We were a small group, hardly worthy of being called a procession. And certainly not worthy of notice in a day and age of the mega, when the metre for political popularity is the size of the rally and the metre for social popularity is the size of the bank balance. And we were not numerous enough to be called a pressure group either.
I am not sure we made any difference to anyone at all. But this was at a time when Chandigarh was still trying to find its social consciousness, when it was only expected to look into the mirror on the wall and see itself as the ‘City Beautiful’, as the fairest of them all. And therefore, being entirely self-conscious of the image, reality was often obscured.
We had performed the much loved poet, Kumar Vikal’s only play, ‘Cheekh’ near the Student’s Centre on the Panjab University campus. That space was not the food hub that it is today but then a crowd is never difficult to gather because that is the one thing we did not learn from the British – staring middle distance and minding our own business. The minute that the sutradhaar announced a play, the first ring of a ready audience was already in place and steadily growing into a many tiered, sitting, squatting, standing and peering over populace. The play strings together vignettes from a woman’s life to make a cumulative statement about repression and revolt. And even though street theatre can often become loud, propagandist, beating its breast, which is bursting with indignation, Kumar Vikal’s play is delicate like a gentle aroma sashaying in the breeze.
“What are they saying,” most people asked each other, staring with curiosity and some derision at the brazenness of it all. Feminism was still a very distant thunder, venting itself on Western shores in its full fury and only fetching shadowy echoes in the Indian metropolises. In fact, feminists in India were realizing that the one-size-fit-all feminism would not work and were therefore, shaping new, regional versions, one of which even featured bindis and mangalsutras. In Chandigarh, being yet not a metropolis, nor really a small town, we were celebrating International Women’s Day, March 8. United Nations had declared 1975 to 1985 as the decade for women and in the early 1980’s we had only just discovered the day and its significance. Kishwar Ahmed Shirali, then a young professor in the Department of Psychology, cycling around the campus, very visible with her distinct mop of curly hair, brought with her this air of the avant garde, of political, social, sexual equality.
After performing on the Panjab University campus, we then marched to the Sector 17 piazza, through sectors, 15 and 16, behind posters that proclaimed equality for women and the newly minted feminist symbol featuring an abstracted version of the mirror of Venus and a clenched fist. But before we set off, one of those posters had been the topic of a heated debate and a four letter word was thrown into the already raging cauldron and there was a near explosion. A friend from Canada wanted to carry a poster on lesbianism. She was reflecting the international climate on feminism, where the ‘feminist sex wars’ were on – anti-pornography feminism, sex-positive feminism, bisexuality. Our little procession did finally carry that poster but, like I said in the beginning, we obviously made no difference: the gender debate is still on and homosexuality is illegal!