Kamla Bhasin

Women Empowering Media: Some Memories and Reflections

First a little bit about me and my engagement with development and feminist activism. I was born in 1946 in a small village in Punjab, now in Pakistan. My mother had gone there for a wedding. I often wonder if this chance birth in Pakistan has anything to do with my passion for South Asian cooperation and solidarity and my work in South Asia for the last three decades.

Soon after finishing my studies, I joined Seva Mandir, an NGO based in Udaipur. There was this desire to do something for the motherland and to do it with the most marginalized groups. While working with the Adivasi and Dalit communities I was better educated about the harsh realities of life of the (extra) ordinary people in India. It was also about this time that I recieved my first conscious lessons about the working of patriarchy in our society. So, I was sort of a social worker before I became a conscious feminist. I was about 25 then. I am 65 today. In these 40 years, I have continued to work on issues related to development, women’s empowerment, human rights, democracy, peace, communal harmony etc. After working for four years directly with communities in Rajasthan, I went on to work mainly on capacity building and networking in Asia and more particularly in South Asia. I did this work through the FAO for 27 years and since 2004 I do the same work through Sangat, a South Asian Feminist Network located in and supported by Jagori, Delhi.

My work with FAO brought me to Delhi in 1979 and, almost immediately, I became a part of the feminist groups and campaigns which were emerging in Delhi at that time. Although I was a full timer of FAO, I found ample time and opportunity to work with women’s groups and NGOs. Fortunately, I was able to link my UN work to my engagement with NGOs and women’s groups. I was part of the groups in Delhi who founded Jagori, Ankur, Committee on the Portrayal of Women in the Media, and Kali for Women.

This was also the time when I became a mother. My daughter, Meeto, was born in 1978 and my son, Jeet, in 1980. It is difficult for me to imagine today how I juggled my motherhood, full time UN work with a lot of travel in South Asia and my feminist /activist work.

Communication became a part of my life and work soon after I joined Seva Mandir. My work in rural Rajasthan demanded that I write for newspapers and magazines. Together with my friend, later husband and now ex-husband, Baljit Malik, I wrote articles in English for many national newspapers including Everyman’s, a paper inspired by Jai Prakash Narayan and edited by Ajit Bhattacharji. I also wrote a regular column in Hindi for Rajasthan Patrika. About half of what I wrote then was on gender. The rest of the articles were on issues related to the poverty, education, corruption etc. in the villages I was working in.

Around 1979–80 I wrote my first feminist song ‘Tod tod kay bandhanon ko dekho bahnain aati hain’ during a South Asian course in Bangladesh which I had organized. This song went on to become a ‘feminist anthem’ in the words of my friend, Sonal Shukla, of Vacha, Mumbai.

Around the same time I wrote children’s rhymes for my children. I had to do this because I found most of the existing rhymes to be sexist or quite stupid. My rhymes were illustrated by one of our best cartoonists, Mickey Patel, and were published as a book entitled Dhammak Dham by UNICEF, New Delhi. Most of these rhymes challenged gender stereotypes and norms and encouraged boys and men to participate in household work and upbringing of children.

Ulti Sulti Meeto was the next book based on a long poem about a bindaas daughter who was sometimes good and sometimes not so good. She had the freedom to be both. This book was published by Kali for Women and the daughters and sons of many of my younger feminist friends grew up on these books.

During the same time in Delhi, I was part of the street theater group which produced and performed the dowry play Om Swaha.
On every International Women’s Day, and around every campaign, new songs emerged through me. I didn’t quite write these songs. The songs were in the air. I just picked them up and wove them into a song. As soon as they were written, they were sung by all of us. These songs came from the movement and went back to the movement.

Once we had enough tried and tested songs, I gathered a group of women, rehearsed with them for a day, hired a studio and Jagori produced and distributed the cassettes. The money we spent on production was soon recovered through sales. We produced eight cassettes and later put them all in one CD. Accompanying the cassettes was a song book with all the lyrics. These songs have been sung all over North India, in Pakistan and sometimes also in Nepal. Some of the songs have been translated into Bangla and Nepali.
It was a conscious decision to use our own voices for these cassettes and to keep them simple. I was, perhaps, the worst singer in the group but I was not excluded. The others who sang for these cassettes were Jaya Shrivastava, Abha Bhaiya, Runu Chakravarti, Vidya Rao, Vidya Shah, Manisha Chowdhri, Lolly Ramdas, and Srilata Swaminathan.

Somehow, I have always felt the need for humour in our movements. I feel our struggles are going to be very long and tiring and therefore, we cannot approach them with serious faces. We have to enjoy the journey towards our goals. What better way to do that than to laugh our way forward. This is why there is humour and cheekiness in many of the songs I have written. Around 2005, on the occasion of Jagori’s twentieth Anniversary I put together a book of jokes related to gender entitled Laughing Matters. Both in the songs and in the joke book, I laugh, also, at us. We can really not take ourselves too seriously. Some humility is called for.

