Sampurna Trust

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over one year and six months

This grant will enable Delhi based Sampurna Trust to undertake a research and documentation project exploring the contours of feminist street theatre as a genre with its specificities and peculiarities, aims and motives, its language and methods, aesthetics and conceptual underpinnings as an integral part of the Indian women’s movement in post-Emergency India, with specific focus on Delhi, where a spectrum of resistance activities took shape. Deepti Priya Mehrotra, a feminist scholar and researcher will be the principal investigator for this project.

The project aims to place feminist street theatre as an art form within the subtleties and nuances of ideology that pushed to transform social constructions and lived realities. Based upon the plays performed during 1980s, Ehsaas and Om Swaha among others, that were integral expressions of the women’s movement of the time, this project will examine feminist street theatre as a genre with its defining features within the continuum of street performance traditions in India. Set against the backdrop of the political upheavals during this time when cultural forms of resistance needed to be adopted and adapted in order to further their particular convictions, this project seeks to read these plays and their performances against the background of the personal lives of women who participated, the social mores and customs of the time, the many dowry deaths and domestic violence incidents and the changing consciousness about women’s rights and identities.

Deepti intends to look at the sources, origins and features of street theatre in India and the forces and factors that contributed to the emergence of feminist street theatre during the late 1970s and 80s in Delhi, and elsewhere in the country, with a special focus on the ways in which women’s movements and feminist thought influenced this form. In order to understand the personal and the political, this project will engage with oral history, textual analysis and interpretation, visual archiving; that is part memoir and part history. It will explore the ways in which women enacted personal issues in public spaces for political ends by taking back the streets, redefining security, breaking the taboos, and broadening the horizons for themselves. Deepti will examine the ruptures that occurred in street theatre of the time with the introduction of feminist sensibilities and predominance of women actors and directors in the plays.  She also aims to look at the paradoxes, contradictions, difficulties, flaws and limitations that sometimes diluted this form of theatre with college competitive forums and in-house performances.

In order to study how women in the late 70s onwards came to reflect on their own lives through the lens of feminist enquiry, expressed their feelings, challenged and critiqued social boundaries and stereotypes out in the open, Deepti will interview feminist theatre practitioners particularly those who were active in the late 70s and 80s decade. Their memories will form threads, which will provide links to most of the central questions of this study. The interviews will be focused around the street plays they performed, their reasons for engagement and the meanings and values it held for them as women and as artists. She will analyse a number of scripts in order to tease-out their myriad meanings at multiple levels placing them within the given contexts, both sociological and ideological. To shake-up the memory, and take the participants down a journey of remembrance, Deepti is looking to incorporate an innovative element in the methodology with an actual enactment of a play by a group of women’s movement activists who were active participants in feminist street theatre during the 80s or thereafter. She will also make efforts to gather archival photographs consisting of performance pictures, play scripts, performance announcement schedules, pamphlets, press clippings and reviews.

The outcome of the project will be a book with a CD that will have all the various elements of the research to give a comprehensive sense of the times and the form. The CD will also have audiovisual documentations of the interviews and group discussions including readings and rehearsals towards the play. 

This grant was made possible with part support from South Asia Women's Fund (SAWF).