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It’s There To Stay: Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal On The Vagina Monologues

“Let’s just start with the word “vagina.” It sounds like an infection at best, maybe a medical instrument: “Hurry nurse, bring me the vagina.” “Vagina.” “Vagina.” Doesn’t matter how many times you say it, it never sounds like a word you want to say. It’s a totally ridiculous, completely unsexy word. If you use it during sex, trying to be politically correct — “Darling, could you stroke my vagina?” — you kill the act right there.”

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Eve Ensler ‘s The Vagina Monologues is a revolutionary play which continues to empower women around the world by normalising their body, by giving them agency, by speaking out about insecurities and injustices which they might not dare voice in real life.

Article by Amrita Paul | She The People

Having performed over 1000 shows in 17 years, actor and director Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal has played an important role in making the play accessible to Indian audiences. When she had watched the play for the first time in the US, she was “simply blown away by the power of the piece and its effect on the 1,500 people in the audience.”

The intent behind writing this seminal piece is so pure and brutally honest, that it resonates not with just the female gender, but even the males who come to the performance.

Kotwal is now planning seven shows in April which will be performed over two days at the Prithvi Theatre to celebrate the play’s 17th anniversary in India and also shed a spotlight on two global movements, V-Day and One Billion Rising which the play’s company, Poor-Box Productions, first brought to India.

The actor feels that The Vagina Monologues speaks to everyone – “The intent behind writing this seminal piece is so pure and brutally honest, that it resonates not with just the female gender, but even the males who come to the performance.”

She further adds, “With a variety of the great actors I have been blessed to have in my cast, each actor imparts her own perception of how the piece she is doing should be approached.”

With a variety of the great actors I have been blessed to have in my cast, each actor imparts her own perception of how the piece she is doing should be approached.

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There have been many challenges over the years, like finding actors at first, lack of sponsors, and many theatres, even today, not allowing the play to be performed.

“But we continue with the support of our audiences, many of whom come repeatedly and leave us with their own stories in our comment books, and also personally. We have also done 10 shows for women in the past totally free, in collaboration with the NGO SNEHA in Dharavi. A special show was done for 1,200 policewomen at the request of the then police commissioner, Mr Mariah. Many women have narrated life-changing experiences after seeing a performance of the play.”

Has Kotwal seen the gender dynamics and the reaction to violence against women change over the years that she’s been performing the play? Have things in any way changed for the better?

“The most important issue this play has tackled is that women these days have been openly talking about abuse, whether it is physical, emotional or mental and are trying to seek legal or public protection. The ‘vagina’ is no longer a ‘dirty’ word for many, as it should not be… I am told that a group of men now mentor other men to stop this abuse.”

The ‘vagina’ is no longer a ‘dirty’ word for many, as it should not be… I am told that a group of men now mentor other men to stop this abuse.

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The thespian has also started hosting Empathy Meetings since August 2018 to provide a platform for women’s life stories to be heard out of empathy and not sympathy. It all started with her putting out a simple Facebook post and a number of women turned up. She informs, “There is no judgement and the stories are not to be shared beyond the four walls of the room we meet. Not everyone has a sorrowful take…we have many who come to empathise. The women tell their stories without fear of being censured. Some stories are also about how senior citizens are being harassed.

It’s a wonderful little group. The tag line of this group is SHARE, SUPPORT, SURVIVE. There are no fees or hidden charges. I have received so much support and affection myself, that this was one way I wanted to give back to society, what it has given me in abundance.”

Coming back to The Vagina Monologues, the rate at which the play is being accepted and helping victims of assault or violence, Kotwal doesn’t see it ending in the near future. She says, “We would like to take this play to high schools and colleges. Only one school had us perform the entire play with Classes 11 and 12 and then we had two days of intensive workshops with those students. We would also like to cover more bastis throughout Bombay.  So, yes. The Vagina Monologues looks like it’s there to stay.”