Remember Yoko Ono crooning into the microphone, “Woman power, woman power”? This now-familiar song was released in the ’70s, and through it the singer, a millenarian feminist, was calling for a new world order. “You’ve heard of woman nation,” she sang. “Well, that’s coming baby.”
Today, over half a century has passed since the struggle for gender equality became a global one. And the question we have to ask is, how much have we been able to achieve in this regard in our country?
It’s true that in urban India feminist values — passed on to us by writers as varied as Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf and Mary Wollstonecraft — have become part of the public discourse. And yet, the worst forms of misogyny remain entrenched in our social structure. Cases of gender violence and domestic abuse are common in big cities, while rural India struggles to curb the hideous reality of female foeticide. The battle against such egregious and criminal affronts must be fought by the state, by the law. But how do we change mindsets? Well, by fighting for equality on the cultural front. Like Yoko Ono did when she sang, “Every woman has a song to sing, every woman has a story to tell.” In this edition, we highlight the stories of some of India’s most prominent women achievers, in the hope that they’ll someday succeed in their larger aim of establishing gender equity.
‘I think a time should come when we wouldn’t need a Women’s Day, when we’d be equal to men’
Kalki Koechlin made her screen debut in 2009 with Dev D and her strong screen presence got her the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress. She has also been a part of multi-starrer movies like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Yeh Jawani Hain Deewani, which became one of the highest- grossing Bollywood films. Besides being a screenwriter, a playwright and a producer, she has co-written That Girl in Yellow Boots in 2011.
Koechlin is known for her unconventional roles in films and for her candid personality outside the film world. An audacious feminist voice from Bollywood, Koechlin speaks with Guardian 20 about what it takes to be a woman in India and why one should cherish Women’s Day internationally.
Q. What do you think about the tradition of celebrating Women’s Day?
A. I think it’s great. Women have the right to celebrate all the rights they have been fighting for. Their struggles need recognition and International Women’s Day provides that recognition. Ideally of course, I think a time should come when we won’t need a Women’s Day, when we will be seen as equal to men. But for now, such a day is very important.
Q. But do you think having one day in a year to celebrate womanhood is justified when on all other 364 days of a year women are subjected to routine violence and discrimination?
A. Yeah, I think giving importance to women should be a daily affair, must happen every minute, every second, but it should also be taken into consideration that Women’s Day symbolically acknowledges the fact that we have gender issues and gender discrimination staring in our faces, and there is an ongoing struggle to annihilate it. It is an important day like, let’s say, Valentine’s Day. Definitely, Valentine’s Day should not be the only day when you shower love on someone but it is symbolic in the sense that it highlights the importance of love in the world.
Q. It has often been argued that in Bollywood, there’s no pay parity for female actors. Is it true?
A. Yes, finances are not equal at all. Female actors are not paid as much as men and this must change. But I guess it would take some time.
Q. How do you think Bollywood looks at “womanhood” today, with more and more women-centric movies being made, like Queen, Margarita with a Straw, Dirty Picture, Mardaani?
A. Yes, it is really great to see how things are changing. One is a heroine in her own right and doesn’t need a hero to support her in a movie. Actors like Kangana and Vidya Balan have proved that in a significant way.
Q. But isn’t this also true that such films do not end up being commercial succeses? Does that go on to say that women’s issues being taken up by independent female actors are yet to gain an acceptance in the film fraternity? Should that change?
A. It is very easy to say it should change. But who is going to change it? It should be changed by us. I mean, it’s very easy to say, of course, that things should change and women should have equal payment or that women should not be assigned smaller roles than men, but how should this change happen is the question. Because change needs to be seen from the examples of those women who are making a conscious and bold choice to play more empowering roles and do different kinds of cinema.
Q. How do you think the idea of a mother has changed in Indian cinema since the ’60s? Now we don’t see mothers of protagonists in distressed and depressing roles.
A. Are you referring to Shabana Azmi from Neerja? [laughs]. It’s great to see how an older actress has become awe-inspiring for many. In fact, one day I hope to see actresses in their 70s playing mainstream roles like it is in the West where stalwarts like Meryl Streep, who’s in her late 60s, is still a part of some great films.
Q. You have always been very vocal about women’s issues. In fact, now many actors are following suit and openly speaking about it, something that was not happening previously.
A. I also think it is a very personal choice. I don’t think everybody has to speak about every issue. It really has to matter to you and mean to you, first and foremost. Someone might be interested in issues like environment or something else. You cannot expect every woman to be speaking about women’s issues. I think it is a matter of what you believe in and what you stand up for, be it poverty, education or gender. I am really glad that issues surrounding women have come to the forefront in the last few years in our country.
Q. Any message for your women followers?
A. No, I think women here should do what they do all the time. Everyone wants to have a say about how they should be, or how they should behave and what they should do but I don’t want to tell women what they should do at all. Do what you want to do. You have the right to live your life the way you want to live it.
