By Saptarshi Chakraborty
Rajnandini Ghosh, 21, looks a little lost as she stands waiting with a host of unknown faces in front of the New Empire Cinema, Calcutta. This is going to be the first time she will be a part of a something called a Blank Noise intervention. Yes, she believes ‘eve-teasing’ is a crime. But can she possibly make a difference? Looking around, she sees smiling faces bubbling with enthusiasm. There’s Dana Roy, young theatre person and activist, trying to explain to the group a possible mode of action. This is a part of an all-India intervention that is happening in all major cities of India on the occasion of Women’s Day. There are opinion poll posters, stamp pads, colour pens, glue bottles, tapes, cameras and stickers that say ‘I NEVER ASK FOR IT’.
It’s 5:15 in the afternoon, the date is March 8, 2008, and the crowd of New Market hoppers gets thicker by the minute. Rajnandini feels the excitement building up.
In the late ’90s, Jasmeen Patheja was a student of La Martiniere for Girls’ in Calcutta – always travelling by car, never really having to avail of the public transport, and with caring parents to guide her through. When at age 19, however, she shifted to Bangalore to attend the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, she found a different kind of unpleasant reality waiting to welcome her. “I enjoyed wandering around the city with my camera and taking photographs. I did not necessarily walk in the company of my peers,” recalls Jasmeen, adding that very soon, “I realized that I had a new wardrobe – clothes I considered ‘modest’, a new attitude on the street ‘ fierce and aggressive’. I had encounters such as being followed for 15 kilometers by a stalker who wanted to ‘ask me out for coffee’; or being groped by a male stranger and when I called for help, there were several spectators but none willing to come forward in assistance. The threat of being sexually harassed every time I was out of home and then labeling this invasion of my privacy with such an innocuous term as ‘eve-teasing’ made me realize that this is an offence that has often been ignored or trivialized.”
Staying alone in a new city made her feel more vulnerable to the situation where there was no ‘home’ to run back to. But what bothered Jasmeen the most was the attitude of nonchalance displayed towards street sexual harassment. “When I would discuss it with my peers, there was a normalcy attached to it. Reactions varied between ‘Yes, it happens everyday’ or ‘It’s normal’, and complete denial, like asking, ‘how come this happens only to you?’” she recounts, “but I knew it was never just my problem.”
As a student of the arts, Jasmeen was always interested in artistic practice that could be inclusive and could heal. The first step towards a plan she had in mind was taken in August 2003, when she did an exercise of asking a group of over 60 girls from Srishti to make a mind map with the words public-space. In less than 10 minutes, the blackboard was covered with negative associations such as “fear”, “vulnerable”, “invasion”, “anonymity” and “feeling sick inwards”. This provided Jasmeen the basis to a college project she proposed, dealing with street sexual harassment.
Once again, the response to the idea was not positive. Only nine women agreed to participate in the project. The rest felt it was “normal” or that “not a big deal” – almost as if street sexual abuse is so expected that it should be accepted as well. The immediate denial towards eve teasing as an issue fired Jasmeen even more to go ahead with the project.
Under her facilitation, a 3-month-long process of workshop began.
It’s 5:15 in the afternoon and almost all the volunteers have arrived. Dibyajyoti Ghosh and Dhruva Ghosh are scouring for spots in the busy shopping street to put up the opinion poll posters. The ink pads are to go with the posters. Blue and red stamp pads. Each woman volunteer carries a bunch of letters, each neatly folded,
bearing her testimonial to one incident of street sexual harassment she has faced. The volunteers gather in a circle and finalize the last-moment details and instructions. The stickers go up on their clothes – ‘I NEVER ASK FOR IT’. They are already drawing attention from curious bystanders and shoppers who come up with questions. An initial dialogue starts.
“I was a bit taken aback by the initial reactions of denial, but I gradually came to learn that this was precisely the biggest issue about street sexual harassment – the normalcy and acceptance given to it,” explains Jasmeen.
