Making Art Out of Sexual Trauma: 'Nirbhaya' The Play
A powerful new play on the 2012 gang rape and murder of an Indian student showcases actresses who have survived sexual violence in their own lives.
Nirbhaya, the new play based on the atrocious 2012 gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in Delhi, is composed of the stories of sexual violence from five women, who were unified by the news of Singh’s attack. Better known around the world by her pseudonym “Nirbhaya,” which means “fearless one” in Hindi, Singh refused to die without a fight. Now, after years of suppressing their own traumas, these cast members channel fearlessness to break the silence and ensure Nirbhaya’s death was not in vain.
The play’s South African director and writer, Yaël Farber, is no stranger to violence against women, having grown up in one of the world’s most unjust societies. Farber’s passion lies in human-rights work, which fueled her previous award-winning testimonial play, Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise. That work focused on native South Africans who grew up during the apartheid regime. “I am deeply aware of the extraordinary survival and restorative hope that resides in people who often have suffered unthinkable events,” Farber says. “This light that burns in the people I work with is a fuel that goes deeper than not touching such subjects at all.”
Throughout the chilling production of Nirbhaya, which opened Sunday night at New York’s Lynn Redgrave Theater, cast members Priyanka Bose, Rukhsar Kabir, Sneha Jawale, Pamela Sinha, and Poorna Jagannathan relive their painful pasts, which include sexual abuse, marital abuse, a dowry bride burning, and violent rapes.
Actress and director Jagannathan sought out Farber on Facebook upon hearing about Singh in 2012 and soon flew her and her young daughter to India to develop a play based on sexual violence against women. Jagannathan once lived next to the bus stop where Singh boarded that fateful bus in 2012, and realized it very well could have been her. “I remember when I heard what happened with her intestines, in my mind, I couldn’t put it together. It was impossible. That kind of brutality made me question humanity and I knew I could not go another day without breaking my silence and being a part of this project,” reflects Jagannathan.
When actress Bose heard about the gang rape, she told her partner for the first time about her past experience with sexual violence. “The day Jyoti died, I prayed to something. I don’t believe in God, but I prayed to something that there could be some kind of artistic revolution to bring hope to this tragedy. I had to take a stand for myself so I could move on,” Bose says.
For Bollywood actress Kabir, it was less about sharing her story and more about sharing her feelings during the abuse she endured. Kabir remembers her first time performing this show in 2013, “It was terrifying. I was shivering in my seat and sweating. I even had a giggling fit in the corner before one show. I couldn’t believe I was about to tell all these people this story I had never shared.”
Jagannathan adds, “It was like giving birth. It was the anxiety and the uncertainty and the feeling of ‘You might die’ and you just don’t know what’s on the other end.”
After premiering the play in Edinburgh in 2013, the cast has grown more aware of how normalized sexual violence has become worldwide. “I didn’t realize that my story had an impact beyond me. I didn’t know my silence had anything to do with what was going on in the rest of the world,” says Jagannathan.
The unparalleled storyline of Nirbhaya is accompanied by sparse dialogue with the goal of shifting the shame that surrounds sexual violence. The rest, conveyed by emotion, lighting, and staging, raises the bar for human-rights theater.