The more things change

Tanvir Alim | Published: 00:00, Aug 09,2020

Tanvir Alim, Spectrum of Choice, Bonhishikha, Mondro

An online show titled ‘Spectrum of Choice’ took place on July 3 and July 18, 2020 which was a joint production of Bonhishikha and Mondro. Attending the show and talking with the organisers, Tanvir Alim writes about the initiative

‘HOWEVER, I do have dreams of living with the person I love for the rest of my life. Picking those right shades for the curtains together, going shopping for dinner set with a nice flower design, arguing over where to place the bed — yes, in my future I want to have all these things. I want to have babies with my partner and raise them to be great human beings. I want to attend those office events and the never-ending dawats with my partner and introduce her to everyone. I have a traditional view of the future of us. And I wish with all my heart that it becomes true despite knowing that it never will. Not here. Not with my family. Not with this society we live in.’ — The Future of Us

This was a piece written and submitted by a young woman who wrote the piece reflecting her feelings and fears of making future decisions with her girlfriend, at the possible expense of losing her family when they found out. I was talking to Chenoa and Shararat, who lead the  performance planning and coordination of the online show titled ‘Spectrum of Choice’ where the content is shaped by the locals for the locals. The production is based on a collection of true stories and experiences faced by different identities in Bangladesh.

The online show took place on July 3 and July 18, 2020 which was a joint production of Bonhishikha and Mondro. When most of the cultural initiatives are resisting the present, according to a performer Rajani Raoja, ‘Spectrum of Choice is the first Bangladeshi theatre that breaks the norm of conventional stage performance by addressing the taboos in a hilarious manner. It deals with the topics that really matter and should be addressed loudly in our society. Our traditional theatre hardly put lights over the issues and sometimes they are reluctant to bring an entertaining approach to activism. In that way, Spectrum of Choice is really a unique and a breakthrough during the pandemic.’

Just like previous productions by Bonhishikha, the initiative starts from planning the scripts and content are written around case studies, interviews and collected life experiences of local Dhaka, and semi urban areas of Bangladesh.

A mid-30s female viewer mentioned that she had no idea women could masturbate. Bonhishikha team was not unfamiliar with this skewed viewpoint of the audience and by acknowledging that they had been looking to write about sex, sexuality and identities for some time. The organising team started researching last year on specific topics like marital rape, transgender people’s lives, dating and sex education. The pieces have come together through cases collected from researchers, online surveys and interviews to capture personal experiences of people, which shaped the writing process. They also held writing workshops with those interested and collected reflections from participants on relevant topics, like body image and self-awareness about their own sexualities. Chenoa said, ‘When starting the research for our marital rape piece, we approached people working on these areas, and BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health reached out to share cases that they have worked with. We were given a group of case studies, with which we wrote the script around three of these experiences.’

Bonhishikha also collaborated closely with Mondro to identify and highlight stories about the challenges and judgments faced by anyone who does not look or behave or feel in the socially prescribed manners.

Bonhishikha has been able to create a safe place for all contributors and performers where they can express themselves without being judged for whom they are or their beliefs. That created a sense of comradeship within all and every year they are seeing new people joining voluntarily.

This year the production consisted of twenty four performers, fifteen of the actors have participated in the past productions. The nine new performers volunteered to audition through Bonhishikha Facebook audition calls and within their personal networks, many with no prior acting or performance experience. Many others also signed up to help with logistics, communications and planning.

All of the performers are volunteers from a variety of backgrounds. There were students, artists, professionals in their fields, activists and home makers. This year’s show was addressing sex, sexuality and to identify the advantages and disadvantages felt by all genders. They had a wonderful mix of age groups, work areas, gender and sexual identities among our performers this year. ‘The shows so far had three transgender performers, performers who identify as non-binary, cisgender, queer, married, single and divorced, parents and child-free performers. The common thread between everyone is the desire to be a part of positive change’ said Shararat.

