Deepti Priya

Weaving Colourful Memories

Within weeks of joining college, I plunged into the deep end of feminism. It was 1979, a vibrant time for the women’s movement in India. I joined a theatre workshop in Miranda House organized by Manushi in Ruth Vanita’s hostel room. Ten to fifteen women, mostly students and teachers, shared experiences of discrimination and harassment. We performed the play we had developed, Ahsaas, at half a dozen places. More women spoke of their experiences, sharing pain and anger, formulating issues together with us. The first performance was at Miranda House hostel grounds, the second at my home, next to the Central Institute of Education where my parents then taught. Through the play we questioned our own socialization, limited gender roles and our dreams of moving beyond. Personally I began to move from being shy and inhibited to a more open, expressive kind of identity.

My college, St Stephen’s, was incredibly male chauvinist. Women had only recently been admitted, and were numerically in a minority. At one point I was the sole woman in the students’ union. I was never informed of meetings, which were held at night. Several women students got together and drew up a list of demands, including a women’s common room stocking items like sanitary towels. The principal finally allotted a spacious room as WCR and sanctioned a budget for STs, although he wondered aloud whether these are kept in all institutions where women study! He tore up a petition with nearly 500 signatures demanding a women’s hostel and threw it into the dustbin. We protested also against a misogynist newsletter and abusive graffiti.

A team went to Jharkhand to investigate atrocities in and around Gua, a mining township. We interviewed adivasi women molested by PAC personnel (Provincial Armed Constabulary), and learnt of looting, rape and indiscriminate arrests… it was a wretched situation. I was really young, the rest – Madhu Kishwar, Rani Jethmalani, Neerja Chowdhry – were stalwarts. The trip alerted me to issues I understood better over time, with exposure to multiple realities.

Stree Sangharsh– the group that first made Om Swaha, the anti-dowry play – put up an exhibition in the university with powerful posters on gender violence, strung on rope, outside Hindu College.  Action India began performing Om Swaha, I joined along with friends… under Maya Rao’s direction. As the bride who gets burnt, I would become a corpse, carried around to the chanting of Ram Naam Satya Hai…. Later slowly I would rise phoenix-like, and re-join the chorus. Once we performed it at a park in Patel Nagar where a man had burnt his wife to death – encouraging frightened neighbours to speak out. As part of the Dahej Virodhi Chetna Sangh, a coalition of women’s groups, we performed at several places including Karol Bagh’s central park, on 8th March. The play evoked strong response; women were angry, bitter or thoughtful while at Boat Club, a middle-aged man cried because he couldn’t rustle up sufficient dowry for his four daughters

At Action India’s Mazdoor Mela in Bhatti mines, Mehrauli, we saw their exhibition of evocative posters on women’s health. After Saheli was founded in a garage at Nizamuddin, we had some marvelous consciousness raising meetings on menstruation, contraception and sexuality. I went to Jehangirpuri every week for a while, to the Sabla Sangh, discussing slides on menstruation and reading on health with Bharati, Gyanvati, Sudha and some younger women. This feminist health work grew during the next decades.

During Holi in 1981, a bunch of hooligans entered St Stephen’s, isolated the few women on campus, rubbed color, tore blouses.  Within college we women students mobilized. Before next Holi came around we set up a vigilance committee (precursor to today’s official sexual harassment committees), printed a pamphlet, `Apathy Is a Crime Too!’, mobilized in campus colleges, organized feminist self-defense classes, and made a TV programme on sexual harassment, which was a first on such issues. The producer said the word `sex’ was taboo on Indian TV and suggested `eve-teasing’ instead! We settled on `harassment of women’.

During 8th March  in 1983 some friends (including Madhuri, presently working with adivasis in Madhya Pradesh, and Alka, now a high-placed government officer) painted posters and organized a gathering in Delhi University’s central lawns, with messages like “We are gentle angry women singing, singing for our lives”…. Those days were chockfull of activism – street theatre, civil liberties meetings, anti-rape campaign, demonstrations, study groups.

In 1984 after the anti-Sikh violence … I remember a peace march through Model Town, smoke rising from burnt buildings…. Driving, with Buchamma of Saheli, Sudesh Vaid of PUDR and others, to the relief camp at Nangloi…. Nagrik Ekta Manch, a broad-based citizen’s forum, was formed, and Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan.

In 1984 after the Bhopal gas tragedy we accompanied Dr Saythyamala to document women’s reproductive health issues after exposure to MIC gas.

I was part of a burgeoning women’s movement and we really felt we would change the world. We were so involved in the vitality of it all, we didn’t really think of documenting it – writing, visually or audio-visually. There was too much happening. There were controversies too, debates and fights, tears and love, friendships and enmities…. A lot of growing up kept happening. Once, we invited our mothers for a party, a lovely feminist mother-daughter get-together in which we cooked, they met one another, we all had fun.

Those were colourful days indeed. Interspersed with everything else, we reclaimed Ahsaas and continued performing it (including Jyotika Virdi, Suvritta, Shobha Agarwal, Jyotsna Kapur, Vrinda Grover, Rahul Roy…). We’d colour-coordinate our clothes: red, orange, black, green…. The group participated in a national theatre conclave at Bhopal, the only feminist theatre group there was! In Aligarh and Lucknow, women’s groups invited us to perform, arranging several shows. We kept the play going, with ups and downs, until 1986.

I worked briefly with SEWA mobilizing zardozi makers and paper bag makers in Chandni Chowk…. In 1987 I began a PhD on women’s groups in U.P. – meeting forest-dwellers in Saharanpur (Ghad Shetra Mahila Morcha); Chipko groups in Uttarakhand; a crisis centre in Kanpur; a far-left women’s group in Varanasi; Jaggi Devi — a freedom fighter in Pratapgarh.

I lived with a group of friends, including PK whom I married… While public assertion had a powerful liberating dimension for many of us, we needed simultaneously to build and rebuild spaces for intimacy…. Our relationships – with families, lovers, friends, spouses, children – were also places for intense questioning, search and exploration.

…These concerns continue. At the turn of the century, a few of us registered Sampurna, a small NGO, and work on violence, gender and sexuality, single mothers’ issues and education. We published a little book on the women’s movement (Bharatiya Mahila Andolan Kal Aaj aur Kal). Our veteran activist Shanti, has a sharp class analysis and critique of the `middle-class women’s movement’, making for stronger interventions.

During 2007-2009 I researched women’s movements and struggles against militarization in Manipur. Photographs add a powerful visual dimension to the book on Irom Sharmila’s protest fast. I often show these photos, taken by Sunandita, when speaking to different audiences about Sharmila’s anti-militarization struggle; and Shanti shows a large photo of Sharmila in jail, to hundreds of women in remote parts of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, bringing alive a sense of connection through the personal struggle. The book’s cover image got picked up, and has appeared as an iconic image on some walls across Delhi, often with skull and crossbones or another dramatic accompaniment…. And various groups have made evocative posters on her….


Deepti Priya Mehrotra