The Need for Communication Skills
It was obvious that communication was the most important part of our feminist and development activism. We had to constantly find effective and creative ways to communicate. This communication had to be two-way. We learnt from the local people, situations and we tried to communicate our perspectives and messages. Our challenge was to get through to all kinds of and large numbers of people. We found songs and street theatre to be effective. These media could involve others, create energy, touch both their minds and hearts and facilitate a dialogue. For us the basic conceptions of our activist and development work had been changing. Development was no longer conceived of in evangelical terms where a group of people who have prior ‘knowledge’ set out to change the majority who have been denied this ‘enlightenment’. It was now being conceived of more in terms of enabling people to explore avenues of self-expression and eliminating dependency; which alone could lead them through a process of consciousness-raising
Hence, we did not want to depend on expert communicators/consultants for getting our messages across. We were, in a way, challenging the divide between singers and non-singers, media experts and media targets. It was this thinking that unleashed a lot of creativity and the excitement related to it. I owe all my creativity to this thinking and to our movements.

A Creativity Mela in Delhi
Around 1980 many of us from different groups got together and organized Kriti, or a Creativity Mela. Over 120 women from different parts of India participated in this five day excitement which was held in the Aurobindo Ashram in Delhi. Here we shared, learnt and taught how to write songs and poetry, how to make posters and street plays.

Since I knew nothing about posters, I joined the poster-making workshop run by Chandralekha, the well-known dancer and choreographer, who was at that time in her activist phase. Along with her friends Sadanand Menon and Dashrath Patel Chandra, she had started Skills in Madras, an organization to teach communication skills to activists. For many years Chandra faced sedition charges for her activist work and finally won the case.

In our workshop we were taught screen printing so that we could not only design but also print our own posters. Learning to make posters was most challenging for me since I cannot draw at all. I discovered that although I could not draw, I was pretty good at envisaging posters and creating slogans for them. To celebrate the spirit of feminist solidarity we were discovering, creating and enjoying, I made a very simple poster ‘Ek Aur Ek Gyarah’ or ‘One plus one is eleven’ in this workshop.

Learning Poster-making Skills and Forging Partnerships across South Asia
Encouraged by the success of Kriti in making activists learn communication skills, I organized three more poster-making workshops. They were all for women from different countries of South Asia. In 1984 we did a workshop in Skills Chennai with Chandralekha, Sada and their team, in 1986 in Koitta, Bangladesh with Lalarukh from Lahore and in 1988 in Hendala outside Colombo, Sri Lanka with Chandralekha and Sheba Chhachhi.
Here I would like to share sections from the report Sadanand Menon helped us write on the poster-making workshop held at Skills, Chennai. We learnt that as a primary vehicle of visual communication, dealing with symbols, images and visual metaphors and the subconscious affinities of color, the poster can effectively reach out to a large audience and give open-ended messages for generating a dialogue. The activist communicator has to be conscious that in no way is a dialogue shut out, and that communication does not become one-way as a result of the media creating a barrier.

The Skills team who handled the poster workshop began by asking us to try and recollect all the visual messages we consume daily through posters and hoardings. It was quite clear from the quantum of our collective memory that even without being conscious of it, we were absorbing a large amount of visual trash. The participants felt that advertisements for films, products and services as well as for tom-tomming government programmes were the main functions of posters. These were exclusively used by industrial and commercial interests, political parties, religious organizations and trade unions. In retrospect it was self-evident that only a very small number of people who were resourceful and organized and had enormous vested interests, got down to using this powerful medium.

We were helped to realize that as in other fields, poster-making had also become the monopoly of specialists and experts and ultimately all the messages and visuals that flood our lives were only an expression of a very small number of people and were, thus, totally non-democratic.
Chandralekha and Sadanand talked of the need to demystify this media and to make it accessible to a larger number of people. Towards this, the Skills group had evolved certain processes of printing to enable even those with limited resources to experiment with it. These were processes that did not require sophisticated technology or involve training.

After a preliminary general discussion, participants began identifying themes for posters which could also be useful for educational work in their own particular areas. Among the many ideas were – unity is strength; the evils of dowry; official mal-administration; the attack on nature; the need for universal education; human development over material development; the need for organizing women; unpaid and unrecognized women’s labour; fighting exploitation is the main aim of development, etc.

Each of these themes and ideas was discussed in the group, which helped everyone to focus sharply on the issues concerned, to rethink, to sharpen their analysis and develop the idea further. The participants were then set the task of visualizing these ideas through sketches. During the discussions, some of the principles of poster-making were explored. This became an interesting way for us to learn, as most of the time we felt we were arriving at conclusions ourselves through our own practical experience, and not because we had been ‘taught’.

