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The gender disrupter

  • A community art project, ‘Cecilia’ed’, seeks to make public safety for women a priority in Bengaluru
  • Seventy-five-year-old Cecilia has become the project’s figurehead, and her quotes and photographs can be seen on the ‘Cecilia’ed’ Instagram account

Seventy-five-year-old Cecilia has become the project’s figurehead, her quotes and photographs can be seen on the ‘Cecilia’ed’ Instagram account.
Seventy-five-year-old Cecilia has become the project’s figurehead, her quotes and photographs can be seen on the ‘Cecilia’ed’ Instagram account. (Photo: Indu Antony/Cecilia’ed)

One evening, late last month, over a thousand people gathered to celebrate the “reopening" of the street between Hennur 9th Main and APJ Abdul Kalam Road in HBR 5th Block, Bengaluru. The reference to “reopening" is a symbolic way of commemorating the fact that this formerly dark and shady street is now accessible to women. And presiding over this function was a flamboyant silver-haired woman, clad in a butter-yellow sari and sporting a red beret and statement studded glasses. Cecilia, 75, is the face of a public art project, Cecilia’ed, which is the brainchild of city-based photographer Indu Antony.

This year-long project, which began in January, is aimed at creating awareness about and responding, through interventions and initiatives, to the lack of public safety for women in Bengaluru. According to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau in 2016, Bengaluru is the third most unsafe metro city for women, after Delhi and Mumbai. In 2018, a survey of over 3,000 girls and women in the city, conducted by the NGO Save the Children, revealed that 90% of the respondents fear sexual harassment in public spaces.

Antony has always dealt with gender-based ideas. Cecilia’ed too developed as a result of her preoccupation with feminist geography (the application of feminist methodology to understand human geography) over the past three years as well as her own experiences of public safety. “I have been attacked twice. Two men once spat on me and I was held at knifepoint near Ulsoor Lake," she says. It led her to think of measures that would make women feel safe on the streets. “I was also questioning my role within the community and how to activate it," she says.

This brings one to the question of how Cecilia became the focus of her project. Antony had spotted her cycling around the neighbourhood of Lingarajapuram, completely owning the streets with her bravura. “She is what I call a gender disrupter," says Antony.

She struck up a conversation with Cecilia. As they began to meet regularly, it became clear that Cecilia, who came from an impoverished background, had endured a great deal of personal trauma. Fraught with daily struggles, she subsisted on the income she got from cleaning the church every Sunday. “I wanted someone who has actually lived the experiences that we are addressing," says Antony.

Over the past two years, Antony’s relationship with Cecilia has evolved. “Earlier, when I would walk alongside her, I would feel shy in presence of her eccentric, loud behaviour," she says. “But something within me changed eventually. I realized that I was only thinking about my internal struggles. I should instead be celebrating the moment of being with her, rather than hiding away."

Cecilia’s confidence certainly shows in her portraits, in which she dresses eclectically and poses dramatically. “She dresses up to attend church every Sunday. I photograph her then," says Antony. Cecilia’s irreverent quotes accompany her portraits on Cecilia’ed’s Instagram account (@ceciliaed2019), adding another layer of narrative to the images.

It creates an intimate experience for the viewer, as if they are in her presence. “She says the most eccentric of things, mostly A-rated! But that’s what makes her what she is," Antony says.

Photographer Indu Antony, the project founder.
Photographer Indu Antony, the project founder. (Photo: Indu Antony/Cecilia’ed)

The project consists of several initiatives. One is the “reopening" of certain streets. Following the first “reopening" on 26 July, Antony has identified four more such streets and hopes to “reopen" them before the project concludes.

A second initiative, which began in March, is monthly public safety workshops for women. Each workshop engages with different facets of public safety. For instance, one dealt with the helplines women can access in times of distress. “Most women have smartphones so they can install the Bengaluru city police’s Suraksha app, enabling the user to directly contact the police during an emergency," explains Antony.

The workshops take place in the area’s anganwadi(a government-sponsored child and mothercare centre)—Antony describes it as a community centre frequented by multiple women’s groups. She plans to establish Bengaluru’s first library for women there and has already submitted a proposal to the local corporator. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagar Palike (BBMP) has agreed to provide financial support. She sees the library as both a space of literature and refuge. “Many of the women live in congested spaces and don’t have either time or space to be themselves," she says.

Selvarani, a craft teacher running the anganwadi who also works with BBMP, says such meetings are much needed. “So many incidents have happened in the area, from chain-robbing to groping. Women can’t walk on the main road after 4 pm," she says. The younger women are often reluctant to talk about their experiences and these meetings help initiate conversations and dialogue.

Some of the interventions have occurred organically in the course of the project, such as the “Open Bar Meets" under which Antony and about 20 other women once visited a local bar. “The bars are purely masculine territories and provide no access to other genders," she says. The idea was to change the gender topography, even if only for a few hours. “We talked about the issues underlying the project, making men aware of being more respectful and responsible," she adds.

Antony hopes to present the project in the form of cartographical interventions, sound installations, posters, a book featuring portraits of Cecilia, lithographs, stickers, matchboxes, even dolls representing Cecilia. Funded by The Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art, the project will run till December. She is trying to access diverse forms of media and technology to popularize the project. One of these is a local community TV channel, Everyday News, which interviews women on public safety concerns; these videos are then released on YouTube and will be played during street “reopenings". Antony is also exploring sonic cartography, identifying unsafe gendered areas and then collecting sound-based gendered evidence.

“This is just the beginning," she says. Antony recognizes that it will take years for patriarchal norms to change, and, by extension, make a difference to women’s lives. But as puts it, “we can’t just sit back and not do anything, we have to introduce change into the existing status quo".

Bangalore-based journalist Priyanka Sacheti writes about art, gender, culture and environment.

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