Women for women, men for women
- Yonika Kathaharu is back in Kathmandu to make the audience uncomfortable with stories that are otherwise swiftly swept under the carpet
Mar 3, 2018-Are we going to do a penis monologue anytime soon?” Divya Dev asked. “We hear the penis monologues every day, while the vagina monologues only once a year. I wouldn’t say it’s necessary,” Gunjan Dixit responded.
The room went quiet before everyone roared into laughter.
The conversation had followed a discussion where actors sat together in a circle to reflect on their lines and performances after their rehearsal for this year’s edition of Yonika Kathaharu [The Vagina Monologues], which opened to public on Friday.
To an outsider, the participation of men in the discussion at first struck as odd. It felt like they did not belong in the room, because The Vagina Monologues has always been about women, and only women. Why then were these men partaking in an ideally all-women discussion?
Story of one, story of all
In mid-90s Eve Ensler, an American playwright, performer, and activist, developed an episodic play, The Vagina Monologues.
Based on intimate and poignant ‘vagina interviews,’ which Ensler had conducted with over two hundred women of various ages, races, professions, and sexualities, the play was initially a ‘celebration of the vagina and femininity.’
“At first women were reluctant to talk. They were a little shy. But once they got going, you couldn’t stop them. Women secretly love to talk about their vaginas,” she writes in the introduction of The Vagina Monologues, “They get very excited, mainly because no one’s ever asked them before.”
However, it was not long before Ensler realised that both women’s empowerment and violence against them were ‘deeply connected to the vaginas.’ In 1998, when she launched the V-day Movement to fight violence against women, the play turned into a worldwide phenomenon with translations into 50 languages and is now performed in over 140 countries.
The play is made up of personal monologues that delve into both consensual and non-consensual sexual experiences, reproduction, body image, and genital mutilation,
among other topics that revolve around the vagina.
“Some of the monologues are based on one woman’s story, others are based on several women’s stories surrounding the same theme,” Ensler writes.
Although there is a recurring theme, which highlights the vagina as a tool of empowerment, every year a new monologue is added to highlight a current issue affecting women around the world.
Knock, knock Nepal
Every year, between February 1 and April 30, participants across the world stage benefit performances of The Vagina Monologues under the V-day Movement. The fund raised is distributed to national and international grass-root organisations and resource centres working for women.
Kathmandu saw its first Vagina Monologues in 2010, but the city wasn’t ready for the conversation. The rendition, as a result, just disappeared into thin air, along with a couple more that followed.
It was only in 2015 that the annual script put out by the V-Day saw its official rendition in Nepal. The play was produced under Hamri Bahini, and almost 20 women took the stage for an act that was too bold and explicit for the audience’s taste.
But once the city opened its arms, there was no turning back. Having successfully created the much needed hype, the play then saw two productions in 2016—The Vagina Monologues in English and Yonika Kathaharu in Nepali—by two different, independent groups.
The trend continues. Every year, there is one production in English and another in Nepali, and over 25 women in total, both actors and non-actors, take to the stage to speak out for their rights and against the violence.
From Vagina to the Yoni
Following V-Day Kathmandu’s successful staging of The Vagina Monologues in February, Katha Ghera’s Nepali adaptation of the play opened to the public yesterday. “We hardly talk about stories of abuse and sexual violence in our families, or our circles,” said Gunjan Dixit, one of the two facilitators for Yonika Kathaharu. “Adapting the play in Nepali has made the monologues accessible to the larger population that does not use English as a medium of communication.”
She pointed out that having translated the stories has started conversations. “When stories dusted under carpets are seen on stage it can be overwhelming, but hearing them in the language that feels at home makes it easier to fathom the gravity.”
Katha Ghera produces the play in Nepali to keep the essence intact, “It is important that the people who need to hear the stories are able to listen, understand, and internalise them,” added Gunjan.
“This play hits too close to home and hence is extremely important for us to keep bringing it out,” said Akanchha Karki, also a facilitator. “We are going to do this every
year, consistently, even if we don’t have enough funds. The conversation has to go on.”
This year, Yonika Kathaharu will see 14 actors, alongside Akanchha and Gunjan, give individual and group performances.
Walking the talk
Akanchha and Gunjan both have been part of the V-day Movement since its launch in Kathmandu, as facilitators and actors, and they believe that the movement has come a long way in creating a platform for dialogue.
“The first year felt like a test match. It could have gone in any direction,” shared Akanchha, who realises the first rendition catered more to the English speaking audience, “Over the years we have realised that we want to make this performance accessible and classless, because people need to know about vaginas.”