The first phase of the Blank Noise Project, therefore, had to with victim-hood. Jasmeen began with a series of workshops, exploring the public and private identities of the nine women she was working with. The collective participatory experience evolved into an installation that included video, sound and photographs.
The next phase involved public confrontation. With a grant from Sarai and support from Srishti, Jasmeen envisioned Blank Noise as a participatory, public art project where she could take the issue to the streets.
How was Blank Noise the art school project different from Blank Noise the public project? There was no fixed strategy, says Jasmeen, going on to explain, “The school project was a start – where I was trying to understand the issue through me and nine others. It started as a participatory art project and has evolved to becoming more inclusive – public and participatory. I started blogging in 2005. Blank Noise gradually started becoming a place for people to initiate conversation about street sexual harassment. This was the first step. This meant more people, testimonials, realities, stories, exchange. The scale keeps changing, growing and bringing in a diverse set of realities.”
At present Blank Noise has members from various walks of life – including college students, performance artists, researchers and young professionals – who contribute to different aspects of the project. There are working chapters in a number of Indian cities like Bangalore, Calcutta, Chennai, Delhi and Hyderabad and Mumbai. The interest keeps growing, as several people from Patna, Indore, Lucknow, Chandigarh and even across the border from Lahore have offered to volunteer and started spreading the word, creating a group that can initiate a Blank Noise chapter for their city. The members of each city chapter meet regularly and debate on the issue of street sexual harassment through role-plays, counter questionings and “questioning the very question”, as Calcutta member Anuj Dasgupta puts it.
Speaking from Lahore, volunteer Mina Malik Hussain, talks about why she chose to be a part of Blank Noise, “What I like is that it (Blank Noise) is dynamic, evolving and open to ideas. It’s very creative and real – it’s honest and deals with something so important and essential in a non-offensive way.’
Malik continues with her experiences on starting a Blank Noise chapter in her city. ‘It’s begun on a tiny, tiny level, with me. I had a meeting where only one person showed up, but I’ve spoken to people who are interested… the clothes project is particularly doable. I am very keen that it takes off – maybe a travelling clothes project?’
The “clothes project” Malik is talking about is a part of the ongoing I Did Not Ask for It campaign of Blank Noise, one that involves the collection of clothes that women got harassed in and putting up installations of the collected clothes at crucial public spots in each city – an attempt to drive home the point that to be eve-teased, a woman does not necessarily have to be “dressed to provoke.”
As the clock strikes 5:30, the women volunteers start slowly dispersing in different directions and taking their positions. They stand silently, away from one another in the growing crowd, each holding a bunch of testimonial letters. The intervention has begun.
The passers-by look on, sometimes stopping to ask questions. Some of them are given a testimonial. The opinion poll posters are already up with the inkpads next to them. The parking lot regulars, some of whom have already been briefed by the volunteers, take their turns to explain to curious bystanders about what is going on. The small family on a Sunday evening outing stops to talk to one of the volunteers. The boyfriend taking his girlfriend out on a movie date slows down to accept a folded piece of paper reached out towards them by a lady smiling at both of them. Reactions on reading the testimonials are varied and complex – they range from amusement, embarrassment to outright expressions of shock and anger. Every stare is returned with a smile, friendly but held firmly in position. Why would a woman flinch to smile at a general crowd of strangers at a public place?
After Bangalore, Delhi was the second city to have its own Blank Noise chapter. How did the first strangers come to Blank Noise? The process started with bloggers, says Jasmeen. Sometimes there were people responding from group mailing lists. Once the press started covering the project, it also reached a non-blogging audience. But Blank Noise would not have been possible without the vast scope of networking provided by the internet, agrees Jasmeen.
“There were friends too”, she adds, ‘People like Smriti Chanchani and Umang Bhattacharya who would show up at Blank Noise events – performing or helping with documentation. The faculty at Srishti has also been very supportive, sending in interested students from the foundation year!’