— Preeti Singh
‘Boys in badminton world made me their icon’
A brown belt in karate and the first Indian to win a bronze medal in Badminton at the London Olympics in August 2012, Saina Nehwal is also the first Indian woman to have become world No.1 badminton player. She won several top tournaments like Indian Asian Satellite in 2005-2006, Philippines Open in 2006, Indonesia Open in 2009, India Open in 2010 and many more.
Beside these, she won the Arjuna Award in 2009, Padma Shri in 2010, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna in 2009-2010 and Padma Bhushan in 2016. She has also secured her name in Forbes’ list of “30 Game Changers Under-30”.
In conversation with Guardian 20, Saina Nehwal talks about how proud she feels as a woman today for her contributions to Indian Badminton.
Q. Growing up as a girl in a country like India, where misogyny and instances of gender inequality are rife, how tough was it for you to become a professional sportsperson?
A. For me it was a cakewalk, no discrimination at any point of time. I came to Hyderabad in 1998 and the sudden journey into badminton began. I became the state champion, national champion and won several titles in world badminton. I did not have to face any discrimination regarding any issue during childhood or later on. The boys in the badminton world and even in society made me their icon and I enjoyed the status.
Q. While you are a role model for many women, we would like to know who has been your inspiration?
A. In cricket, Sachin has been my icon and in Tennis, Roger Federrer.
Q. Women have been denied opportunities in the domestic sphere and outside as well. What are the challenges that you have faced as an Indian sportswoman?
A. As a badminton player, I have enjoyed every inch of my career in sports. Nobody interfered in my game and I was given due regards by each and everone I came across.
Q. Have there ever been any hardships in your career?
A. Once you get an injury, the performance comes down and people start making scathing remarks about you. They write how your performance has not been up to the mark, and go to the extent of saying that perhaps you are not talented enough. We read such things in the news all the time and accept it as part of the reality and keep working harder to get back the momentum and start winning back our titles to secure the lost praise in the media. I have gone through several such phases in my life. Immediately after the 2012 Olympics, my career was going downhill and that phase has till now been the toughest to deal with.
Q. All eyes are on the gold medal at the Rio Olympics this year and I’m sure so are yours. How are you preparing for the big event?
A. I am doing good training with Vimal Kumar sir at PPBA Bangalore. I am injury free and would like to perform to the best of my abilities in Rio 2016.
Q. What does Women’s Day mean to you? Any message you want to convey to your fans on this occasion?
I am proud to have been born a woman and have been part of the history that many accomplished women today have struggled to create in all walks of life.
— Swati Singh
‘My dance career created a storm in my family’
Widely known for choreographical pieces such as Indradhanush, Devi Durga, Aatmayan, Mera Bharat, eminent Indian classical dancer Sonal Mansingh has earned her stellar reputation in a career spanning over 50 years. In 1977, she founded the Centre for Indian Classical Dances in New Delhi to be able to inculcate this rich cultural legacy in dance enthusiasts. She speaks to Guardian20 about how classical dance as an artform shaped her as a woman.
Q. Dance is still a career option youngsters are dabbling in even today. What do you think? What challenges did you face as a woman when you took up this profession?
A. Dance today is an attractive career option. In 1963, after completing my graduation in Bombay, I knew I only wanted to dance. It created such a storm in my Gujarati family, that I left home for my Gurus’ in Bangalore without informing anyone! I bought train tickets from my German scholarship, sat all alone in the train from VT station (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) and never looked back. It has been the smoothest journey ever since.
Q. What advice would you like to give to young girls who plan to make a career out of dance?
A. The aspirations of girls wanting to be dancers usually fade away after marriage, or soon after arangetram (debut recital). Sadly, young men too are opting for dance because they think it will bring easy money. To all those serious about dance, my advice would be to not lose focus, dedication and passion. That is the only way forward with anything in life, and specially with a demanding art form like classical dance.
Q. How do you think dance helps you to express yourself as a woman?
A. By taking up women’s issues through stories, parables and myths, dance for me has been an effective instrument of communication.
Q. While taking up such alternative careers such as dance, how important do you think is family support?
A. Family support is important because it enhances opportunities and eases the way but many like me have forged ahead despite objections.
Q. What kinds of transformation do you think have happened in the field of dance in India over time?
A. Classical dance goes back a long way. It has an extensively rich tradition which allows so much of free thinking and personal interpretations. Changes are an integral part of any living tradition which is why now we do not have the age-old gurukul system but state-of-the-art technology-driven classrooms where lessons are imparted through Skype or YouTube videos.
Q. So, what are you planning to do on Women’s Day?
A. A two-day festival, Woman, is scheduled to be held on 8 and 9 March. I will be showcasing my new Naatya Katha Stree on the eighth while two other dancers will present women-centric recitals on the ninth.
— Bhumika Popli
‘Stupid and scared people bash feminism’
Radhika Vaz is one of the earliest feminist voices in comedy and presently an author too. Her book, Unladylike, A Memoir is now widely-read. Her one-woman comedy specials — Unladylike: The Pitfalls of Propriety and Older. Angrier. Hairier. — are not only critically acclaimed but are also runaway successes globally. Living between New York and Mumbai, Radhika takes some time out to speak to Guardian 20 about the mass perception of womanhood in India ahead of Women’s Day.
