Sapan Saran

Arts Practice

Grant Period: over seven months

Sapan Saran is a poet, writer, and an actor based in Mumbai. She is the founding member of the theatre company, Tamaasha, which aims to explore new theatre ideas in alternative spaces. She has written plays like Club Desire which was directed by veteran theatre director Sunil Shanbag. Her poems have been published in several magazines, including the Sahitya Akademi’s Samkaaleen Bhaarteeya Sahitya. Her first book of poems is due for publication. This grant supports Sapan to research into and challenge the idea of gender testing that exists in the field of athletics in India and abroad, towards creating a theatre performance.

In the recent years, gender testing of female athletes has been widely discussed across the world. The fact that most athletic events are categorised into male-female is highly problematic since it slots human beings in a binary understanding of gender. Women who are in the grey zones of the gender spectrum and do not adhere to these two binaries - such as intersex females or females with hyperandrogenism - fail the gender tests and are barred from participating. These individuals often undergo enormous trauma owing to loss of respect and livelihood and are forced to live with questionable gender identities. The humiliation that they go through and the stigma that they have to live with leaves the women scarred for life.

Sapan’s own interest in the questions of gender and identity pushed her to explore these notions in the field of athletics. This search that began some months ago led to her meeting with Santhi Soundararajan, a track and field athlete from Tamilnadu, who was barred from competitive running in 2006 after she failed a gender test. Subsequently, she met Dutee Chand from Orissa who challenged the hyperandrogenism rules at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) recently and won the landmark case in 2015. She also later met Ayesha Billimoria, one of Maharashtra’s star athletes. These interviews have opened several complex layers that connect gender, society and politics which Sapan wants to interrogate further.

Enabled with this exploratory grant, Sapan will attempt to understand the nuances of gender as a spectrum rather than a binary. Although the project draws inspiration from the stories of female athletes around the world, it will especially revolve around the experiences of her key interviewees, Santhi and Dutee. She also hopes to meet and interview Pinki Pramanik, another Indian track athlete whose illustrious career was cut short by gender testing.  Interviews will be held with sports medicine professionals to understand the latest gender testing methods. Lawyers and legal professionals will also be Sapan’s resource persons who will help her understand laws that exists, legal implications of gender testing and the legal procedures available for women to challenge the tests. Dutee’s lawyer, who won the case for her, will be a key person that Sapan will interact with. These interviews will involve trips to Chennai, Kolkata, Delhi, Hyderabad and Patiala. She will also study sports journals, read new writings on gender and gender testing and watch relevant race footages.

The material generated from this research work will subsequently lead to the creation of a performance in the second phase of this project. Post this research work, Sapan is likely to apply to IFA with a detailed proposal for creating the performance. However, she does have some broad ideas right now. Sapan envisages a performance with layers of text, poetry, movement, video and music. The play will mostly be in Hindi with layers of poetry in Hindi, English and Tamil. The movement will be choreographed by Maithily Bhupatkar. Sapan is also in conversation with poet and activist Meena Kandasamy, for the use of her poetry. Theatre director Sunil Shanbag will be the dramaturge for this project.

Sapan observes in her proposal that specific parts of the country have contributed to the pool of Indian athletes and the eastern coast especially has produced several runners. Climate, geographical conditions, food and other factors make sport organic to the people of this area. Therefore, she wishes to keep the focus of this research on Tamilnadu. It also helps that her main interviewee, Santhi, is from this region. As part of this focus, Sapan will look at social and cultural expressions in music, dance, poetry and storytelling that are often part of the athlete’s local milieu. These elements will be used as dramatic elements in the play.

The research project will result in the creation of a broad structure for the play and a possible script. The Grantee's deliverables to IFA with the Final Report will be the play structure.