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How to create liberating spaces for women in theatre

Irawati Karnik, who recently took charge as the academic head of Drama School Mumbai, hopes to carve our better and safer spaces for women in theatre

A scene from the play, ‘Chapa Kata’ written by Irawati Karnik
A scene from the play, ‘Chapa Kata’ written by Irawati Karnik

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Earlier this month, award-winning playwright, director and actor Irawati Karnik took charge as the academic head of Drama School Mumbai—its executive head also happens to be a woman, Ekta Doshi. The Mumbai-based practitioner sees her appointment as an opportunity to attempt systemic change and hopes to create better and safer working conditions for women in theatre.

She is not the first woman in the field to make a mark—earlier role models include Arundhati Nag, Sanjna Kapoor, Anuradha Kapoor, Sameera Iyengar. Not to forget Veenapani Chawla (of Adishakti) and theatre critic Shanta Gokhale. But Karnik’s rise to a seat of power could signal new and definite shifts. “Consistent institutional change is important; getting to make changes from inside an institution can make them systemic,” she says.

Karnik, whose work in English, Hindi and Marathi has won several awards, including the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar and the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards, has been associated with Drama School Mumbai, the brainchild of theatre practitioner Jehan Manekshaw, for some years. She has worked with it off and on and helped set up a dramaturgy department.

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Nor is this the first time she has been offered the role. “Jehan asked me a few years ago but back then I was solely focused on my practice,” says Karnik. Over the last couple of years, though, many things have changed. For one, her priorities. She doesn’t mind taking a slight step back from her practice to focus on young theatre practitioners. “To get to shape how students think about art and politics in the current climate is a huge opportunity. It also feels good to be able to shape the narrative instead of simply responding to it,” she adds.

Though theatre, as a field, has always been relatively more inclusive, Karnik hopes she can steer fundamental change in the industry. “I see so many women making work over the last 10 years. But they still get slotted as female writers and directors and not simply writers and directors. We have all fallen into a pattern of looking at work made by men as more important,” she says.

She believes that giving women decision-making positions can lead to newer styles of management and safer workspaces. At Drama School Mumbai, which does have in place a committee to prevent sexual harassment, Karnik is all set to start intimacy training, for both students and staff, this year. 

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“It’s about how actors and performers can take care of themselves in a rehearsal space, how directors can run a safe rehearsal space, and how other supporting artists can call out instances when they notice something. Not only does this equip them with tools but it also gives them the vocabulary to express discomfort,” she says.

Leadership positions, believes Karnik, tend to have a ripple effect on power equations. “That is a liberating space for younger women to step into,” she says.

Prachi Sibal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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