All women know this one junction, corner or street that we want to avoid. We take a detour to avoid being cat-called, stared at and harassed. Out of several such locations in Bengaluru, one is 9th Main Hennur Road and Abdul Kalam Cross Road in HBR Layout. For years, women living in the area have avoided it for fear of getting sexually harassed, molested and abused.
In an unprecedented move, the street is going to ‘reopen’ on July 26, with the star of the evening being Cecilia, a 74-year-old who lives by her own rules. Cecilia is being brought into our consciousness by way of ‘Cecilia’ed’, a public art project conceived by artist Indu Antony. The project is also a recipient of FICA Public Art Grant 2018.
As a resident of this area, Indu has been keenly observing the gendered spaces for quite some time. In addition to that, her own experiences in the street planted the seed in her mind.
“I have been studying feminist geography for a while and also looking at patriarchal urban designing. How does feminist geography play into these urban spaces? I personally have been attacked on the street multiple times. Once, two guys on a bike came and spat on me. A lot of women also told me that they were grabbed here, grabbed there. Consciously they have started to avoid certain streets. Nobody goes to those places,” explains Indu, who is known for her strong photographic series like ManiFest, It’s a beautiful world ‘Outside’, Vincent Uncle and others.
Cecilia had entered the artist’s life much before she thought of the project. Indu was fascinated by the flamboyantly dressed lady riding a bicycle. “I met Cecilia on the road once when she was cycling somewhere. She didn’t care about anyone around her and was conducting herself in a very natural gender disrupting way. I was so inspired by her. Initially when I met her I had no idea that she would become part of the project. I just went and spent time with her. I live alone here. She lives alone and we used to have a good time together. I started taking pictures of her in her home,” says the artist.
Indu’s portraits of Cecilia form an important part of the project. Over two years, Indu has clicked Cecilia at the same spot in her house in different dresses, most of which are hand-stitched by Cecilia. A great performer with an innate sense of style, Cecilia selects the dresses for the shoot and even the poses. For every picture shot of her, Cecilia is paid a certain amount which gets her even more excited to work with Indu.
What the project aims to do
On July 26, Cecilia in a brand new dress along with TV actor Sharada GS, and Kanaka Lakshmi, a police officer from Banaswadi Police Station, will cut the ribbon tied around the street. The event is a symbolic opening of the street to represent attempts to make it a safer space for women.
“They will cut a cake, and will be felicitated. Cecilia is excited about the whole thing but she didn’t like the dress we bought because it doesn’t have that ‘jazz’ according to her, so she is adding her touches to it. Similarly, when I showed her the photographs once, she didn’t approve as she felt they didn’t have any ‘oomph’ factor, so she started posing,” Indu says.
In addition to Cecilia, there are other elements to the project as well, such as safety workshops with women of the area in the anganwadi, distribution of pamphlets and visits to local bars. Through these exercises, Indu wants to trigger conversations with the community.
A women's workshop in progress
“I wanted to engage the community as much as possible. Just going to a street and saying that we are going to reopen it doesn’t make any sense. Who are these people living here? Do we know them? How big is the ward? We needed to make some kind of intervention, so we decided on these workshops where women come and talk about any issue of their interest. While one session was devoted to installing the Suraksha safety app and about the helplines launched by Bangalore Police, in the others, the participants ended up discussing their personal problems.
“We sit in a circle and talk. One day we showed them a film because we wanted to see their reactions. Patriarchy also exists in these women who come. One remarked, ‘Why do women have to go out at 6 in the evening, that’s why they are getting attacked’. Multiple things started coming out of those meetings. The women are not sure of the way I look, the fact that I am not married. They ask me why I am not married yet. We have a woman whose son has cancer. She has to spend Rs 9 lakh per year. We are trying to figure out if we can start a community bank,” Indu adds.
Another intervention was to disrupt a gendered space in the locality. About 20 women visited Appu Bar and drank while the customers at the bar looked at them in disbelief. To begin with, women were told that they were not allowed.
“We said there’s no rule like that in Karnataka and barged in. We stood at the counter and started ordering drinks. People started talking to us and they were like ‘All our lives we never saw girls drinking’ and ‘You seem like a homely girl then why are you drinking’,” Indu says.
Indu says that she witnessed a significant shift during the four hours that the group was there – from outright resistance to a few empathetic voices. “A lot of them were curious about why we were there drinking. We told them we find it hard to cross these roads, that we have faced harassment on these roads. Some of them understood, some of them listened, some didn’t care. One man burst out crying. He said he didn’t know women had these issues. It was great to start a conversation,” expresses the artist.
Indu is appreciative of the support from the area corporator P Anand and the police.
The one-year long engagement ends in January 2020 but Indu intends to continue it. Since the project consumes a lot of funds, in order for it to go on Indu will have to apply for other grants and scholarships. One year is also a very short time for any community-related arts project to show results.
“Especially in a community-related public art project, it takes at least 10 years to show some kind of change. I have seen some projects go on for years and then one person will come and tell you that because of you I have got this job. This project is very young but a lot of people are aware of it, they recognise me. I have started going for the ward-committee meetings. It’s a very lower-middle class area and when you work at the grassroots level, change doesn’t take place quickly. I am aware and conscious of the fact that it is not something that will happen overnight,” the artist says.
Indu has also started working on a personal project – a feminist library exclusively for women to come and read.
“I researched the libraries around, made a proposal and submitted to the corporator. It is budgeted and comes to Rs 10 lakh and they are building a structure for that on top of the anganwadi,” Indu says.
Shailaja Tripathi is a journalist with interest in art and culture.