Nirbhaya: can theatre make a difference?

NirbhayaNirbhaya is a tapestry of personal testimonials from women who have survived sexual violence and an evocation of the Delhi rape case of 16 December 2012. The stories are harrowing and are delivered with such intensity, that the anger and strength of the actors reverberates across the stage and into the audience. The play aims to end the global culture of shame and silence around sexual violence and act as a catalyst for engaging more people with this issue that affects one in every three of us.

Nirbhaya premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 2013. It won the coveted Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, the Scotsman Fringe First and the Herald Angel Award for Outstanding New Play.

The play is currently playing to packed out auditoriums across India. Two of the actors, Sapna Bhavnani and Priyanka Bose, took time out to share their thoughts with us.

You have performed this play around the world, are there any differences in the way people react to or speak about this issue?

Priyanka: Yes, we have had the privilege of sharing the play with an international audience and to my surprise, we have been flooded with similar stories of trauma and shame that surrounds people who have experienced sexual violence. So many people express their need to own and accept their experience, and then the struggle to move on.

Sapna: After most of the performances, I get a lot of women wanting to ‘break their silence’ to me. I think this might be because my story is full of the stereotypes by which most societies judge women (the way they dress, how they act and where they go). So many women from all over the world seem to recognise elements of my story in themselves.

When humans witness others breaking down and opening their soul to them, the reaction has been the same. The audience bears witness to the story and in turn we bear witness to theirs.

Do you think theatre can inspire social change? Does theatre have certain qualities that other media may not?

Priyanka: I hope so. The play is not so much about teaching lessons but is a source of inspiration for the survivors of sexual violence and catalyst to get them speaking about their experience. It is a part of human nature to separate ourselves from people who are different and live in different situations. The theatre breaks that barrier of separation. Unlike any other art form the focus of theatre is on the human being, his or her existence, and his or her relationship with society.

Why do you feel it is important to break your silence?

Priyanka: Because staying silent makes me part of the problem. The change came when I wanted and was able to create change by just speaking up about my truth.

Post by: Emer Coyle

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