The Fearless Ones
Can Art Change the World?
By BRIAN ULLMANN ’92
ILLUSTRATION BY Margaret Hall
Poorna Jagannathan was any girl on any bus in New Delhi. Between the ages of 14 and 17, she was sexually violated every day as she rode to school. Men touched her, groped her, snaked their hands up her skirt.
Years before, she’d been sexually assaulted by a neighbor, a friend of her parents. Her experience was not unique in India. “Every girl I know has a story about sexual violation,” she says.
But Poorna, who graduated from the University of Maryland in 1996 with a degree in journalism and went on to become a popular actress in India, remained silent about her abuse.
Then in December 2012 she heard about another young woman on a Delhi bus. Six male passengers attacked a 23-year-old medical student heading home with a male friend after seeing the film “Life of Pi.” She was raped by each one of them, sexually assaulted with an iron rod, and thrown with her beaten friend from the moving vehicle. The woman, who had desperately fought off the rapists with her teeth and her fists, died two weeks later.
Because in India it is illegal to identify victims of sexual crimes, the media called her “Nirbhaya,” or the “Fearless One.”
The brutality of the attack made headlines around the world. And, to Poorna, it brought forth a shattering truth.
“My silence contributed to the creation of this culture of unaccountability,” she says. “My silence perpetuates sexual violence. What if I, and every other woman who had been sexually violated, had stood up for ourselves? “The minute you know that you are the cause of something, it becomes very personal,” Poorna says.
The truth is, being silent about sexual violence makes you part of the cause of that violence. I didn’t know what I could do, but I knew I had to break my own silence.
She reached out to noted director Yael Farber, and together, with the help of Rob Jansen M.F.A. ’12, a play was born to lift the veil of silence on sexual violence in India.
Premiering to huge acclaim in Edinburgh and opening later this year in Mumbai and Delhi, the play bears the name “Nirbhaya.”
THE WEIGHT OF HER PAST
A new case of rape is reported every 20 minutes in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, though most agree that incidents are grossly underreported. Marital rape, for example, is not considered a crime. In addition, a staggering 53 percent of children in India are sexually abused, according to Human Rights Watch.
There is a culture of not even calling sexual violation by its real name, Poorna says. Instead, many use the term “eve-teasing,” a phrase that seems to imply these acts are little more than innocent fun.
“Go to your parents and they’ll tell you, ‘You need to wear more clothes,’” she says. “Go to the officials and they won’t believe you. Your parents will say, ‘Don’t bring it up, you’ll bring shame to your family.’”
Poorna attended Maryland when her parents, who were diplomats, were stationed in Washington, D.C. She complemented her journalism work with minors in women’s studies and theatre. After graduation, she moved to New York and worked in advertising. Though she still maintains her own brand consulting firm, Poorna’s passion had always been acting. She enrolled in the master’s program at the Actor’s Studio and landed roles on “Law & Order” and “Rescue Me” and will be a series regular on HBO’s forthcoming “Criminal Justice.” She is perhaps best known for her role in the hugely popular 2011 Bollywood movie “Delhi Belly.”
She was in Vietnam, largely cut off from world news,
“My husband told me there was ‘something crazy’ happening in Delhi,” she says. “At the time we didn’t have much information, and yet I remember feeling like there was something in his words that meant something to me.when she first heard of the Delhi attack.
“It was such a huge event that was going to change the course of my life. Although I didn’t know what it was, I felt it. Without having any information, it still carried weight.”
It was the weight, she says, of her shared experience on that bus.
Poorna knew immediately that she wanted to do something, to speak out.
“If you don’t confront the problem,” she says, “how can you find the solution?”
Yael Farber, an award-winning director from South Africa who had earned acclaim for a searing testimonial portrayal of apartheid in her London production of “Amajuba,” was the perfect collaborator. Poorna had recently seen the play and was drawn to the director’s blend of art and social activism.
“There was no one who can deliver the truth in a more compelling way,” Poorna says. “She is an iron fist in a velvet glove.”
