We are so many feelings and experiences and memories and conversations. We refine what fits into a label called an identity, the way our travels fit into a little cardboard book called a passport. Just like a passport, that identity only contains the details of things the world deems most suitable.
I never imagined that I’d be a performer. The stage was for people with a giant ball of magic inside them. A shining sun of purity that obscured such mundane things as fear, worry, ordinariness. I did not have that sun inside me. It’s not that I hadn’t performed before. I first went on stage when I was not yet 5, singing, repeating the melodies that had been passed to me in my genes and training from my mother’s side of the family. It never took. Music was something I was made to do, not someone I was.
I stumbled my way onto stage, being thrown off the path I tried very hard to stick to – of settling down – after a partner violated my rights and identity. I could not live with his hatred, his violent rejection of me. And I didn’t know that it would be in something I’d been indifferent to, that I would find my redemption, my reclaiming of myself. But I say reclaiming as if I have taken back the person I used to be. No, it is as though I have discarded the old Ramya at the foot of the stage when I climbed those steps. And in the being formless and naked under the spotlight, I became a different me. A new personhood.
This picture was shot the night I performed for the biggest audience I’d faced. Minutes earlier I’d run into my ex and almost backed away. A friend hugged me and said GO. I knew if I didn’t I’d never set foot on stage again. So I left him & my old self behind. And I smiled when the spotlight shone on me.
It’s not that I don’t remember what it was to have stage fright, to prefer the safety of anonymity, the comfort of a glass screen to the spotlight. But that’s a story most don’t want to believe because they’d rather think I was born in the spotlight. Maybe I was, this me was. And the other me’s live in my head and that’s all they need to be. I’ve transcended the passport.
I grew up feeling like my life would follow the same path as other people – work and you shall achieve, be and you shall receive. It baffled me when I was attacked or called entitled for this, when the boys I knew, weren’t.
I wrote about this often. I created a comic about a little girl in a green dress, throwing barbs and smiles at a world trying to put her in a gender box (The Idea-toons). Humour became an easy way to deflect the always present horror about the idea that people have tried to impose on me all my life – that I don’t deserve what I am/do/have.
I resisted the label of feminist for too long because I didn’t think I deserved to be categorised with people who ensured that I had a vote, an education, the right to a job, to not be an object of ownership. I didn’t feel that important. It would be years before I realised living that belief is far more important than a label.
I wrote this piece on a whim, sitting in a coffeeshop waiting for a friend. It had easy witticisms and sharp edges because it was only for fun, not craft like my other pieces (Paper Plane, Goddess, Flamingos). I would perform it on my first time at a stage that would go on to be my favourite. The creators of that space would notice me and friendships would be born, bringing me support for my work. I would also get marked as a target, by other people’s misogyny hidden under camaraderie. I didn’t know it then.
In 2017, Simar Singh would tell me about his idea to promote poets and poetry and ask if I’d open his first event for Women’s Day, with this piece. Sure, I’d say, without much thought. Later, they’d find technical glitches in the footage, teething problems for a first-time team and decide not to use it. I’d shrug. There were other battles I was fighting.
In August 2019, UnErase Poetry put up the first ever video they shot at their launch show – mine. It crossed 75k views in a week. 😄 I still don’t know – which battles I can win without even realising I’m in a fight and which ones I’m doomed to perish in. But I am a feminist.
Watch the video on YouTube or Facebook on the UnErase Poetry channels. Have you met my feminism?
I was a diarist through my teens. When I was 24, I discovered blogs which I learnt was short for ‘web logs’. And my diarying transitioned online. Because I wrote under the then anonymous identity of IdeaSmith, I could pour my unvarnished feelings into writing, things I didn’t feel at liberty to say in my daily life.
These were my 20s and I was accumulating new experiences faster than I could process (post-graduation, first job, recession survival, new love, matrimonial pressures). There was fear, worry, anguish and grief for what I’d left behind – things that I was not ‘supposed to’ feel or dwell on. Writing anonymously allowed me to examine each feeling and experience at leisure.
Before I knew it, I had readers and IdeaSmith was a personality, an entity built by me but also by what my readers wanted to read. Possibly because my dark emotions and experiences were not permissible in my offline life (Nobody wants brooding, angry, grieving or annoyed women even in 2019), these writings were more poignant than my cheerful work. Maybe they just suited the mystery persona of an unknown woman on the internet better.