The group managed to meet three times before the pandemic reached Bangladesh. The rehearsal process changed. As they could not get together anymore, they began virtual rehearsals. Coming together in full groups every Saturday, and doing rehearsals in smaller groups during the weeks. ‘The funniest memory from this year’s rehearsals was everyone laughing every time one performer whose character was married at 16 said his line, “My wife is the only woman I will ever have sex with ….. until the day I die!” You have to watch the show to relate!’ said Chenoa. 

We talked with one of the viewers who said that the content was too slanted towards upper or upper middleclass life stories where they could have taken note. She mentioned about a particular visual clue where the character was wearing only a t-shirt without pants which is not easy to relate with many families in Bangladesh.

As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her lecture ‘Critical Writing Ensembles’ said, ‘And exceed the totality to bring in the incalculable dangerousness of the broadest human reality who cannot respond towards in English and read the books written in English and talk about the West..’, Shararat said, ‘Yes we do know that the show being performed entirely in English, limits our audience a bit. But then again, Spectrum of Choice is not for public yet, due to security and cultural sensitivity reasons. Bonhishikha aims to create a platform for everyone to talk about issues with gender that is usually not discussed. But we also need to consider that we do not put performers and our team at risk or in any uncomfortable situation while doing so. So we start with limited groups and see the reactions, then we slowly take it to the mass.’

The show took place twice online and obviously that brings out the question of internet accessibility and privilege. When asked about this matter, Shararat assured that individual members of Bonhishikha are working from their separate areas of work to communicate more with rural communities. Also, younger people, even in rural areas of Bangladesh, are more connected online in many ways, and this might actually be a time to reach out to them more. Accesses to certain communities, especially to women have always been difficult, so they are always looking for innovative ways to reach out and communicate to them.

They do have plans to reach a wider audience in future. The group can take the full show or parts of it into different communities and spaces depending on how the social scene changes through the pandemic and post-pandemic times. Shararat added, ‘As with our past performances, there is the scope in the future to perform pieces of this production in Bangla, in different spaces. The objective is to talk about choice, and thus to encourage tolerance. We recognise it is not going to be one giant step, but rather small steps starting from small circles.’

Bonhishikha uses theatre as a means to educate and break societal norms and expectations through promoting gender equality. Gender violence is strongly integrated to patriarchal views and power dynamics that are perpetuated in our society. Breaking these norms going beyond just talking about the binaries of gender, and sexuality is so strongly intertwined with gendered views. This show intends to talk about a lot of these topics, which are still rarely spoken about openly. Violence cannot be eradicated unless we acknowledge its roots in our social norms, and using violence as a way to ensure everyone sticks to these rules. Bonhishikha talks about how these rules are actually harmful, constrict individual’s choices in life, and are in fact a form of violence perpetuated on people.

However Rajani Raoja thinks, ‘Some pieces of the show like one on marital rape was able to touch the bottom of my heart but the others failed to do so. Some of the writings required research as they only show the consequences but not discuss the actual facts behind the incidents. I think it is also important to speak out about the roots of these taboos and stigmatisation rather beating the bush again and again. At times I was confused if it is a show to please the elite allies or to support the unrepresented minorities.’

Though there is confusion around the target audience, language, initiating an online ticketed event during COVID-19 and representing the marginalised, Shakil Ahmed who performed with the team before resonated, ‘It is not sufficient to change laws and policies to create a world that is inclusive of people from multiple gender and sexual backgrounds and perspectives. Storytelling is foundational to shape mind-sets and worldviews, the ones that shape our systems in the first place, moving from mind-sets that perpetuate violence and divisiveness to those that embrace and respect difference and inclusivity. Spectrum of Choice, in my experience creates a space for people to engage in such storytelling as both viewers and performers.’ 

Such initiatives certainly help people to ponder and reflect because it is showing people what experiences we go through every day. A lot of time, we do not see how we behave or deal with others and Bonhishikha performances bring out those elements in front of you as it is based on all true experiences. Many viewers have shared with Bonhishikha that the performances helped them to rethink and reflect, not only about how they have faced similar situations, but also about making them realise how they might have behaved insensitively with others too.

Tanvir Alim is an independent researcher and activist.

More about:

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email