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Opinion | How patriarchy inspires an artist

  • Jasmeen Patheja of Blank Noise tackles patriarchy with confrontational and healing art
  • Patheja recently received the Cittadellarte-Pistoletto Foundation and Zegna Foundation’s prestigious Visible award for her life’s work

Jasmeen Patheja was recently awarded by the Cittadellarte-Pistoletto Foundation and Zegna Foundation for her work on mobilizing women
Jasmeen Patheja was recently awarded by the Cittadellarte-Pistoletto Foundation and Zegna Foundation for her work on mobilizing women (Photo: Arvind Rajan)

The title of Blank Noise’s just-out podcast—Listen—could easily summarize its founder Jasmeen Patheja’s work over nearly two decades. For Patheja’s work revolves around listening and being heard.

In the first episode, on, people sit around in Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park and record their stories of abuse—many of them from childhood—and talk about how they have dealt or not dealt with their trauma and anger in the years since.

“The reactions from speaking out are so demoralizing," one woman says, adding that every time she shares the story of her abusive relationship, people invariably ask her the same question: “Why did you stay?" She wishes people would at least make the effort to google how to respond when someone shares their trauma.

Patheja, 40, just won the 2019 Visible Award by the Cittadellarte-Pistoletto Foundation and Zegna Foundation for her life’s work, which she started as part of her art school graduation project in 2003. She has been an artist-in-residence at her alma mater, the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru, since 2013. “As an art student, I would question where art lies beyond a gallery. Who builds art? Can art heal? Can it be confrontational?" says Patheja, who plans to use the award money to widen her ongoing, ambitious I Never Ask For It project.

As part of this project, women across India (and possibly even Nepal and Bangladesh) will walk on their city’s roads on 19 December, holding up garments worn when they experienced violence. Blank Noise has been organizing these walks since 2009 and over the years these have been christened Walking Towards Healing.

Patheja’s ideas have been honed from studying, listening and experiencing first-hand the impact of growing up in a deeply misogynistic society: When violence occurs, blame is most often firmly attached to the woman; blame and fear shadow a woman wherever she goes, from the workplace to the streets to her home; women are brought up on a steady dose of “if you do this, then that will happen".

Every woman is well acquainted with these two emotions and has already internalized them in her formative years thanks to her family. “As a result," says Patheja, “most experiences of sexual assault, violence, threat and intimidation have been silenced and untold."

It was when Blank Noise was having these conversations in 2004 that Patheja noticed women often referenced the clothes they were wearing when they had been assaulted. “Each garment is memory, witness and voice to the survivors’ experience of sexual assault," says Patheja, who wants to take 10,000 such garment stories to the Capital’s India Gate in 2023.

“Along with audio testimonies, they could be housed in a space that will become a living museum to end violence against women in India." She believes that when we are free of blame, we will be free of fear.

Patheja wants to replicate the idea in other parts of the world with a community of volunteers and collaborators she calls Action Sheroes—alternately identifying as Heroes or Theyroes: “As an artist/facilitator, I am listening in and facilitating the collective," Patheja says. “The ideas have no shape without those who participate."

Action Sheroes have always been key to everything Blank Noise does.

Patheja’s first encounter with patriarchy and pinning blame was a story she heard as a preteen. “I was told about a girl who fell in love with a Muslim man and how he took her to the Middle East and sold her. She became a prostitute. Her parents declared her dead and performed a puja to mark her death," she recalls being told.

It was only many years later that Patheja figured out the purpose of the story was to let her know what was forbidden—agency, love and the consequences of following one’s dream. As she listened to others, she realized an important truth: We are all survivors.

Alongside I Never Ask For It, the collaborative research project Reporting To Remember archives news reports that use blame to justify violence against women. Blank Noise reasons that when violence is justified, it is perpetuated, so this is a pledge to not forget.

Patheja has never had any shortage of creative ideas from the time she encountered street harassment when she moved to a new city to attend art school. She realized that though many experienced it, nobody talked about it because that would shine the spotlight on their fear. From everyday staples in a woman’s bag—safety pins, red chilli powder and cockroach spray—that doubled up as weapons of defence was born her online project, Museum Of Street Weapons Of Defence.

In Excuse Me? Compilation Of Misdirected Terms, she made lists of fruit names that women had been called, songs that had been sung to them and words that had been used to describe them. Another project, Step By Step Guide To Unapologetic Walking, is a list of things women needed to remember while walking—a note that we are proud of our bodies and will inhabit public spaces uninhibitedly.

Another ongoing campaign, Meet To Sleep, mobilized women to nap in public parks. It reiterated a key theme at Blank Noise—to meet one’s inner fears head on and to become part of a movement towards creating a safe environment. Blank Noise will revisit this campaign on 15 December.

Patheja and her band of Action Sheroes believe they have the right to trust strangers, the right to be free of fear and the right to walk under a starlit sky. They stand up for the right of every woman to be Akeli Awaara Azaad (on her own, unapologetic and free). They put this line on a T-shirt too.

Who says you can’t be inspired by patriarchy, especially the corrosive Indian version of it?

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

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