in equal numbers. Our street play which we took around at the time was called, Ready to Run if the Going Got Rough.

Sati in Deorala made, I think, one of the largest protests by women, where even with a very well exercised body, I found it difficult to run from end to end coordinating the march along with others.

March 8 would also be a big event. Practices would go on and it was time to make new placards and banners. I still remember the beautiful Saheli banner presented by Sabla Sangh that had the three women in appliqué denoting our collective along with the name. Another one, made in the 80s, was a replica of New York garment worker’s March of 1890—the footsteps leaving the shackle behind.

Before the computerized printed placards made their appearance, each placard was an act of art whether done by the “A” team or the “B” team (latter couldn’t draw for nuts). Then there were menials who could only buy and glue things (which would include me).

But I was good at tracing, cogging and adapting and we borrowed freely including a visual which someone had already borrowed from one no less than Picasso. This one was on the passage of hormones through breast milk on to infants, when mothers were put on injectable contraceptives. “The corporations poisoned our rivers, our earth and now our milk…”

Nothing deterred us from making a play on any subject and supplementing it with an exhibition. We had one on population control and the politics of it; another on Norplant, a contraceptive that we were opposing. Then, by way of safe contraception, we had the diaphragm which turned into an umbrella and prevented the woman from getting drenched from a shower of sperms.

If we look at the totality of visuals, nothing seems to have been left out. Imperialism represented by a white man adorning a tall hat, to custodial rape with the capital ‘A’ made up of legs of a man in uniform, to fundamentalist influences on women’s life with the purdah representing the oppressed collectivity.

But what captured my eye was something with humour in it— whether it was the picture of Pimmy and Elizabeth (elegant ladies with beautiful grey hair and very polished appearance) climbing over the gate of Max Pharma in our campaign against Depo Provera or a tiny sticker with a boy and a girl peeking into their underpants and saying “Oh! That explains the difference in our salaries”, or the plain sticker “Good girls go to heaven bad girls go everywhere.”

My interaction with technology also changed. I remember in 1988 spending the night with Nalini at Allied Printers where our souvenir was being printed for release the next evening. From the times of letter presses and blocks that would take a week to do we were moving into computerized desktop publishing. Suddenly in the middle of the night the production guys yelled that two pages were going waste and both of us quickly drew a collage of our old newsletters and the work was done by a camera. Then, I think, technology somewhere overtook the painstaking work, with cut, paste, clean enhance and I do not know what! Whereas it made it easy to share things the rate of production got out of hand and each item individually lost its value.

I continue in the movement with the hope of reaching out for the stars. That has been more than half my life. I feel as strongly about each injustice and constantly question my own work. I have never made any great sacrifices financially and never got caught in situations endangering me. So I have really no grouse and will continue to run till my legs give up (as they are prone to and I am a much fallen woman by now).