Print Edition - 2016-10-22  |  On Saturday

The Red Glass Dress

  • Unravelling the social fabric underpinning child brides
- Rachel McFadden
The neighbourhood of Lalitpur woke to a stunning handcrafted red dress in midst of Narayani Complex yesterday morning. But beyond the surface, the beauty of the red glass dress is an untold story waiting to be heard

Oct 22, 2016-There are 58 named shades of red but according to conceptual artist Ashmina Ranjit there are only two that matter. 

The first shade is symbolic of passion, love, desire and fierce rebellion: all things that should represent a healthy engagement in the trials and tribulations of being an adolescent.

The other has a much more sinister side. It represents the experiences of one-too-many Nepali adolescents: that of repression and entrapment which comes with child marriage. 

Both possibilities of the shades of red and the lived experience of adolescents in Nepal are explored in Ranjit’s latest instalation at Yak Party Palace which opened in Lalitpur yesterday and runs until Sunday. 

The instalation titled, Life is Beautiful, centres around a red glass dress carefully woven with with more than 50 balls of red wool and over 9000 glass bangles.

“Red is the most provocative colour. It can represent the full range of human emotions from joy and celebration to danger and aggression.

“In Nepal, the colour red is often associated with celebrations, religious rites and marriage,” Ranjit said. 

Pairing red wool and glass bangles to make a dress, Ranjit hopes to start dialogue around the ongoing practice of child marriage in Nepal. 

“The glass bangles are often associated with celebrations and expressions of femininity. But, they also represent the fragility of adolescence. 

“Each bangle represents one girl... if you handle [them] with care and if they all are together, look at how beautiful it is. But if one is not handled with care, if you throw it out, it breaks into pieces; she is not [there] anymore.”

Ranjit’s linguistic shift from speaking about the bangles to the girls themselves is indicative of the degree to which she identifies each bangle to the women and girls of Nepal. 

She delicately handles the glass bangles with care and attention, slowly and gradually grouping them together. 

The self-proclaimed “artivist” is the co-founder and director of LASANAA, a grassroots art community group dedicated to building social reform through art. 

At the heart of LASANAA is an effort to collaborate and engage as many people as possible to contribute to the creative process. 

This was how the Life is Beautiful project came about. Run in conjunction with UNICEF for the Nepal Girl Summit 2016, Ashmina and a team of LASANAA artists ran a two- day-workshop with 22 adolescents from 15 districts across Nepal. 

The idea was to create a safe space for expression through art and invite dialogue around child marriage, Ranjit said. 

“In the Nepali context, most of the time people don’t share their stories because [they] might affect the family’s reputation.” 

Two of the 22 participants in the LASANAA run workshop were child brides themselves, “married-off” between the ages of 12 and 13.

“They didn’t discuss the details but did say, ‘I wish I did not marry, had I have known I would not have married,” Ranjit said. 

One of the child brides at the Nepal Girl Summit workshop in March this year, who wishes not to be named, brought along her two-year-old infant.

“If someone goes through child marriage it affects their education and their health,” said Sunita Jaishi, an activist against child marriage. “[Both] socially and psychologically, the effects [of child marriage] are immense.”

Interestingly, Ranjit invited adolescent boys to participate in the project as well. “We know girls are much more vulnerable when it comes to child marriage, but it still happens to boys as well.”

Inclusive dialogue is Ranjit’s brand of feminism. 

“When we talk about gender it is not about women or men. It is about how we construct it. In that sense everyone should know about it and we should work together.”

The collaborative element of the project did not finish in March, artists and volunteers streamed into NexUs Culture Centre, the home of LASANAA this week to piece together the final touches on the red glass dress. Traditional Nepali music played throughout the afternoon as the volunteers unravelled red wool and wove their own stories into the tapestry.  “It is quite [a] meditative and healing experience,” Ranjit said. 

Perhaps it was seeing red, but the conversations around the work table quickly turned again to child brides, the dowry system across Nepal and South Asia, and the expectation of virginity before marriage.

“Women carry the reputation of the family. If the daughter does something socially unacceptable, the family’s reputation goes to mud, ” Ranjit said. 

LASANAA Artist in Residence Keepa Maskey agrees. 

“Now you see so many incidents in our society where girls are getting a hard time because they lost their virginity,” she said. 

Ranjit said there are a “hybrid of factors” underpinning child marriages, from social, cultural, economic and religious practices.  

“Sometimes the groom’s household may need someone to work, and marrying is the solution: it’s an unpaid worker you are basically getting.”  

What is equally if not more concerning is the “objectification” of girls not only by society at large but their own families, Ranjit added. 

“Women and daughters are viewed as property, as an object, something you can give away. 

“Daughters can be treated as alien. [Some people think] ‘she will grow up and marry and go to the others house, she is not even our family she is going to another family’,” Ranjit said. 

At this point Ranjit’s voice is shaking: “Instead of allowing them to grow and explore, we are putting them in a confined space, marrying them off.”

The Life is Beautiful installation is not just a condemnation of child brides, Ranjit adds. It serves as a public reminder of what adolescence can and should be. 

“Adolescence is a time to dream and cast your dreams [into the world].

“In this way, [the installation] is also a celebration of youth and a reminder of [the] fragility of adolescence,” Ranjit said. 

Ranjit believes it is society’s responsibility to create a safe space for its adolescents to be able to explore the richness of the experience and grow to reach their full potential. 

By installing the red glass dress at Yak Party Palace she hopes to show that child marriage is not a private affair and that the consequences are not felt only on an individual level, they impact the very fabric of our society. 

“The personal is political. If it is one story and it is not handled very well it can be broken into pieces.

“[The Life is Beautiful installation] is about collecting stories and weaving them together. When two stories connect, [they] become our voice rather than a single voice,” Ranjit said. 

Ranjit hopes that this is a voice that will be heard and not overlooked. 

Life is Beautiful is being exhibited at Yak Party Palace in the Narayani Complex on Oct 22 and 23. 

 

- McFadden is an Australian journalist based in Kathmandu. Prior to coming to Nepal she helped run an arts and film festival in Melbourne, was a political editor, learnt to make wine in New Zealand and became a yoga teacher. All this she blames on post-modernism

Published: 22-10-2016 08:25

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