I had a revelation in the early 2010s. I realised each time I wrote or spoke or even read a piece, I relived that memory. So in my dark, brooding words, I was keeping my pain alive. Writing, I concluded, was cathartic, not healing. And in 2014 after abuse, a broken engagement, a nondescript startup, I decided I needed healing. I needed levity & light. Words matter so much to those of us who wield them. It’s hard to bring them to destruction. But the image of a paper plane flew into my imagination.
And from that came a healing philosophy and a tattoo for reminder. This was my first performance as a stage artist, a wordsmith with flight, a new me.
I’ve written reams and reams about home – going away from it, running in search of it, how it defines me, how I define it. I am a Cancerian, after all. We make this world feel like home. Maybe not entirely coincidentally, my contribution to International Poetry Day 2019 was also titled HOME. This video was shot and produced by the fab team at kalArt (who also produced my GODDESS video). Please watch and if you like it, leave a comment here or on the video.
Mid 2000s: I was fresh off the press, newly minted professional and facing a reality that I was not prepared for because the generation before mine had never seen it — RECESSION. I was the forerunner of a generation that would only be named a few years later but would come to define worldwide shifts. I had lived in the same city my whole life and I had rarely ventured beyond my home-college-workplace circuit – physically or mentally.
I found my dream job in an industry that I’d wanted to join and a good company. I had also been blogging for over a year and was just discovering that I had a voice and a place to exercise it. Each day was a new lesson. Even my daily commute became an adventure. I learnt about who I was and where I came from — because you really can’t have one without the other.
Mid 2010s: I took to the stage as a quest for a new life, smarting from deep wounds, forcing myself to shed every skin I’d accumulated. I started, with a promise to myself to carry a mindset of healing and not vengeance. I wanted to tell stories of hope, of inspiration, of triumph. It meant tapping into deep wells of emotion, of wading through long accumulated hurt, of salvaging the good parts, of picking out the broken bits and attempting to heal them.
One story that cried out to be shared, was of the bruised history of this city . Maybe all big cities are this way and each one in their own unique way. To me, the stage feels like a hyper concentrated experience of being a Mumbaiker. You are constantly being stripped down to your most basic truths because there is no time or space for extra baggage. And yet simultaneously, there is the sad knowledge that we cannot carry anymore, a lingering memory of all that we leave behind. It is us. I have been writing this story in diary entries, in blogposts, in poetry and finally, in performance for over a decade now.
Last month, one telling of this story was picked to feature in The Habitat’s fortnightly line-up of oral storytellers. I ran through a story that sits comfortably with its words, because I’ve shared it so many times now. When I realised it was being recorded though, I asked if I could have a do-over. This is such an important story, that I felt it deserved more than an autopilot telling. They obliged.
The better part of this month has forced us all to examine in brutal detail, our emotions, our motivations and our identities. #MeToo encompasses and colours every interaction, every thought we’ve had about another person, every desire, every play for power. Raw, so raw. This is the only way I can explain what happened when I went back for a do-over telling.
I went up on the stage where I first learnt how to be a performer, with a story that finally fits right, after the years of edits and retellings and rethinkings and research. And midway, I felt myself collapse inside. The audience blurred before my eyes, my breath caught and I felt like my insides were old, withering and flammable, catching fire. and I felt like I was watching bricks and walls that make me, collapse. I mumbled “Sorry, I must leave.” and ran off the stage. I couldn’t stop shaking, sweating and feeling like I was going to drown in something unidentified that was rising from inside me. It was a good ten minutes before I recovered enough to be able to re-enter the room.
My story had nothing to do with the MeToo movement but it is laced with pain and we are living in a world of burning, screaming pain. I imploded. Where else could it happen but on stage, where one’s truths rise to the surface? When I returned, a stranger caught my hand and said, “Please go back and finish your story. It was so touching. I really want to hear it fully.” It gave me the courage to start again and luckily the host welcomed me back up.
A performance shifts in every rendition. And if you’ve seen this piece before, you might notice that it sounds sadder and more melancholy than before. But maybe that’s what the truth of this piece is — stripped of its showmanship and its sugar. This then, is FLAMINGOS, a story about the city I love and about people just like me.
