Delhi recently witnessed a theatrical journey with a difference: Lady Shri Ram College Alumnae joined students to present the play `Ladki Seedhi Rahegi' (The girl will remain straight and simple), in mid-November, 2005. Actors portrayed themselves, and reflected on personal and societal concerns, even as they rummaged through memories gathered during the past few decades.
Together, they gave dramatic expression to some searing moments in their multiple journeys through college - and through life well beyond college. The production was skillful in more ways than one. It kept the audience in splits, even as it raised uncomfortable questions.
The play was created entirely through improvisation. The cast engaged intensely - meeting day after day to discuss, argue, enrich their common understanding and transmute it through creative enactment. The cast was unique in having alumnae from four decades - beginning with Rita Kapur Chishti (1967-70 Political Science batch), right up to Surabhi Goswami (2002-05 Economics). Each character portrayed, in part, the dilemmas and contradictions of her age and time. The process sparked off conversations and questions - sometimes explosive, at other times gently insistent.
The play made many of us wonder how far has higher education changed women's lives? Have college-educated women broken out of stereotypical moulds, or are they still prey to patriarchal whims and norms? In what ways is the 21st century graduate more liberated than her predecessor three or four decades ago?
`Ladki Seedhi Rahegi' was an adaptation of Moliere's `School For Wives' - or rather a transcreation, changed beyond recognition by the inspired cast and versatile director, Roysten Abel. The nomenclature retains relevance, for we are impelled to ask, simply, whether women's colleges in India today are still basically, fundamentally, `schools for wives'? Are they still following a script penned one century ago, by several (male) proponents of `female education' - a script that recommended education as a means for training women to become suitable wives for educated men?
As the play made abundantly clear through its multi-layered explorations - there is no black and white answer to such a question. Contemporary reality is replete with openings and spaces that earlier were non-existent - yet there are hard, harsh continuities that women still cope with. Male power remains dominant - finding its way into the crevices of `modern' female lives as well.
Chishti provides an instance of gross patriarchal power through her satirical caricature of an elderly, lascivious playboy who keeps a young woman captive in Greater Kailash (a posh South Delhi colony). Although a college graduate, the young woman spends her time learning multi-cuisine cooking and Japanese flower arrangement. Virtually shut off from the rest of the world, this nubile beauty is being schooled to marry the wealthy old gentleman!
The portrayal skillfully used humor to drive home the point that many contradictions lurk behind a veneer of modernity. It is undoubtedly true that a college like LSR provides a dynamic and enabling space for students, yet they are not always empowered enough to combat negative forces in the wider world. Rather than take active decisions determining their future lives, they sometimes submit to others controlling their personal and professional destinies.
Many parents send their daughters to a women's college because they look upon it as a safe space, segregated from men and therefore `trouble-free'. Young women entering the portals of a cosmopolitan women's college may be compared to `limpid water in a crystal vase'! Enclosure in the college hostel is supposed to protect them from vice, temptation and danger, so that they remain `straight, simple and unspoilt'. As B Gauri (1993-96 Hindi Honors) expresses in the play, "I came from the holy town of Hardwar (Varanasi). My father thought I would be safe in the college hostel.... From one temple to another temple!"
Once in college, however, students are exposed to a whole range of issues. While the educational programme provides much food for thought, the atmosphere is heady, and there are many challenges to face. `Love' and sex are universal concerns. The play honestly examines apprehensions, fear and the attempt to be `politically correct' on an issue like lesbian relationships - as well as the total acceptance that can come from facing one's own prejudices squarely. As Gauri puts it, "I have loved women and had intense relationships with them. My husband, who is my best friend, knows about this!"
Heterosexual relationships remain prominent in the dream world that young collegiates inhabit. As Nitya Kapoor (2001-04 batch) says, "I was so involved in college with Drama Soc and other activities that I had no time for men.... But I have drawn up a list of what the man in my life should be like!" She shares the list - a formidable one, including caring and sensitivity as well as openness, strength and protectiveness. At the same time she has agreed to an arranged marriage, although she is ambiguous about whether she really wants it.
Several actors in the play are married women - Chishti, Gauri, Abha Adams
(1970-73 English literature) and Shivani Wazir Pasrich (1989-91 Economics).
Husbands and children provide context and texture to their lives. Sundry birthdays and illnesses mark leaves of absence from the play, creating pauses and punctuations even in the daily rehearsals.
These women manage, somehow, to balance family with work commitments. As director of Shri Ram Schools, Adams is a well-known educationist. Chisti is a writer and editor, while Gauri is a professional actor with the National School of Drama. Vibha Sharma (1982-85 English Literature) is director of an international educational programme called Delhi-IIES (Chicago) International Ltd. For younger women like Kapoor and Goswami, these older women can be role models.
As the group members got to know each other better, their masks gradually pealed off. Adams admitted to being painfully shy and mortally afraid of crowds and parties. Pasrich - elegant and sophisticated - spoke of feeling hurt when Adams referred to her as a `Page 3 person': she felt her serious concerns razed to the ground by this one unkind phrase. Gauri expressed resentment when Pasrich hinted she didn't look sexy enough - as if having a stocky figure means being `not sexy'. Thus each person revealed vulnerabilities existing behind a strong, sure - even intimidating - front.
This journey down memory lane proved that colleges like LSR can take pride in having helped `simple' girls grow into complex women with a critical consciousness. The college has certainly nurtured talent, provided opportunities and supported students' aspirations to excellence. The play confirmed that women's colleges have achieved far, far more than the agenda of a finishing school! As principal Dr Meenakshi Gopinath put it, LSR stands for `Leadership with Social Responsibility'. It is helping create a critical mass of women who are reaching out for self-actualization and working towards a better world.
Though women have covered considerable distance, yet there is no room for complacency. The times call upon each woman to be alert, watchful and resourceful. It is her choices and decisions that will pave the way, ultimately, for dramatic changes in society.