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July 9, 2013

The India Project Begins



Nupur Mathur

New Delhi July 5th 2013

sheba and i at studio eksaat

A week ago I flew into Delhi, a place I could call home. I say I could because even though I have family here and spent a large part of my childhood here the city seems more different this time than before. On a day to day basis I find myself angry, or feeling helpless. India is a giant country with a billion people. It is an extremely complex place with a complicated history.

My work here in India along with my colleague and classmate Bathsheba Okwenje is to use our artistic practice to fight for change in an area that has burdened this country for generations: Gender based violence

I ask myself what is gender based violence and why people only rise up to protest when something extreme like a gang rape occurs? Rape is everywhere in India. And by this I don’t mean physically. More so I would like to make a note, that what people refer to as women’s right’s, I prefer calling Human Rights. For me in the distinction itself lies the problem.

I have an older brother. When he was still young my parents were visiting my grandparents one summer. My mother who comes from a family with fairly liberal views asked my brother to take some glasses and cups lying on the table to the kitchen so they could be washed. My grandmother was astonished and scolded my mother, ‘How can you ask him to do that?” In India this is still common, especially in the upper middle class. Most men don’t enter the kitchen. They’ve never cooked or cleaned or washed or ironed their own clothes. It is a long standing patriarchal system that exists here, and men and women alike don’t realize more often than not, when they are enacting a role that they never chose themselves.

Everyday I notice something like this. Something small and it gnaws at me from the inside telling me that is is important to focus on these things. It is important to realize in your daily conversation and your daily choices where you are doing what you want to do, and where you are doing what this society thinks you ought to do. I feel it is important to realize, in order to bring change to how rape is dealt with in this country the responsibility lies not solely on the judiciary system or the police or on politicians. All of these people who have the power to bring about policy change are also people. People who live and work in the same city and country as everyone else. People who despite having moral and legal obligations will still make biased decisions and comment on the affairs of the state in a reckless and crass manner because they are not any different.

I’m interested in developing a method to document, archive and collate the subtle day to day instances that provide an insight into the complex world of gender based violence in India. Rape does not just happen, gang rape does not just happen, eve teasing does not just happen, dowry does not just happen, being scared to death on your wedding night does not just happen. I feel if we give importance and time to understand the smaller more internalized dynamics of gender roles in India, they might help us in our fight against gender based violence.

It has now been a few days since my colleague and classmate Bathsheba has arrived. I’m now seeing things from the perspective of introducing someone from outside of India into Indian culture. What is Indian culture? It’s funny because as I mentioned before the population of this country is huge. So in effect what I’m introducing Bathsheba to is life here in Delhi.

The friends I have here are almost all artists or musicians or designers. It isn’t important in our friends circle who is a man and who is a woman. Not to each other it doesn’t. At home however, scenarios vary. And in this I could speak for myself.

I come from Rajasthan, a state that ranks high in gender based violence and discrimination against women. My family which comprises of highly educated individuals living all over the country and abroad still have strong patriarchal ties. You cannot really date anyone openly because you cannot have sex before marriage. You certainly cannot date someone and bring them back home. So where do you go? To cafe’s and restaurants, and motels to hide from your family and other people who might recognize you? Women especially are escorted by their brothers or go out in groups of friends. They don’t just go out even for dinner or a movie with a man alone, unless they are married, or are siblings, or in a group. And people rarely, almost never go out alone. Everyone is shy and awkward about anything remotely sexual. In effect you grow up feeling extremely uncomfortable about sex and relationships and don’t really know what it’s like to be alone in the company of a man or a woman. In fact you grow up pretty awkward in terms of yourself because you’ve never been alone, and many times never lived away from home. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve gone to international schools most of my life and lived away from home. The kind of friends I’ve made and people I’ve met have allowed me to be the liberal person I am today. I’d be curious however, to ask my female cousin’s how it was for them. Many of them have had arranged marriages and are all now living their lives in accordance to the home of their in-laws.


Bathsheba and I met Pattie Gonsalves who is the representative for the NGO IDEA. She is a young woman working in the field of health, environment and gender based politics. Pattie is arranging for us to meet with several specialists, organizations and activists to give us a deeper understanding of the complexities at play here in Delhi, and India at large.

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