A manifesto for SKUM
- SKUM is a bold production holds a feminist lens over the directives given in the Kama Sutra
- It was staged at DRIFT, an international theatre festival in Dharamshala
Urvi Vora is adjusting her sari as the audience starts walking in. It lies in folds around her as she struggles with the pleats, trying to get them in line. Her blouse, loosely fitted, is completely exposed. Most Indian women would either turn their backs to the audience or pull the palla over their chest. But Vora nonchalantly continues her efforts to drape the sari. As they enter, audiences often tend to believe the doors have opened too soon. That they have caught her unawares. For, unlike others who might be caught midway draping a sari, she continues to face the audience. Letting it dawn on them that she has planned it this way.
She climbs on to the stark stretcher-like bed placed behind her. Below it is a sign that reads: “Look. Don’t touch lights up". Vora, a Delhi-based contemporary dancer and researcher, then strikes up a series of poses that flow fluidly. There is silence in the room—like me, the others in the audience are both mesmerized and mystified.
Vora is performing the SKUM Manifesto at DRIFT (the Dharamsala Residential and International Festival for Theatre). SKUM, incidentally, expands to Society against the Kama Sutra and Uncouth Men.
When her contortion-routine is over, the 24-year-old addresses the audience, telling us about her research on the Kama Sutra. Her voice is soft, and her tone self-deprecatory. Showing a glimpse of postcards that depict erotic poses from temple sculptures, she explains that they are her flash cards, to help her remember sections of Vatsyayana’s text that are required for her performance. She needs 20 volunteers. Sometimes she manages with 15, she explains. At times 10 too, “but that is no fun", and lesser than that “is really boring".
The audience shifts uneasily. We are a motley group of tourists, Indian and foreign, a few locally based NGO volunteers, and a sprinkling of the organizers. Finally, hands go up. Six, then 10 “Ah", Vora says, handing out the cards, “How lovely, we have 20."
I have not put up my hand. There is the sneaking suspicion that volunteers will have to strike poses to complement the text in the cards, and my social conditioning about indulging in public demonstrations of a sexual nature hold me back. But Vora only wants the volunteers to read out the cards, numbered 1-20, in that order.
She is back on the “bed". The text on the first card dictates the ideal position a female body must adopt to allow complete penetration. Vora assumes the pose. Legs in air, sari carefully tucked in between. The audience tenses, but as the cards are read one after the other, there is laughter at the assembly of it all.
Vora achieves the poses with fluidity. Her movements combine yoga with dance, assuming seemingly impossible positions with grace, complemented by a hint of humour. By card No.10, every instruction is met with laughter, every pose with applause. Careless of clothes now, Vora’s legs rise high up to reveal her thighs. She adopts animal poses and mews like a cat, moos like a cow, and bends to mimic a deer. The room is rocking with laughter. Suddenly, the Kama Sutra has become a source of pure humour.
By the end of the show, Vora has got volunteers on board, mooing and mewing in chorus; she has changed from sari and blouse into T-shirt and shorts in full view of the audience; “taken a break" to drink water; performed a song and dance routine with a handheld mike, gone back on to the bed and repeated the poses wearing shorts.
There is no doubt about the spoofy quality of the show. Kama Sutra as comedy. And yet, is it? Vora’s SKUM Manifesto (2017) is a manifesto that forces the audience to think.
“My interest in making this performance arose after reading feminist manifestos," says Vora. “And an image of a tired feminist kept coming back to me. Reading the many versions of the Kama Sutra, I thought it was like a manifesto. The instructions for sexual positions were given with a finality, and almost always were about ensuring pleasure for the male. I was intrigued by the idea of taking a manual written by a man, and putting a woman’s body to interpret and contradict it." There is no tentative tone in her voice as she expounds on her theme, “That was to make the proposition more communicative, to put the audience at ease."
Vora is still exploring whether a vulnerable, unsure woman who is searching for the real meaning of feminism can create a manifesto. “Putting a vulnerable body in front" is her way of trying to discover, through audience reactions, who she is—is she capable of writing a manifesto?
Through her performance, Vora sees how she empowers the audience, and takes back the power, creating a dialogue of give and take. “There is a tension created while reading out the cards and the absurdity of the poses the instructions lead to. It is about creating an experience, vulnerability, being scared, taking agency, being taken seriously even when one is unsure of oneself in the process of creating a manifesto."
The show is still work in progress, she says. She conceived it two years ago while studying dance anthropology in London. Vora felt the environment in India, with the #MeToo movement, would provide the perfect backdrop. Her research had included sculptures from Khajuraho, photo archives of sex workers in Mumbai, the British Museum, “all explorations in stillness", and that gave her the format of being a museum object to be looked at, not touched. “I chose the visual postcards, edited the arrangement of the Kama Sutra texts to flow for a performance," she says.
“I wanted to create an experience. It would be so interesting if a woman could go home and think about her body differently. There are, of course, conservatives in the audience who imagine a woman’s body very differently and I would want them to rethink that as well, by creating a different experience of a body."
Of course, the show gets reactions. There are sleazy men, “usually two in every show", who send lewd messages. Then, there are those who are “not shocked by my poses, but that I am so nonchalant about exposing my body. During some shows, for a split second as I remove my blouse and pull on my tee, I expose my torso, and that offends many! Many are surprised, I think, by the irreverence of a non-performing, casual body on stage. I know audiences are confused about the subtlety of the message," she says, “but I don’t wish to underline it too much. You have fun, yet the message is dark, it leaves you with a feeling."
That statement puts it in a nutshell. SKUM has created a manifesto that forces the audience to think, long after the 40-minute long performance is over.