All photos by William Burdett-Coutts

A South African Playwright Created an Unflinching Play About Gang Rape in India

Yaël Farber's play Nirbhaya focuses on a Delhi gang rape, but it doesn't attempt to reduce the unspeakable, amorphous horror of the event into a neat or palatable narrative.

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May 4 2015, 12:00pm

All photos by William Burdett-Coutts

Nirbhaya means "fearless" in Hindi. It's the name that the media gave to Jyoti Singh Pandey, a young woman who was gang-raped and tortured on a bus in New Delhi on December 16, 2012, igniting furious protests throughout India. What happened to her bends the limits of comprehension. To call the attack sickening or horrifying or despicable does nothing to hint at the abject inhumanity of what she endured. The men on the bus raped her, bit her, penetrated her with a metal rod. According to reports, her internal injuries were so severe that 95 percent of her intestines had to eventually be removed. Thirteen days after she was raped, she died in the hospital of the wounds her attackers had inflicted on her.

The morning after the attack, South African playwright Yaël Farber posted a message in support of Nirbhaya on Facebook. Poorna Jagannathan, an Indian actress, saw the post and reached out to her-ten years previously, Jagannathan had seen a testimonial play Farber wrote about living under Apartheid. A survivor of sexual assault herself, Jagannathan felt it was her responsibility to galvanize change by speaking out publicly. She asked Farber to come to India and create a piece of theater that focused on Nirbhaya. Farber agreed.

Nirbhaya, written and directed by Farber and co-produced by Jagannathan, opened at New York's Lynn Redgrave Theater last weekend. It focuses on the Delhi gang rape, but it doesn't attempt to reduce the unspeakable, amorphous horror of the event into a neat or palatable narrative. Instead, it locates the attack in a world in which rape is simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible, where each new act of sexual brutality is at once shocking and utterly unsurprising.

The play also repeatedly insists that what happened to Nirbhaya is no anomaly. On stage, she becomes an ethereal figure, somewhere between a ghost and a vengeance goddess, who rouses five Indian women out of their solitary prisons of silence. Each of them, reeling in reaction to the news, describes the sexual violence they have endured in her life.

Their stories are all true, and the women speak them fearlessly, poetically, in unflinching detail. They talk about defilement, about losing ownership of their own bodies, about shame and struggling to find strength. One describes being raped by an uncle when she was nine; another recounts how her father beat her and tried to cut her lips off with a broken bottle; another, her face and arms covered in burn scars, describes how her husband attempted to immolate her alive in front of her son. Tears stream down her face as she speaks.

Broadly spoke to Farber about the process of creating the play, the reality of sexual violence worldwide, and the subversive power that comes from speaking out about abuse.

VICE: How did the play come into being?
Yaël Farber: I woke up on December 17, and my newsfeed was on fire with what had happened in Delhi. A lot of my friends were posting about it, and I was very struck by my own reaction to the event and the details. There was something about this particular case-who knows why these Jungian icons come along and perforate levels of numbness that we've acquired, but she had a profound effect on many of us.

I posted on Facebook a picture of her, and I just wrote, "My mother, my daughter, myself." That seemed to be what had touched so many people: All the barriers collapsed, and she was just like any of us. Poorna Jagannathan, who is in the play-and, as it turned out, became the producer of this work shortly after this moment that I'm describing-responded to me on Facebook.

I don't think there's a single country on this earth that can excuse themselves from the table at this conversation.

She said, "I know that what happened last night, I'm complicit in. I am a survivor of sexual violence as a child, and I know that my silence had contributed to the inevitability of what happened on that bus last night. Come here, and let's make a piece of theater. People are ready to speak, to throw off the silence that we've all been taught to maintain."

I said to her, "I'd love to. I have a daughter; how are we going to make this possible?" She said, "I'll pay for you and your daughter to come to Mumbai just so we can begin." We didn't know how or where we were going to begin. I had a teaching job at the time, and I needed to resign from it. I knew the importance of the project I was about to go on. It was important that I just got on that plane.

How did you find the other survivors who spoke about their experiences in the play?
We put out a call on social media for survivors who were willing to step forward and be part of the project. I interviewed maybe two dozen people. From them, I selected who would be a part of the project, and we flew to Delhi. Over five weeks, I worked with the women and the one man in the cast, learning all the details of their stories, writing, directing, and creating the work during the day. We opened five weeks later in Edinburgh.

Was that a difficult process, having to collaborate with rape survivors in writing about their assaults?
I've worked with testimonial work for some years now, and I felt a certain confidence in myself and in the individuals I had chosen, that whatever came up in that room we would handle with a lot of care and integrity. And, because we had a larger purpose, we were very committed to making a work that precisely mines those shadows, obviously doing so with enormous respect. It was an extremely emotional process as a director and creator. It becomes a very profound process in itself, to have trauma re-narrated into something comprehensible, even for the survivor.

