On the eve of International Women’s Day, I sat in the elegant old auditorium of Indraprastra College, an all-women’s institution and one of the oldest colleges in the University of Delhi. With delegates of the conference ‘Revisiting Shakespeare in Indian Literatures and Cultures’, organised jointly with the Shakespeare Society of India, I waited to see what a student devised performance entitled ‘Lear’s Daughters’ might offer. As the lights went down three female dancers dressed in black lycra took the stage. The beats of drum ‘n’ bass music began, and a voiced collage of every abusive curse made against women in ‘King Lear’ reverberated around the auditorium. Spinning and falling, the dancers attempted to fly against an insurmountable male-strom of rage, moving as if every word caused them physical pain. The voices got louder and louder, until the overlapping of ‘tigers, not daughters’ and ‘better thou had not been born!’ and ‘Fie! Fie! Fie! Fie!’ became unbearable to hear. This modern interpretative dance gave way to scenes from the play costumed in the old traditional colonial style of doing Shakespeare – the king in a red robe and crown, the daughters in long skirts, a contrast of old and new. As the acted part of the play ended, this chorus began again; the dancers reappeared, the drum beat swelled and the performance finished as it started. The punchline went to the Fool who sadly told the audience, ‘the rain it raineth every day.’
Listening and watching on such a day, it was impossible to ignore that these students are the peers of a young Indian girl whose rape in Delhi and eventual death from her injuries recently made headlines around the world. As the conference began, the newspapers were full of the rapists’ trial; and other rapes across the country, previously unreported, were suddenly on the front page. What has this to do with Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy or its many incarnations? The title ‘Lear’s Daughters’ isn’t original: there’s a well known Eighties play (from the UK) of the same name; but there, the similarities ended. This performance wasn’t about a dysfunctional family, where Freudian theory was used to explain away the evil perpetrated by daughters on an ageing, abusive father. The chorus that started and ended this ‘Lear’s Daughters’ commented on a culture of misogyny that forms the background noise to being a woman in India today.
Away from the headlines, the figures reveal a sober reality. India is the fourth worst country in the world in which to be a woman, according to a recent Thompson Reuters survey. When the lines ‘better thou had not been born!’ ring out, the fact of ongoing female foeticide and infanticide across the country is horribly evoked. According to the United Nations Children’s agency, Unicef, it’s a problem of “genocide proportions,” rife among the rural poor, and growing in the emerging urban middle class. As the sex ratio falls, (the 2011 census reported just 914 girls age 6 and younger to every 1,000 boys, down from 927 a decade before,) trafficking of women and girls as brides may rise. The pressures of dowry, (such a key component of the ‘King Lear’ tragedy,) which is illegal although this rule is commonly ignored in India, will only become greater, commentators have said.
The story for adult women is also difficult. In December, a survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry in India put Delhi at the top of the list for places where women feel unsafe. My female friends there don’t drive their own cars alone after about 9.30pm for fear of being forced to pull over and attacked or raped. Even driving a car alone, a woman is not safe.
Segregation of the sexes has been one response. All female carriages on the Delhi metro prevent sexual harassment; proposals for pink women-only buses are simultaneously infuriating for the colour, yet might be necessary for the service they provide. That the service might finish at 5.30pm renders it almost useless, and at the same time, like the driving problem, has the effect of keeping women inside in the evenings.
Clearly the IP college performance wasn’t just a group of young women performing out the well-established feminist critique of ‘King Lear’. Inside the beautiful college grounds, the atmosphere among students was alive with intellectual endeavour, the excitement of research and the thrill of clearly articulated ideas. The young women on the stage had the freedom to experiment and through this make radical comments on the profound dissonances that exist in the wider social and political climate they are coming of age in. ‘Lear’s Daughters’ was a performance of great power, and one that had something very specific to say about the nature of being female in contemporary India. Performance that connects and subverts such traditionally revered texts as ‘King Lear’ offer a powerful means to reflect and comment on current social and political conditions. It is to be hoped that these young women take their convictions forward to the world outside the college grounds, to provoke necessary debate, without fear of physical and sexual violence, or being accused of a lack of respect for elders. Only by doing so might they challenge, and perhaps eventually improve the current status quo.
Image: Chicago King Lear by Raúl González