The public life of women5 min read . Updated: 27 Oct 2016, 05:00 PM IST
Why this story of a busker and a film-maker performing on the streets of Sri Lanka, India and Nepal is universal
Till recently Aditi Veena, a 27-year-old independent musician and architect, was busking—employing public spaces like streets and gardens to perform music—across three countries. Her preoccupation with public spaces and the role of an artist in a city, however, dates back to when she was studying architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi. “When I was in college, my thesis was about performing in public spaces. In fact, I was designing spaces for public performing arts," says Veena.
After graduating in 2014, she went to Sri Lanka to work with architect Amila de Mel. A singer, she also performed at various places in the country. During one such performance in Galle earlier this year, Veena met Lakshya Dhungana, a Canadian documentary film-maker of Nepalese origin whose work focuses on issues related to women’s rights.
“Lakshya wanted to make a film on catcalling," says Veena. The two decided to travel across India, Sri Lanka and Nepal to document how people would respond to a woman musician taking to the streets and singing. While Veena sang, Dhungana documented people’s reactions on film. This marked the beginning of their unique collaborative project, which sought to address the issues of access, the rarity of street performances in cities, and people’s engagement with their own neighbourhoods.
With a guitar, a portable amplifier, a mic and a projector in tow, Veena and Dhungana wandered in the evenings through the lanes and by-lanes of Weligama, Delhi, Sonauli, Pokhara and Lumbini, with the intention of performing for anyone who was willing to lend them an ear. As they performed, they posted videos and photos on Instagram and Tumblr with the hashtag #StreetsForUs. Veena would pitch herself at a spot, croon and strum her guitar, while Dhungana projected the beautiful visuals of Sri Lanka she had shot on to a screen.
The songs, written and composed by Veena, are now part of an album titled Poetry Ceylon that Veena is recording; it’s scheduled to release in February.
In Sri Lanka, the performances received a mixed response. The language barrier—the locals mostly knew Sinhalese and Tamil, while Veena sang in English, a language she’s most comfortable in—meant that the experience was somewhat lost in translation. “I couldn’t understand them and they couldn’t understand me, but everyone enjoyed the music," she says. “I played near beaches and people were happy to stand and listen." The crowd was respectful.
In India, it was not. “While Bombay was a complete disaster—Lakshya almost got arrested for taking out her tripod to film me—Delhi was really hostile," Veena recalls. In June, while performing at Vasant Vihar’s Priya market, the singer-songwriter met with raised brows and quizzical expressions from passers-by.
“A woman walked up to me and said, ‘Why are you playing here? This is not a safe place. Go to a café or someplace to perform.’" As it became darker, passers-by, mostly men, began swarming around her. Some hurled lewd comments in her direction. “One of them tried to snatch the mic away from me, another looked at me and said, ‘Achha gaati hai, tu achi cheez hai,’" Veena says. When Dhungana approached the police for help, she was admonished. “Instead of shooing away the goons, the police turned around and told us, ‘Bandh karo yeh band-baaja (Stop this nonsense)!’" Within minutes, the two packed their bags and left.
A few years ago, Suryakant Sawhney, of the band Peter Cat Recording Co., busked in Delhi. He performed at Khan Market, Defence Colony and Nehru Place. Interestingly, no one bothered him. “A lot of people, in fact, gave me money," he recalls. “Someone even offered me tea. People were quite friendly—they were more curious as to what I was doing." I asked him if he was harassed by the police at any point. He wasn’t.
Things were better in Nepal for Veena and Dhungana. While waiting for a bus at Sonauli, the two requested a policeman to allow them to perform. He agreed eventually. “In fact, he called others to help us out! They helped us tie a bedsheet on the bus-stand poles for the projection of visuals and happily allowed us to perform," Veena says. Locals gathered, applauding at the end of every song. When the bus arrived, the policeman quickly bundled up everything and helped the women pack, so that they could board it on time.
In comparison to Nepal and Sri Lanka, Veena’s experiences in India point to a larger concern: the inaccessibility of public spaces to women in cities like Delhi and Mumbai. In their book Why Loiter?: Women And Risks On Mumbai Streets, authors Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade explore the exclusion of women from the streets and how women reconcile to this by always entering public space with a sense of purpose: “One rarely sees (women) sitting in a park, standing at a street corner smoking or simply watching the world go by as men might…"
A woman busking on the streets is clearly considered to be a woman loitering.
“I am not saying that I alone can change the mindset of people. Delhi is a huge city, but this is not just about being a musician, it’s more about being a human being and a citizen. I feel that if there are more people on the streets at night, especially women, the city would be a lot safer," says Veena.
Like #StreetsForUs, other campaigns too have fought for women’s access to public spaces. In New Delhi, the “Pinjra Tod" movement led by Delhi University students demands freedom from hostel curfews and other practices that curb the mobility of students, especially women students. In Bengaluru, Jasmeen Patheja established Blank Noise 13 years ago. It recently launched the #WalkAlone campaign to encourage women to head out in public by themselves. Women from across the subcontinent have been posting photographs on social media, challenging the socially enforced dependency on men.
Across the border in Pakistan, Sadia Khatri founded “Girls At Dhabas" in 2015—it began as a series of Instagram posts by Khatri exploring the street corners, dhabas and parks of Karachi, alone and with friends. This snowballed into a larger movement when women from countries like Bangladesh and India began uploading photographs of their activities in traditionally “male-dominated" spaces, like sitting at dhabas and drinking tea.
#StreetsForUs, of course, is not confined to addressing gender alone. Its goal is also to invite artists, irrespective of their gender, to perform, engage and interact with the city and its inhabitants to showcase their work. “Today, people are more involved with themselves, with their phones—there is no communication with each other, with our surroundings and our neighbourhoods. It’s time that we revisit the culture of street performances. Music is universally enjoyable and I don’t understand why we can’t start there," says Veena.