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Stage play about India gang rape meant to 'provoke and inspire'

The South African director Yael Farber says her play Nirbhaya, based on the gang rape of a Delhi student, is a call for lasting change.

The writer and director Yael Farber says violence against women is a worldwide problem. Cindy Ord / Getty Images
The writer and director Yael Farber says violence against women is a worldwide problem. Cindy Ord / Getty Images

Most Indians are believed to dislike foreigners commenting on their dirty linen. And nothing was dirtier than the gang rape of a young student in Delhi on December 16 last year. The tragedy plunged the nation into a period of soul searching and triggered revulsion around the world.

If anyone can take on such a sensitive issue, it's the South African writer and director Yael Farber, who is adapting the tragedy into a play to be shown first at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August and then in the Indian capital on December 16, a year to the day after the incident.

Farber is currently basking in acclaim for her production of August Strindberg's 19th-century drama Mies Julie in London. Critics praised the production, which is transported to post-apartheid South Africa, as a searing and fearless new version.

Her new play will be called Nirbhaya (Hindi for fearless), which was the name the Indian media gave the victim. The performance will include testimonies by Indian women about the sexual violence they have experienced. There will also be a kind of reconstruction of the attack by six men.

Reflecting on what prompted her to work on the play, Farber says: "Like the rest of the world, I was deeply affected by the rape. It's hard to say what it was precisely about this case that broke through the defence systems of numbness and indifference towards the staggering figures and brutal nature of sexual violence around the world. What matters is that it broke the barrier of indifference."

Farber, who lives in Montreal, says the silence surrounding sexual violence exists in many societies.

Many Indian women agree. "Get five women together in Delhi and at least two will talk of how they were abused or touched inappropriately by uncles, cousins and male relatives. It's shockingly common," says the New Delhi-based advertising executive Brinda Aggarwal.

Poorna Jagannathan, a Mumbai-based actress familiar with Farber's work, collaborated with Farber and is one of the producers of the play.

"Women are ready to speak here in India in the wake of [the woman's] death," she says. "It has broken the banks of what is tolerable. The silence is coming apart and there's an urgency to speak up."

Unlike many commentators outside India who depicted the country almost as a uniquely bad place for women after the rape, Farber thinks of violence against women as a global phenomenon.

"My native country has been called the rape capital of the world," she says. "India's sexual violence statistics are shameful. But so are America's and that of many European countries. Acid attacks are on the rise in Italy against women.

"I have no interest in making a piece that locates sexual violence in India alone and leaves the rest of the global community comfortable and relieved they are not dealing with the same issues. Violence against women and children is a global crisis."

In fact, at roughly the same time as the Delhi gang rape, a young South African woman was brutally raped, disembowelled and left for dead on a construction site. She died later in hospital.

Farber says she wants to build on the rage that broke out on Indian streets as people came out to express their horror and shame. She realises that this "righteous rage" will evaporate.

"This anger has to become action. It has to be taken forward or it creates an even greater sense of helplessness than before. If real change in the wake of Nirbhaya's death is not provoked, then something more horrifying will happen. It will take that much more brutality to break the sound barrier again," she says.

Farber has said she has no intention of sensationalising the story, but she is not afraid of criticism. Her desire is for a better safer world for her daughter - for every woman.

"For each artist involved in this project, we hope to provoke and inspire people to bring what they can - be it the simple act of talking about what has happened to you, your neighbour, your daughter, to stand up and say this happened and continues to happen every day at epidemic proportions around the world.

"We hope this work moves, inspires and can speak for enduring change. It's a call to arms."


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