The last survivor to tell her story, Pamela Sinha, was raped in Canada. Why was it important to include her story?
I knew, in placing her testimony, it had to be an incident that happened outside of India. That's the breakout moment of the audience understanding that we can't relegate this to the realms of India, or any country that becomes our dumping ground for distancing ourselves from culpability in sexual violence.

This is the important break-away moment, where we understand that, as Pamela said in [a panel following one show], "What happened to me didn't happen to me because I'm an Indian woman. It happened to me because I'm a woman. And it happened to me, not because I'm from that culture, but because I'm a woman and it's possible in any culture."

She would not be silent, even though she had been profoundly silenced. She pushed through that, and she became the wound where the light poured in.

I think there's such a tendency, when people report on sexual assault in India, to frame it as India's problem. There's this imaginary of India as this place of shocking sexual violence, when stuff that's just as terrible happens in the United States-at colleges, for instance.
I was just going to say: The culture of silence at American campuses is every bit as malignant as the silence in Indian society. Even the systems set up to hear these women reporting what happened-it almost becomes official protocol that nothing happens, which can leave the survivor utterly bereft of a real witness to what happened, and the perpetrators can continue to act with impunity, these young men in Greek life on the college campuses. Utterly, there is a culture that allows them to act with impunity. It is no different than what is happening in India.

I don't think there's a single country on this earth that can excuse themselves from the table at this conversation.

I was really interested in the dual rupture presented in the play. There's the initial rupture that happens when each woman is sexually assaulted, where she breaks from herself and becomes a different, completely changed person. Then there was a second set of ruptures that occurred when Nirbhaya's story got out-the silence that each woman had maintained up until that point shattered as well.
That final quote that we use in the play, the Rumi quote: "The wound is the place where the light gets in." The very source of the pain, the very place where it seems like that breakage happens, becomes either the option for that individual to be disappeared entirely, or an opportunity for them to become some kind of catalyst in a society that demands change. That's really what Jyoti Singh Pandey was.

When she was called "fearless" by the press in the country to protect her name, many people objected to the idea that she was fearless-because she must have been utterly terrified. But she was fearless in demanding justice in the days after the attack. Despite the fact that she couldn't speak, she wrote her testimony with an iron will. She would not be silent, even though she had been profoundly silenced. She pushed through that, and she became the wound where the light poured in.

That rupture that happened to Nirbhaya became a rupture of the society in India, became a source of light for the world. Although people speak about the darkness of the event, I'm from South Africa, and I cannot ever think of a single time that the streets rose for the life and injustice of one girl in my country. Although it was a place of great darkness, India became a source of hope, almost strangely, in those days. People were walking into cannons of high-velocity water and facing down rubber bullets and police batons, demanding justice and change. That rupture, as traumatic as it is, becomes a catalyst for change. That's really what we reach to do inside the audience-not as a traumatizing event, but as an illuminating event in the audience's life.

It's very cathartic. I was really struck by that: The actors weren't simply recounting, as victims, the horrors they had lived through. Even reciting the terrible things that had happened to them becomes this powerful political act.
Silence creates a society of non-accountability. When someone is silent-which is precisely the teaching in societies where people are told not to speak about how they've been violated or raped-what that silence says is, "The culpability, the shame, the loss of honor is mine." By speaking, stating the events that have happened to you, you relocate that blame and shame and loss of honor to where it belongs, which is with the perpetrator. You claim the events and reclaim yourself by disclaiming responsibility in the act of rape and silence.

Indifference is like a tide. It's like the ocean: It will sweep back in, especially if it suits the society to keep that indifference alive.

As a South African, having witnessed protest theater in my early teens, there is an enormous difference between the catharsis that provides a community relief, where they go home relieved, and the catharsis that inspires and provokes change. The deep skepticism [Bertolt] Brecht had for a middle-class catharsis, I share. But, at the same time, for me, it's not the act of alienation in theater that will allow us the possibility for change. It's the deep identification with the narrators that provokes the non-negotiable moment, the idea that change has to come.

How do you keep that sense of rupture, of catharsis, alive? Even after something shocking and hideous happens, it's so easy for that sense of complacency to creep back in. How do you make sure that doesn't occur?
The very act of making this piece of theater and continuing to travel with it is our gesture towards keeping that rupture alive, keeping the flames of righteous rage alive. In the days and months after Nirbhaya's death, that portal opened, and people were actually, for the first time, responding appropriately to the statistics in India and around the world. Inevitably, indifference is like a tide. It's like the ocean: It will sweep back in, especially if it suits the society, at many levels, to keep that indifference alive.

The very act of this production does that; each time, it reconstitutes itself. It's enormously demanding on everybody involved, but we consider it an extraordinary privilege to be able to use what we do in this way. As trying and vexing and ravaging as it is, we know that silence is much more exorbitant. That silence costs ourselves and our society much more than it costs us to reignite this piece. Each time we reopen it and those survivors reopen their wounds and we have to go back to that place, the cast-including the man- becomes a catalyst that reignites those flames.

How do we keep that alive? This is our gesture. There are other ways. As actors, this is how we committed to doing it.