The power of art: Chambal women take to theatre to save the girl child
Clutching her infant daughter, an ordinary village woman stoutly told her family members she would not let them kill the baby. The woman then looked at the people gathered around and asked them whether they could help. Her plea was followed by a collective hush. Suddenly, the silence was pierced by a shout: mutthi bandho behna (clench your fist, sisters).
As the curtain fell on the play, it left an indelible impact on the audience, comprising mostly women. Tears of guilt rolled down the faces of several mothers who, in the past, failed to muster courage to save their daughters from infanticide. The play, Muthi Bandho Behna is the brainchild of eight women, who are on a mission to prevent infanticide in Madhya Pradesh’s Chambal region, where the killing of girl children (considered a burden on the family), was very common, until the group decided to stand up against the social evil nine years ago.
To put across their message, the group doesn’t depend on any written script. They recreates scenes and discussions that take place at homes in the villages of Chambal, which was once infested by bandits. The eight-- Sunita Gurjar, 52, Geeta Sisodia, 44, Sharmila Bhadoriya, 38, Sunita Kaurav, 43, Sangeeta Tyagi, 37, Archana Sharma, 35, Pushpa Singh, 47, and Sushma Gurjar, 28-- have staged more than 150 plays in more than 100 villages so far.
After years of relentless struggle, their efforts are now slowly showing result. “The National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS-4) showed the sex ratio of Morena, Bhind, Gwalior and Datia areas of Chambal has showed improvement as compared to 2011 census,” pointed out Suresh Tomar, the joint director of women and child development (WCD) department.
In Bhind sex ratio increased from 837 in 2011 (as per census report) to 855 as per the NFHS 4 report released in 2015. In Morena it increased from 840 to 895 during the same period, while in Guwalior it increased from 864 to 887. In Datia it increased from 873 to 893. He admitted the group with their unique communication method, created awareness against the social menace and changed the mindset of the people.
It was, however, not an easy task. Many a times, the women were attacked by the conservative villagers. Their families were also not very supportive initially. But nothing deterred them. Geeta Sisodiya, who is also an aganwadi worker in Bhind recalled how government’s awareness drive was proving futile. “With technological advancement and hand-held sonography machine at every nook and corner, sex determination became easy and girls were killed in the womb. We were clueless about how to prevent it,” she said. It was at that time, she and another girl, Sangeeta Tyagi, was asked by the department to take part in a drama on atrocities against women.
“We saw tears in the eyes of audience after we staged the play,” recalled Sangeeta. That influenced them to form a drama group with six more like-minded women. But, to stage a play in front of villagers was an uphill task. They all belonged to conservative families where a woman is not supposed to go outside without a veil. Talking loudly by a woman too is a taboo. “Some even chided us saying ‘nachaniya and nautankibaaz banne ka shauk tha toh shadi se pehle bata deti. Parivar ka ijjat toh bacha rehta (If you were so interested in plays and drama, you should have told us before your marriage. Our family honour would have been saved), said Sunita Gurjar.
There was, however, one silver lining. Even their families were against female foeticide. After much persuasion, the families finally gave the nod on a condition that they would be in veil. “We started our journey in villages of Mau block, infamous for having one of the worst sex ratios in the country. At the beginning, we used to go to every house, inviting people to attend the play,” said Sangeeta. Impressed by their performance, WCD department also imparted training to them to hone their skill, and organise their plays, said the joint director.
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