Shortly after the attack, Yael posted a status update on her Facebook page with the words: “My mother, my daughter, myself.” Poorna read these words and contacted Yael, quickly finding in her the same sense of urgency to produce a play around Nirbhaya’s story.
To smash the “cone of silence” that often envelops victims of sexual abuse in India, Poorna and Yael wanted to showcase first-person testimonials from seven different women, all real victims of sexual assault, including Poorna herself.
In the spring of 2011, Yael had visited Maryland at the invitation of the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies. There she met Rob Jansen, a master’s student in performance.
“I was impressed by her focus,” Rob says. “I felt invigorated and challenged as an artist. I knew then I wanted to work with her.”
Rob reconnected with the director after completing his degree and was invited to join the production team. A few weeks later, he was on a plane to India.
“Rob Jansen is one of those exceptional people who—at whatever level he is operating within a team—brings his full, fierce intelligence,” Yael says. “His involvement permeated many aspects of our work.”
Working from a script penned by Yael, the cast and crew gathered for rehearsals in a place called Zorba the Buddha, an artist colony of sorts. Rob, as assistant director, worked with the women—most of whom had never been on stage before—on the fluidity of their stage movements. It was important for them “to move naturally so the story felt natural,” he explains.
The crew walked the streets of Nirbhaya’s neighborhood. They learned that she wanted so badly to go to college that she implored her parents to give her the money they had saved for her wedding. “I will fight for the life that I want,” she told her brothers.
“If we were going to tell her story,” Rob says, “We really wanted to know her.”
The play, featuring dramatic reenactments of each woman’s sexual abuse, opened to rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world’s largest arts festival. Lauded by the Sunday Herald as “one of the most powerful and urgent pieces of human rights theatre ever made,” “Nirbhaya” won the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award.
The Guardian wrote, “In an intimate venue with the opportunity for discussion afterwards, ‘Nirbhaya’ could start to change the world.”
But it was the reaction of the audiences that Poorna and Rob felt even more strongly.
Rob says, “We had a woman come up to us after a show in Edinburgh and say, ‘I’ve never told this to anybody before, but I was the victim of a sexual assault.’ That was the power of this play, to break down their own cone of silence. And this is from people all over. It’s not just about India, it’s global.”
Poorna adds, “After the performance there was a standing ovation, but before that was a lull of silence. It was in that space that something very sacred happened. Audiences have consistently said the same thing: ‘Nirbhaya’ was like a revolution in the air.”
A WOMAN NAMED FEARLESS
After the trial of the attackers, the woman’s parents decided to go public with her identity. She was Jyothi Singh Pandey, a Delhi medical student. “No victim should remain silent,” her mother told the media covering the story.
Of her six attackers, one committed suicide, four were convicted and sentenced to death, pending appeal, and a sixth, a juvenile, was sentenced to three years in a detention center. In delivering its verdict, the court said it “cannot turn a blind eye on the rising cases of sexual assault against women” and that the case shook the “collective conscience of the society.”
The wave of protests that swept across India following the rape has continued in the trial’s aftermath. A prominent political party in India has called for stricter laws on crime against women. The Indian Penal Code has introduced several new offenses, including sexual harassment, stalking and voyeurism.
“Our aim is to locate shame and honor’s loss with the perpetrator rather than the victim,” Yael says. “Speaking out, declaring what has happened to you is a way of refusing to be silenced for fear of the stigmas attached to suffering from sexual violence. ‘Nirbhaya’ the production is the gesture at various levels of breaking silence.”
Yael, Poorna and the producing team are working now to stage the play throughout India, starting in Delhi. A Kickstarter campaign launched to support the production there surpassed its $80,000 goal.
“‘Nirbhaya’ is a protest play,” says Poorna. “There was a revolution that happened here. The streets erupted in protest. The play tries to capture that energy. We need to bring it home. The play needs to come home. We are ready for change.” TERP
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