Abigail Crisman, one of the active members of the Blank Noise Project (BNP) in Delhi, currently based in Bloomington, Indiana, got to know about Blank Noise when Jasmeen and the author Annie Zaidi did a presentation at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Journalist Hemangini Gupta, another key member of BNP Delhi, got involved with the project when she once covered a BNP intervention for The Hindu in 2005.
What attracted them to Blank Noise? ‘It is unusual in its approach. It’s technique appealed to me and worked for me as I did the Y R U LOOKING AT ME intervention. It was a way to get involved with a larger issue in a way that wasn’t traditionally “activist”’, points out Hemangini.
Annie Zaidi, renowned author and member of BNP Mumbai, says, ‘I like that it is personally empowering too, not just working towards a larger, abstract social goal. I like that it takes the problem of the streets to the streets. I like that it uses art, photographic and graphic and performative and sound, and that it is all mixed up and taken into public spaces. I am especially drawn to it because it involves my head too and forces me to think and rethink positions.”
Poorna Banerjee, young professional and a member of BNP Calcutta puts it very aptly, “I like it because it does not intimidate and yet makes a statement.”
A few of the passers-by come forward to join the ongoing intervention. One by one the participants walk up to the opinion poll posters, stopping to put their thumb impressions at the appropriate slots. They are followed by others, and some more. More curious questions. More reactions. More people joining in.
Rajnandini is in full charge of the situation now. You could not miss the glow in her face. “I had been to the busy corners of New Market endless times before, always cautious of not bumping into people, avoiding deliberate nudges and wishing of not being stared at,” she confesses later, on the way of recounting her experiences of the evening. “But 8th March was my day. As I stood there giving out testimonials and pamphlets, as I walked with so many like me, blowing the whistle, I almost felt I was the queen of the street. It was my street and I could be whatever I wanted.”
A resounding “Yes!” comes from Jasmeen if asked whether Blank Noise plans to become an NGO in the future. She goes on to elaborate on her stand, “Blank Noise collects testimonials and then shares them. This hearing of testimonials brings people together. To be more effective now we are looking at some backend administrative tasks while also continuing to create debates in public.
“We don’t believe that one policy change, one street intervention, or one media report can change the world. We have to address the issue from multiple avenues over a period of time. Eve-teasing is a societal issue, has its roots in patriarchy, and reflects in films and our popular culture.
“Blank Noise is interventionist, and critically reflective of the issue of street sexual harassment. It seeks to confront, and create communities through public art. Blank Noise works with people through performance, blogging, and street interventions.
This is a public art project seeking to address eve teasing. There are several ways to address an issue and we choose the language of public and community art.
“We are proposing to initiate a transformation, start the dialogue, through recurring public events, public participation and collaborations. We are looking at communicating through participation, and with policy-makers as well.”
The clock strikes 6:30. The intervention comes to an end with participants blowing whistles to signal the closing. The opinion poll posters are now polka-dotted with blue and red thumb prints – thumb prints that bear testimony to the fact that street sexual harassment exists. It happens everywhere, to everyone, and in every form. The participants gather at a nearby café to discuss the day’s events and share their experiences. An important part of every intervention is documentation of the events and the criticism/feedback. The one-and-a-half-year-old son of Sunayana Roy, affectionately called the Bhablet, is arguably the youngest member present at this meeting, listening intently as the adults start on their discussion. There are fun moments where everyone laughs. There are heated debates. But the experiences linger. Each intervention is a revelation to the self. A challenge more to oneself than to the world outside.
“Street sexual harassment is something that has always been there. Maybe I thought nothing would ever change it. I even had a discussion about how difficult it is to change the mindset of people more than anything else. But that day gave me a new reason to think again.”
“I held my head high that evening. I stared back at people who stared at me. It felt so very liberating. As I walked back home that day I wanted to go back and live those moments again”, concluded Rajnandini, smiling.
The Blank Noise Project can be reached at its website http://blog.blanknoise.org/