“There’s so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them—like the Bermuda Triangle. Nobody ever reports back from there,” Ensler writes in the play and apparently it holds true for even the actors who perform the Vagina Monologues.
“We have noticed that so many actors who are performing for the first time did not know their vaginas because there really is so much darkness and stigma surrounding them,” said Akanchha.
That is one of the main reasons why actors go through an extensive ‘vagina workshop’ where the performing artists sit down together to share their personal stories, ask questions and find answers, and conduct in-depth and initially awkward conversations surrounding sexual organs and processes.
“We do not get into the script until we find ourselves in a comfortable place where all actors know their vaginas, and clitoris, and everything that happens to and around them,” she said.
Breaking out of the shell
When Renuka Karki watched the Vagina Monologues a couple of years ago, she was shocked. Even though she was already working as a theatre artist, she thought any woman would need a lot of courage to go up on stage and talk about her vagina.
“But, I wanted to perform the Monologues at least once. It felt like something important to do—to know me, to know my body,” Renuka shared. This is Renuka’s first time performing the monologues.
“This has been such an empowering, coming out process for me,” she giggled as she revealed how it was only this year that she discovered even women are capable of ‘pleasing’ themselves. “My role delves into sharing fun and not so fun facts about women genitalia; it’s funny how I didn’t even know what function the clitoris served until now.”
The performing artists invest a lot of time and energy into bringing this play live on stage because they believe, “it should not feel like we are reading out a script. It should feel real.” Hence, the artists indulge in understanding, questioning, and embodying the stories.
Shanti Giri, also an artist who is performing the monologues for the first time, shares how the process has been both daunting and therapeutic for her. “I am a very shy person. I used to feel uncomfortable just thinking about the topics we touch in this play,” Shanti confessed, “My act is a particularly disturbing one and reflects on an abusive relationship.
The story is so unsettling that it haunted me when we kicked off the rehearsals.” But she shared how simply having a platform where Shanti could tell and hear stories that are usually hushed in her everyday life is therapeutic.
“Stories of gender based violence resonates with every woman and triggers necessary conversations,” Gunjan claimed, putting light on how the play has helped everyone involved break out of their shells. The story Shanti is performing is one of the three new acts on violence that have never been performed in Kathmandu before.
“With the #MeToo movement shaking the world, the audience is now ready for appalling, true stories on stage,” said Akanchha.
But the Katha Ghera team is well aware that sometimes, just women speaking for women is not enough. Sometimes, it is important to bring in the male allies. Hence, there’s one more addition to the annual script: the Man Prayer. This year, Katha Ghera has identified and roped in seven men who will each perform a pledge at the end of every show.
Going against the grain
“This year, every show is going to end in a Man Prayer,” Gunjan revealed. “It’s something we have never done before, but we believe is very important to do.”
The three men in a room full of 15 women nodded their heads in agreement.
They were among the seven men who are each performing a prayer to end every show.
When asked if he feels uncomfortable being a part of Yonika Kathaharu, Saroj Aryal said, “Had it been against my values and my nature, I would probably be uncomfortable. But this is my comfort zone. This is important for me.”
For 2018, when the V-Day Movement rolled out the annual script, it came with an option to include the Man Prayer which is also penned by Ensler.
Through this prayer, a man is bound to ask what he can do to make this world a better, safer place for all human beings. Through this prayer, men pledge to become better men—better friends, better family, and a better ally in every possible way.
“This is important to set examples and provoke conversations,” Akanchha said.
For Nazir Hussain, doing the Man Prayer is not about doing his friends a favour. It is more of vouching for equality, and holding himself responsible. It is more about going up on stage to help stir conversations. “I can’t change anybody’s perspective, but I can definitely provoke them.”
“This time, we don’t want Vagina Monologues to be only about women,” Gunjan added, “We want men to rethink their position and their perspective towards women.”
According to Akanchha, the identified male allies were recognised to have the traits that are mentioned in the Prayer. “They are soft men. Men who cry. Men who care.
Men who are not afraid of expressing. They are good men who say no to violence.”
Divya Dev says he is anticipating the response, because this is going against the grain and he believes many people are going to feel extremely uncomfortable. “But it’s difficult to tell whether people can accept us men partaking in the vagina monologues. Even when Nepal is a largely conservative society it is also a country where acceptance is very high. All you need is a good audience who can read between the lines.”
The regular shows are being staged every day, March 2-6, at Nepal Tourism Board in Bhrikutimandap, at 5 pm. The Women’s Day special show is slated to take place on March 8 at EVOKE in Jhamsikhel, 6 pm onwards.
Published: 03-03-2018 08:59
- Yonika Kathaharu