The name Nirbhaya, Hindi for fearless one, was used to commemorate last December's 23-year-old Delhi gang rape victim Jyoti Singh Pandey, who died from injuries sustained in the brutal attack, before her name was released to the public. It's now also the title of a play written and directed by Montreal-based South African playwright Yaël Farber, which will debut at Edinburgh Festival Fringe on August 1.
Nirbhaya (originally titled The Jyoti Project) is the brainchild of actress Poorna Jagannathan (Royal Pains; Delhi Belly), who, inspired by seeing Farber's Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise, about apartheid, invited Farber to Mumbai to workshop a play about sexual violence. Farber's dialogue is based on testimonials from five of the actresses, including two who've have never performed on stage. The cast includes Jagannathan as well as Sapna Bhavnani, Priyanka Bose, Sneha Jawale, Rukhsar Kabir, Japjit Kaur and Ankur Vikal. Previews begin tonight at London's Riverside Studios. The play was originally developed with a 2014 launch planned, but was included in this year's Assembly Festival at Edinburgh Festival Fringe due to its timeliness. Making it even more relevant, on July 25th, a week before its premiere, a Juvenile Justice Board will issue a verdict on the first of the accused attackers, a juvenile; the four adults accused, who've pleaded not guilty, are being tried separately (a sixth suspect was found dead in his jail cell in March).
Jagannathan told The Times (of London), "There were years when there was a violent incident every single day of my life," and she was sure other women would have similar stories to tell. As she explained to Showbiz India TV, "As soon as the rape happened...I felt like a lot of silences were broken. Every day in the newspaper, every day in blogs and Twitters, women were coming out with their own stories of sexual violence, of assault and harassment and molestation, which is an epidemic in India but it's kept so under wraps. It's like the dirtiest secret of the country."
The play will draw on testimony from five of the actors (the cast features six women and one man) about their experiences with different forms of sexual violence, including marital rape, and was developed using responses from Facebook as well as testimonial workshops in Mumbai. "If you are a woman living in India, you have experienced either sexual violence or sexual violation," Jagannathan told The Times.
Nirbhaya will include a reenactment of the Delhi attack and feature stories based in India, but Farber has repeatedly pointed out that its scope and message extend beyond India. "What happened on that bus happened in India. But I am from South Africa. My native country has been called the rape capital of the world. India's sexual violence statistics are shameful. But so are America's and that of many European countries," she told Indian Express. "I have no interest in making a piece that locates sexual violence in India alone and leaves the rest of the global community comfortable and relieved they are not dealing with the same issues. Misogyny, sexual and gender-based violence is not an Indian or a South African crisis. It is a global crisis." As she put it to the BBC, "This production is an unflinching gaze at how we have all allowed sexual violence to continue unabated in our different cultures. I am interested neither in sanitising nor sensationalising what was an event of unthinkable brutality."
While the stories are stark and horrifying, including one of a woman being set on fire by a former husband demanding dowry money, both Farber and Jaganatthan spoke ardently to The Times of India of their vision for the show as a social justice vehicle. Farber said, "I believe in theatre as a potentially powerful agent for social change. At its full potency - theatre can change lives like no other art form," while Jaganatthan explained, "I felt only theater could possibly capture the raging and urgent need I have to speak up. People have so many theories why 'Nirbhaya's' rape and death felt like a tipping point. There's no single answer for the 'why', and over time, I've stopped being preoccupied with it. I'm now consumed with the 'what now?'" She told the Bangalore Mirror, "I was never an activist, but the incident made me realise that activism isn't about protests and posters, but simply about speaking up." Toward that end, Jagannathan made the connection between the power of revealing these often tightly held stories and action to The Independent: "I believe that if I had seen a play like this when I was on that bus in Delhi, I would have said something to them."