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Dance to reclaim the body

Eve Ensler and Usha Uthup at programme at The Park on Thursday. Picture by Pabitra Das

Why is Eve Ensler asking one billion women across the world to dance? And we are not even thinking about the logistics!

Ensler would begin at the beginning: with the body.

It is her lot to have people talking to her about vaginas. In the aeroplane, everywhere, as she travels around the world. It is not surprising, considering she is the author of The Vagina Monologues, the play that began as a small off-Broadway production two decades ago as a way to speak about violence against women, but is now something of a global blockbuster.

But what is surprising, says Ensler, resplendent in a clingy maroon dress, black tights and red boots at 62, speaking to a group of women achievers, activists and artists in the city on Thursday, is "the insane misunderstanding about sex".

"Why doesn't anyone teach sex?" she asks, to the great pleasure of her audience at Tantra in The Park, as actor and director Renu Roy of Spandan steers the conversation deftly. Ensler, who would act in her play, is smiling too - she knows what pleases the audience - but it is a serious question. Because people talk to her about sex as violence.

That is why she locates her politics in the body. "All the time I am deconstructing patriarchy... the mechanism, structure, reasons behind patriarchy. That's all I do," says Ensler, who was visiting Calcutta the first time to talk about "One Billion Rising".

This is the campaign, three years old, which exhorts women to dance. The world's population is 7 billion. Statistics say one in three women will be beaten or raped during her lifetime. That makes the figure roughly 1 billion.

After an assault - Ensler as a child was repeatedly raped and beaten by her father - the body, she says, "becomes a landscape of terror". It alienates the owner from her body. She may hate her body. Yet, "how do we get back into the body?"

A few years ago, Ensler underwent a nine-hour surgery for uterine cancer and emerged tied to tubes and apparatuses. Despite her writing - it was more than 10 years after The Vagina Monologues - for the first time she felt "I was pure body". She visited Congo, when she was still thin and bald and "scary", and there she saw the women dance. Several of them had suffered great violence. Some of their genitals had been mutilated. But they danced. She felt the power of dance. It could again make her "live in this thing that I had left" - her body.

Music and rhythm can do the impossible. They are often what women are denied. "Dance brings us back to our bodies," says Ensler.

It was the same with The Vagina Monologues. The vagina, shocking as a word in a play's title, was a way for a woman to go back to her body after a trauma.

The vagina is a literal space but is also a metaphor. For it is something that is unknown, sometimes that is the location of guilt and shame, but on the other side of it lies a great unknown too, again, literally and metaphorically.

In Ensler's play, abused, many of them sufferers of sexual abuse, talk about the unspeakable: what has happened to them, a taboo like the vagina.

It's been a long time since the play. What has changed?

The word vagina is a register of some change, says Ensler. When she started, the penis could be mentioned, not the vagina. CNN did a 10-minute piece on her without ever mentioning the V-word.

Now the word is not shut up so much. And men attend her performances in significant numbers. "There has been a change in the level of consciousness."

Yet for women, it is always four steps forward, three steps backward (or is it the other way round?). Patriarchy is insidious and multifarious, entrenched in fundamentalism and neo-capitalism.

"To go forward women have to be the arbiters of our own value," says Ensler. If through dance, even better.

So like the last three years, she is inviting you to a world-wide street dancing party with the women yet again on February 14, V-day, but perhaps Valentines are not the only things on her mind.

"A billion women...what if they were dancing like this? What space would be reclaimed?" she asks.

Romantic thought? But the logistics are in place, really. Ensler works with NGOs locally in every country. "One Billion Rising is owned locally," she says, but simultaneously around the world.

By the way, the women had already been dancing to Usha Uthup first singing " I will survive", then " Bindiya chamkegi", which she gorgeously subverted into a proud, feminist statement: " Maine tujhse mohabbat ki hai, ghulami nahin..."

Filipino star Monique had sung the "One Billion Rising" song.


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