Q. What is your take on Women’s Day? Is being a woman to be patronised and pedestal-ised or to be critiqued?
A. Look, it’s the same way I feel about Mother’s Day or Father’s Day or Sister’s Day — it’s sweet. Does it mean anything beyond that — maybe to some people it does, so I won’t rain on their parade! To me it means a few corporate companies will call to see if they can get me to perform (at the cheapest possible price, of course) and maybe some journalists (wink wink) will want to hear what I think. Do we patronise women in India? Of course we do! The whole “Mother India” thing bugs me. I hate it when creepy, middle-aged politicians call us their sisters. What is it with us that we can’t show respect to a woman unless she is related to you?
Q. Do you think the lopsided gender ratio in Indian comedy is leading to a rise in sexist jokes?
A. I think sexist jokes have been around since men learnt how to speak and that’s the truth. My question is: are sexist jokes our biggest problem? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with actual sexists? We keep voting them into power, keep allowing them to be CEOs, bow to them at family functions, yet one comedian cracks a joke and our knickers get
Q. Do you think more women should claim the comic platform? Often, it is said female comedians, in the name of feminism end up in cracking jokes which are simply male-bashing. What do you think?
A. I want all women to jump on this comedy bandwagon ASAP! Personally I don’t think female comedians focus on men that much in their acts, I don’t — I may focus on how things are different for men and women but that’s just because it’s the truth and comedians are supposed to shine a light on the facts. It’s just our job. Plus, lets not worry so much about men — I think most of them can take a little bashing don’t you? I mean we have to deal with female infanticide, sexual harassment, domestic violence, rape — give us a few jokes at least.
Q. Your series ‘Shugs and Fats’ deals with what it is like to be a Muslim and a woman. Do you think a hijab really restricts a woman?
A. I think anytime a woman has to do anything that she is not completely convinced of but is more conditioned to believe then it is a restriction. Forcing girls to marry and have babies is a restriction, telling them they can’t wear jeans is a restriction, telling them they are sluts if they have a boyfriend is a restriction. Every major religion has institutionalised control on women — religion is patriarchal by nature. Where are the women Bishops, Imams or temple priests? It’s pathetic.
Q. Feminism today is either a cuss word for the patriarchs or misunderstood as female domination of the private and the public space. Your views?
A. There are two groups of people who bash feminism — stupid people and scared people. Stupid people think it’s male bashing and a quest for female superiority, and the scared people are just afraid that their power will have to be shared. Both groups are annoying and need to be ignored.
— Srija Naskar
‘Women today are vibrant and bold’
Ritu Kumar is one of the most celebrated fashion designers in India and abroad. She was born in Mumbai and moved to New York later to study Art History. Coming back to India, she studied museology at University of Calcutta where her close association with cultural heritage of India helped her become one of the finest designers in the country.
Ritu’s label focusses on natural fabric, weaving techniques and traditional paintings. She has also worked on Banarasi Brocade saris. Starting her career in the fashion industry in Kolkata with two small tables, she soon became one of the most celebrated names in the world of fashion design. With her intrinsic work, she has inspired and is still inspiring upcoming fashion designers. In 2013, she was awarded the Padma Shri.
In conversation with Guardian 20, Ritu Kumar speaks about how her career spanned out in the apparel industry, over the last three decades.
Q. You have worked on Banarasi brocade saris for a long time. Saris are very close to Indian women but today, women are experimenting with sari gowns. Do you think these alterations are robbing Banarasi of its original charm?
A. Banarasi Brocade saris are evergreen. They are also most sought-after and most coveted owing to their lack of availability and exclusivity. With change in time and space, trends will also evolve but eventually everything wears out. But traditional saris will remain a charm always to everyone.
Q. What do you keep in mind when you design for the modern-day woman?
A. A modern-day woman is multi- faceted. She is independent and strong. Women today, while being feminine and graceful, are also vibrant and bold, and this should reflect in the way they dress, so that their attire accentuates their personality.
Q. Many a time it so happens that plus-size women do not find their preferred attire that fits. How do you address such issues?
A. A Ritu Kumar piece is designed to make the wearer feel comfortable and beautiful. Having said that, I feel a woman does not need to criticise or change or feel ashamed of any part of her body in order to fit into the brand’s clothes — what you are comfortable in is what should be in fashion, but what is always in vogue is, of course, the highest heel, the most uncomfortable trousers, the impossible dresses to get into.
Q. What are the challenges one needs to keep in mind when designing for plus-size women?
A. The silhouettes and colours are two primary elements when designing for women, be it any size. It is important to make women feel beautiful and confident in their own skin and this is what we aim at doing.
Q. Have you planned any collection for Women’s Day?
A. Our SS16 collection is all about celebrating womanhood and is now available at our stores. A range of dresses, skirts, jumpsuits, chic tops in seasonal fabrics with traditional embroidery and prints has given the entire collection a fresh new twist.
— Preeti Singh