Unmasking Oppression with Gender Shadow

Performance Art has long been considered an effective medium in terms of delivering messages that would otherwise fall flat in less visual forums. Gender Shadow is the perfect example of a contemporary PA group–one that takes full advantage of Youtube and other social networking devices in order to paint powerful images for a worldwide audience. I had the opportunity to sit down with several members of Gender Shadow recently and they were kind enough to answer a few of my questions:

Could you tell us a little bit about the origins of your group?

We formed as an elective course for students at Srishti School of Art Design and Technology in Bangalore, India.

What are the goals of Gender Shadow?

Shreya Gupta: To create awareness through performance while erasing stereotypes within ourselves as well, so as not to be hypocritical.

Abhishek Choudhury: There are many broad issues of gender which are already being addressed but we are focusing on the subtle everyday manifestations of gender oppression that commonly go overlooked.

Albert N Grashious: Shadow Theatre is a simple form of art, it mostly consists of the dark and light shades. Using shadows is attractive to people, and in this way we bring more people to our project. In drama, mistakes show; shadows hide the minor details and our work can be understood even by a casual passer by.

Malvika Tewari: To surface issues of gender oppression through media other than just vocal expressions such as theatre, poetry, puppets and art. As aspiring artists and designers we’re learning modalities that help us look into the power structures of society that we’ve been conditioned to follow. Ultimately, [our goal is] to be more self aware.

Neha Bhat: Gender shadow allows me to look at ideas about my gender identity and sexuality through the lens of my body. Through the craft of theatre used in the process of gender shadow, I am learning to look closely at the responses my body has in different situations of different tones- confrontational, submissive, aggressive and so on.

One of the performance types that Gender Shadow utilizes is the use of shadow masks–a silhouette on a screen that portrays various faces.

What is the significance of the shadow masks?

Arzu Mistry, project co-facilitator: Traditionally, shadow puppets have been used in Bali and South India; both of these traditions primarily share mythological stories as a way of entertainment, raising awareness, and teaching mythology to the masses. Of all the mythologies, the Ramayana is the story that’s told most often. And the Ramayana is a story about the ideal man Rama and the ideal woman Sita. To have a mythological base of an ideal that is either perpetuated or challenged gives a cultural background to our contemporary discourse on gender.

Lopa Shah: To show the difference between what you create and what is projected. For example, I want to project a certain image to the world but most times my image does not come across as intended.

Abhishek Kumar: Shadow masks are subjective leaving more room for interpretation and it brings out peoples perspectives. In this way, it brings out more emotions than non-shadow theatre. It’s more abstract and can have the effect of telling two stories at the same time. The guy sitting next to you may have the same personality as you, but during a shadow show you don’t know what kind of emotion he might be having or what kind of perspective he has.

Another performance type focuses solely on a performer’s hands–a series using this technique was recently posted to Youtube.

Why did you decide to use performing hands? What do they represent?

Shreya Gupta (in reference to her video Circus Act): You meet someone with your eyes and face but when you get closer to someone you use your hands. If I want to communicate on a deeper level with someone, I’d use hand gestures. In our ‘Circus Act’ video, I translated feminine moves through my fingers.

Mitwa Av (in reference to his performing hands video): We were showing the feminine and masculine energies synchronized at times but most often in the Indian context the masculine is continually exerting control over the feminine energy.

Abhishek Kumar (in reference to his music star video): While listening to the Runaway’s song ‘I love rock and roll’ I began to wonder why don’t I call them rock stars. When I think of Led Zeppelin, the first thing that comes to mind is that they are the inventors of rock. When I thought more about it I began to think about rap stars, then I thought why don’t woman images come to my mind? MIA raps, or how about Fergie, but when I think of Fergie I think ‘Pop star’. Why do we have this gendered idea of rock stars, only thinking of male rock stars?

Neha Bhat: To elaborate on the idea of focusing on the body, performing hands and shadow masks help me to think through my body rather than be constricted in the mental/ intellectual space.

What has the response to your performance been? What sort of audience have you reached?

Devanshi Jaiswal: Our Shadow Dancing performance at Active Canvas was an exhilarating experience as it brought together designers from all fields, to experiment and experience different ways of working with shadows which made us explore deeper into this performance discipline.

Neha Bhat: The audience currently has been ourselves and other members of our peer group itself. Since we’re still in our initial stages, introducing this idea to ourselves first makes sense.

What has been your favorite performance so far?

Aman Randhawa: What I found most interesting was when we crafted a theatrical response to the film, Killing us Softly 4, with Jean Kilbourne, from Media Education Foundation. We captured the essence of the film through a different form without spending too much time on the content, but rather thinking through form.

Viplov Singh: In our role-based improvisations there was nothing planned, we just had to go and act the personality we were seeing.

Neha Bhat: My favorite performances so far have been the anti-model exercises and the quick performances formed out of personal experiences.I think the ones derived out of personal memories and stories have also been the most successful, in inducing thought and questions about the ideas we are dealing with.

What does the future hold for Gender Shadow?

Aman Randhawa: We’re developing my craft to collectively facilitate interactive theatre so effectively that we communicate our stance through the interaction of the audience.

Samhitha Somayaji: I picture people interacting, opening up to their ideas and putting their experiences into the play.

Viplov Singh: We’re making a performance that really changes the perspective from which people see stereotypes.

Sachin Gupta: It’s more like an ongoing project, to understand different perspectives on gender and sexuality. It’s not something that can be changed but definitely understood and acknowledged as a legitimate part of society.