Sometimes I sleepwalk into things. I knew that the play Nirbhaya was based on the real rape of a real young woman in Delhi in December 2012 and its aftermath, but I didn’t know that the stories told and enacted in the play were the real, lived experience of the actors until that fact became clear in the post-show discussion.
The young woman died of horrific internal injuries after thirteen agonising days. She was named Nirbhaya or Fearless in the press but her real name was Jyoti Singh Pandey. The assault ignited a storm of protest in India. Women began to speak out about their own experience. The conversation got louder and attitudes to sexual assault began to shift until eventually even the law changed.
Poorna Jagannathan is the originating producer of the play as well as one of the actors/survivors. In the programme note, she says “I raise my hand because silences are what make us complicit in the violence. So our silence is not ours to keep.” After Jyoti Singh Pandey/Nirbhaya’s death, it didn’t take long for Jagannathan and Yael Farber to decide on producing a play. They set about finding actors who had experience of sexual violence and before long they had their cast and began to develop the script. Nirbhaya was first performed with enormous success in Edinburgh (2013).
In the post-show discussion, Jagannathan said that part of her motivation for producing the play was that she felt that if her own silence had even the tiniest part of complicity in the attack on Jyoti/Nirbhaya she wanted to break it. The play is, in effect, an act of articulation, a breaking of silence, a demonstration of and protest against the prevalence of violence against women. We see repeated instances of ‘Eve-teasing’ – a phenomenon most women will recognise, of being mauled and harassed on crowded public transport – a fact of modern urban life. Each woman in turn enacts her own story of damage, control, abuse, rape. The figure of Jyoti/Nirbhaya moves through and around the stories. Sometimes she watches. She sings throughout. The scenes involving her own assault are unbearable to witness, while the preparation of her body for cremation is heartbreaking. The tension in the theatre is palpable.
Good plays achieve catharsis in an audience, and Nirbhaya certainly does that, but the play itself is only part of the experience. The post-show discussion is, I think, essential to the full impact of the play. During that discussion we realize the extent to which the actors have put themselves on the line and we hear why.
Some lines of dialogue – which would otherwise have gone over my head – are explained. For example, after the rendition of the sexual abuse of a child: “We are half the nation’s children, cleaning other people’s secrets from our selves.” To explain this, we were told that one in two children in India are sexually abused. But more boys are abused than girls, which begs a question about the absence of male stories in the play. I did worry about the single male actor, who had to perform many chilling roles. Women don’t escape blame, however: mothers, mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law are all implicated, either as perpetrators of violence or at the very least, guilty of collusion through their silence or enabling behaviour.
The most powerful message of the play is expressed in that simple line in the programme note: ‘Our silence is not ours to keep’; but in my view, the post-show discussion is necessary to fully tease that out. For a proper appreciation of the dramatic impact and staging of the play, see Mary O’Donnell’s excellent blog review:
Nirbhaya runs until 2nd August at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire:
Participants in the post-show discussion included: Colm O’Gorman (Amnesty International Ireland), Elaine Mears (Rape Crisis Network), Alan O’Neill (Men’s Development Network) Poorna Jagannathan and Sapna Bhavnani