Some reflections on poster-making
All of us learnt that visual thinking is the main aspect of poster-making. We must think conceptually, and in symbols and images. All verbal ideas have to be converted into visual images with minimum use of words. While speaking and writing can be expansive and elaborate, when working with visual forms the effort should be to deal with the essentials, and compress and condense the message till it becomes so compact and tight that it has no choice other than to explode. For this the most important and central aspect of the message has to be isolated and stated directly without unnecessary decoration. The images and symbols used need to have a certain universality in order to be broadly understood and accepted.

The printing was done in a small green-room off the main stage. Because of all the anxiety and excitement which accompanied the actual printing of each poster, this room was spontaneously called the ‘labour room’. When her poster was being printed, S was shouting; ‘Come every one! Help us – our child is being born.’ The atmosphere of tension and expectation was quite like that at childbirth. Will everything turn out okay? Will the colours look good? Will we be quick enough to prevent the screen from drying? Will we manage without smudging? Will it be worth all our effort? Some of us, like K were so nervous that when her poster was printed she could only stand and watch while others printed it for her.

Printing was, again, a group activity. One person poured the color, a second pulled the squeegee, a third fed the paper, and a fourth lifted the screen and took out the printed poster, a fifth, sixth and seventh ran up and down placing the printed posters in long, neat rows to dry them. Thirty copies of each poster were printed to enable each participant to take a full set with her. Throughout the day, as one by one all the ten posters were printed, the large stage floor became a mosaic and collage of changing colours and patterns and messages of the printed posters.

The first print of every poster was greeted with much shouting and rejoicing and celebration. Those who had worked the most on that particular poster were hugged and congratulated. There was a whole round of shaking hands that, sometimes, almost brought the printing to a standstill.
The workshop site now resembled a mini printing factory. But it was a factory with a difference. We felt that we were in a factory where the artists were also the workers and the workers were the owners of the product. There was no alienation. This was a new experience, a new insight. We wondered why more factories, more work places could not be like this.

All of us experienced the pain, joy and excitement of taking a task to its logical conclusion, of crating something and seeing the final results. The whole experience was so absorbing that no one felt tired. Four participants who had traveled in a bus on two previous nights and had spent a hectic day sight-seeing and then worked virtually the whole day to see their posters through said: ‘Today we understand the joy of creativity. We felt the energy and were proud of the ten posters we had produced so quickly. We lost no time in putting them up on the walls of the main meeting place and this served as a reminder of our capabilities and in turn, constantly radiated energy back to us.

It was in this workshop that I made the poster Meri biwi kaam nahin karti or my wife does not work, on women’s unpaid and unrecognized labor. I was delighted when Kali for Women printed many of the posters created in this workshop as postcards and distributed them widely.

The principles of poster-making I learnt from Sadanand and Chandra helped me tremendously and I went on to conceive and make many new posters which were published and distributed by Jagori. However, since I am neither an illustrator nor a designer, I needed partners to make new posters and I was lucky to always find them.

Using black and white photos, I made a set of nine posters in Hindi, Urdu and English on the girl child based on nine verses of my song desh main beti agar be-aabroo nashaad hai, dil pe rakh ke haath kahiye desh kya aazaad hai.
After that I made a set of posters on women’s political participation and empowerment, again using photographs and lines from my songs or new slogans. Around 2001, Bindia Thapar and I joined hands and we made new posters for campaigns we were involved in. The main themes of our posters have been violence against women, women’s education and empowerment, human rights, South Asian solidarity.

Another medium I have been creating and using is banners. In the past we used really boring banners. Suddenly we thought of making colorful banners with both slogans and illustrations. Once again, Bindia and I partnered to create these banners and we found a wonderful man named Satindar, who is a magician in implementing our designs. Sangat banners now decorate and energize many campaigns, conferences, courses.

I am really grateful to all our movements, specially the women’s movement, for bringing out my creativity, for giving me amazing partners and friends and for continuing to keep me busy. I cannot imagine my life without these movements. HAMAARAY AANDOLAN ZINDABAD.

However, I must share relate my feeling that the togetherness, cooperation and energy we felt in those early years is much less today in cities like Delhi. Our groups got registered, started getting funding, employing full timers. This was of course good for the work but it also made us bureaucratic and separated us from other organizations. We started spending more time writing project proposal and reports than being on the streets connecting with people or forging partnerships with other groups. In fact as funding became scarce, women’s groups became competitors for the same funds. As a result of mainstreaming gender we got absorbed in the neo-liberal paradigm and its methods of functioning. Today many of our programmes are more about individualized empowerment than about building collective strength.
I am convinced that gender equality, justice and peace cannot be achieved without challenging the greed based neo-liberal economic order. In my opinion this paradigm is responsible for the resurgence of patriarchies, for increasing insecurities, conflicts and wars. So we feminists have a long way to go if we want to achieve equality, justice and peace.