Vagina Monologues challenges India's taboos

The Vagina Monologues challenges India's taboos

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As the debate around the Delhi rape case has demonstrated, India is still a conservative country where sex is rarely discussed in the open. But, for the past 10 years, the Indian version of the worldwide play, The Vagina Monologues, has been trying to challenge some of those taboos. Rajini Vaidyanathan reports from Mumbai.

As she takes to the stage, Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal has a question for the audience.

"How many of you feel comfortable saying the word vagina?" she asks as a ripple of embarrassed laughter erupts.

About two-thirds of the audience raise their hands, but there are some too shy to put their hands up, let alone join in a group chant of the word, which follows.

The show they have come to watch is The Vagina Monologues, which looks at the issue of a woman's sexuality through a series of sketches.

Famous across the world, it was created by the American playwright Eve Ensler.

'V-Monologues?'

After seeing it performed in the United States, Ms Kotwal, a Mumbai-based actor-director, and her son Kaizaad Kotwal came up with the idea of adapting it for India. But that was not easy.

India is still a predominantly conservative country where kissing is rarely seen in films and sex is barely talked about.

Producers were too afraid to come forward and one who did, later pulled out.

Several theatres still refuse to stage the play and it was banned in a number of cities, including Chennai (where it has since been performed) and Kochi (where it has yet to be).

Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal and Eve Ensler The Vagina Monologues was created by the American playwright Eve Ensler (right)

Such is the stigma around the word itself that some producers asked for the name to be changed to the V-monologues, a request Ms Kotwal flatly refused.

"The first hurdle was finding actors. I could find nobody. There was this wonderful sexy actor and I asked if she wanted to do the play with us, and she said 'oh I would never dare say the word vagina'."

One actress who had no issues with that was Avantika Akerkar, a member of the original India cast who still performs a decade on.

"For the first show in Mumbai, we were told we should probably take our passports and a suitcase of clothes as we didn't know if the play would be allowed to go until the end, because the theatre might be stormed," says Ms Akerkar.

The first show went off without a hitch, and got a fantastic reaction from the audience.

Today, the show attracts both men and women from all ages and backgrounds and plays to sell-out crowds.

Like its American counterpart, the Indian version uses personal accounts - some dramatic, others funny - to illustrate how a woman's sexuality is repressed.

'Intimate conversation'

The cast members sit perched on bar stools in front of a black curtain as they deliver a range of monologues.

The show has an air of a secret, intimate conversation with the audience rapt in attention.

In one moving scene, Ms Akerkar takes on the role of a young virgin who is raped by a family friend.

In another, the actresses discuss issues such as genital mutilation, rape and domestic violence - issues which are often swept under the carpet in India.

(clockwise from front) Sonali Sachdev, Avantika Akerkar, Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal, Dolly Thakore and Jayati Bhatia Sex is a taboo subject in India's largely conservative society

In recent months, the show has had added resonance in the wake of the Delhi gang rape.

It now includes an extra segment, which pays tribute to the victim.

"Why does it have to take the brutal gang rape of a paramedic for us to get outraged and march onto the street," starts the added monologue.

"For generations, we have stood by while generations of female foetuses have been aborted just because they were girls…

"That silence is exactly what has led to the rape and the ensuing death of this young woman today… "We at The Vagina Monologues have been saying for decades that silence is equal to death."

In January when the play was performed in Delhi it sparked off very emotional reactions, says Rasika Duggal, one of the newest members of the cast.

"The experience was surreal for me because I really sensed an energy and anger from the audience which was palpable and scary, it's there and people are willing to talk about it now. It's good that we've begun to address a lot of the issues that we didn't talk about."

In the decade it has been running in India, the show has collected a "comments book", full of personal stories from people in the audience.

Many are from victims of domestic abuse who say that seeing the show gave them the confidence to speak up.

"I met a woman on a plane a few weeks ago who came up to me and said she had left an abusive marriage after three-and-a-half years. She said seeing the show made her realise enough was enough," Ms Kotwal says.

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