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In Her Skin: Mallika Taneja on feminism and her play Thoda Dhyan Se

Thoda Dhyan Se is a feminist satire targetting those who link women’s clothes to their abuse.

Written by Dipanita Nath | New Delhi |
Updated: November 1, 2015 1:00:50 am
Mallika Taneja Mallika Taneja

In the hours before her play, Mallika Taneja was making sure “the event would unfold without any drama” and nobody would get arrested. Thoda Dhyan Se is a feminist satire targetting those who link women’s clothes to their abuse. Taneja begins by standing still for a long time, dressed in nothing. The first “sharing” of the piece took place at a south Delhi studio on October 11, weeks after the actor won an award at Zurich Theatre Spectakel for staging an English-language version of the play called Be Careful.

Thoda Dhyan Se is funny and difficult, as well as the boldest play in Delhi at the moment. Taneja, 31, plays a young girl who is dressing up as she chats about what women should wear to avoid the wrong kind of attention. “Pata hai na zamana kharab hai?” she says, as she ties dupattas around her torso and groin. “Agar aap zamane ko bolney ka mauka nahi denge na, toh zamana bol nahi payega,” she adds, frenetically pulling on pairs of shorts, wearing dresses over multiple tops, covering her feet with layers of socks and padding her throat with scarves.

The girl’s breathless banter is as loaded as the clothes with which she obsessively covers herself. Some of the monologue is drawn from online tips on “How to be safe in Delhi” in which ridiculous advice masquerades as common sense. The audience begins to see simple, everyday streetwear as weapons of oppression and familiar phrases, such as “thoda dhyan se”, turn into patriarchal cues to enforce subservience.

Mallika Taneja during a performance of Thoda Dhyan Se Mallika Taneja during a performance of Thoda Dhyan Se

At an intimate screening, there was heavy silence as the hall adjusted its perception of the experience. The audience comprised academicians, performers, art students and various artistes to whom nudity was no novelty — but nobody was ready for it to stare them back in the face. Finally, Taneja gave a wide grin, looked around and trilled, “Thoda dhyan se rehna chahiye.”

It was risky theatre even when Taneja performed the play in her undergarments for two years. Several organisers backed off, fearing charges of obscenity. Now, she’s even got rid of the bra and panty in the reworked version. By appearing in her skin, the actor starts free from sartorial regulations. “Am I asking for it, standing there butt naked? Will I deserve it? Let me see,” she says during a discussion after the performance.

The 15-minute piece was created at Tadpole Repertory in 2013, with inputs from actors such as Momo Ghosh. It was born in response to the gangrape of a photojournalist in Mumbai in 2013. “It also happened because of December 16. It happened because, when I used to go to theatre workshops by bus, some man thought it was okay to keep his hand on my crotch. It happened because, when I was going home from college, some guy fondled my breasts. I am not separate from my art. Everything in my life has led to this,” says Taneja.

Taneja’s father, Banwari Taneja, is a Sangeet Natak Akademi award winner from Delhi. He has acted in plays by almost every director of repute for more than 35 years, from Ebrahim Alkazi and BV Karanth to Wolfram Mehring and Nadira Zaheer Babbar. “When you have parents who do theatre, you watch a lot of it. I am 31, but I feel that I have been a part of the history of the culture of Delhi. When people talk about a play that happened 15 or 20 years ago, chances are that I have seen it,” she says.

Taneja watched Roysten Abel’s Othello in Black and White, which had won the Fringe First Award at Edinburgh. “I remember the first scene, when the actors stand silently. Then, they move as one person into a Kathakali posture. That, for me, was the magical moment. I was sold to the world of theatre that day,” says Taneja. Summer workshops at the National School of Drama followed, but it was when Taneja fared badly in her Class XII Board exams that she began to become what theatre veteran Maya Krishna Rao calls a “politically and socially conscious performer”.

She applied to Kirori Mal College (KMC) for graduation under the drama quota. The Players, KMC’s campus theatre group, is associated with hard-hitting plays. Plays are adapted, rewritten, overwritten and politically infused until they acquire muscle enough to provoke or offend. “Mallika came with a certain degree of consciousness of the world, an alertness towards injustices and an idea of spaces, both social and personal,” says Keval Arora, known as the theatre guru of KMC. Arora played a pivotal role in Taneja’s evolution as an artiste. “He taught us to relentlessly question both ourselves, our art and the world around us,” says Taneja. In college, Taneja directed Tattoo, a German play about incest that challenges even veterans. “She balanced the emotional core and formal style. I have yet to see a better production of Tattoo,” says Arora.

After a series of jobs that had nothing to do with the stage, Taneja’s return happened amid a difficult breakup. “At 25, I had no work, no money and no heart because it was smashed to smithereens. I was rehearsing with Neel Chaudhuri’s play with Tadpole Repertory called Taramandal and it kept me going,” she says. Chaudhuri had cast her in the award-winning adaptation of Satyajit Ray’s short story Patol Babu, Film Star, in multiple roles. A series of productions followed, such as Ich Bin Fassbinder, in which Taneja played the protagonist’s girlfriend, and The Winter’s Tale, a critically acclaimed adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic, with Taneja as the bubbly Princess Perdita.

Taneja’s other contribution is an initiative called Lost & Found, which takes the arts into neighbourhoods of Delhi not associated with cultural activities. The festival, in 2014, was held in community centres of Sarita Vihar, Pitampura and Vasant Kunj. It comprised an array of programmes, from dastangoi and theatre workshops for senior citizens to wall art, music and dance. “Look at the festivals that happen in a city, how many actually belong to the life of the city? What if they don’t happen? Will the city miss it?” she says.

Taneja is under her own scrutiny even when she is thinking about her mother, who passed away when she was 10. “I couldn’t remember any more how my mother used to sit. This became the starting point of a investigation into memory and its politics. What is it that we remember and what is it that we forget and why does this happen? I did a work in progress on memory and remembering during a summer residency at Gati Dance Studio this year and it could be my next project,” says Taneja.
In August this year, when the call came from the Zurich Theatre Spectkel, it gave Taneja the perfect opportunity to relook at the piece. “I asked myself, ‘What does it mean to stand in front of a Western audience in an underwear?’ It didn’t make any sense. I decided to make a lot of changes and asked Maya Krishna Rao to guide me,” she says. Rao says Taneja “has an innate talent and she is always searching and trying to understand.” “When an actor does that, she becomes a thinking performer and the audience is more interested in what she is saying,” says Rao.

After the Zurich show, the actor realised that “the stories we should be carrying out of our country should be of resilience and not of violence and rape”. Two women came up to her after the performance and asked, “Is there a feminist scene in India?” “Of course,” replied Taneja, “How do you think I am standing here if there wasn’t?”

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