Chinchpokli is a station on Mumbai’s Central train line. Cotton Green and Sewri are consecutive stations on Mumbai’s Harbour train line. All three of these roughly correspond to Lower Parel on Mumbai’s Western train line.
Most of the mills have been or are being redeveloped into urban commercial/office centers. Due to the laws, many of them are not allowed to destroy the original construction, which is why exposed beams, industrial pipes and chimneys still dot this landscape.
The flamingos appeared this year as well, delayed but in greater numbers. Bombay Natural History Society (among others) organises walking tours to see the flamingoes. You can also find your own way from outside Sewri station (on the east) to the docks where between rusty boats and fish-stained ropes, you may catch a glimpse of these migratory pink birds.
I’ve been quiet on the blog, haven’t I? It’s been a very busy first half of the year. I’m not complaining because it keeps me from worrying about other things that I can do nothing about. And the work has been good and fulfilling.
Ishmeet and I got invited to speak on The Reproductive Justice Happy Hour podcast. Just like SXonomics, TRJHH is also a collaboration between two women, this time cross-continental. The podcast takes on feminist issues as they pertain to desi audiences, in India and the diaspora.
I’d already had a chance to talk to Surabhi a few months earlier and it was a real pleasure. When you live in a world where most people tell you that you are wrong for existing, where your ideas are shouted down and deemed ‘manhater’ (whatever that is, since it is not a real word), conversations like this one come as tremendous relief. It’s a lot like being an allergy sufferer in Mumbai. I don’t even realise how much I struggle to breathe until I visit a place that is cleaner and less polluted. Similarly, these rare conversations make me realise what an effort it is, even to exist in my world. And I am still one of the privileged with an education and living in a city. It’s an uphill task, this fight and I often consider giving up.
But just when I do, a conversation like this comes along. Surabhi got us talking about how SXonomics came to be, our creative process and the work we’ve been doing. But she also got us thinking about female solidarity, about what makes collaborations really work. The last such conversation I had that really grew me, was also related to SXonomics and was with Damini, the first person to interview us and take our story out to the world. Damini pointed out that even our combination-performance weaving music, poetry, comedy and drama together was a feminist statement of a sort.
SXonomics is a feminist content producer and a collaboration between Ramya Pandyan and Ishmeet Nagpal. SXonomics is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and SoundCloud. Drop us a note at SXnomics [at] Gmail [dot] com to chat about feminism, patriarchy, LGBTQIA issues, sex and love positivity!
I found gratitude in February. Here are all things that were life last month.
A conversation on safe spaces – One of Mumbai’s performance/art spaces and Shamir’s former employer hosted a discussion on safety in performing spaces. We shared experiences, fears, ideas and some hopes for this landscape that we are all committed to.
SXArena: The Third Wheel, UnValentined! and Digital Dil – We decided to try a new format that included poetry, conversations and some simple games to explore ideas of sexuality and gender. The topics of our day were polyamory, relationships outside the primary romantic one, love in the times of hookup and connections beyond the commerce.
The SXonomics Show: Touch Me Not – We were invited to conduct a gender sensitisation drive for The Habitat. We rolled this out as a series of 1 hour shows that combine comedy, satire, music, poetry and dramatic performance to address hard questions. Our first show addressed sexual harassment. It received a good response and this very encouraging review. We have since done one more show on gender (im)balance and have another four coming up (every alternate Monday at The Habitat, 7:30PM).
We, The XX Chromosome: Women’s Web and SheThePeople hosted a two day Women Writers’ Festival 2018 and invited us to do a show themed ‘We, The XX Chromosome’. Our 45 minute performance addressed gender stereotyping, the casting couch, rape culture, outdated fairytales and consent violation.
I started a new friendship and that person came to one of our events just as a show of support. Their presence and their ideas expanded our world view on gender, sexuality and love.
I wasn’t nearly as good at the old friendships. I think after 2017, I found it hard to remember that there were still people who liked me and wanted to spend some moments of their lives with me. But friendliness came knocking in gentle, sweet ways. I went to another old friend’s birthday party without a gift because I had just had no time to get one. But on the way, I stopped and picked up a lily because it reminded me of her. She thanked me so many times, I felt bad that I had categorised our friendship as needing the commercial validation of a store-bought gift. And yesterday she told me that the flower had continued to bloom and spread its fragrance all across her house. This is so lovely.
We were featured in the press several times (1, 2, 3, 4). Ironically right after I posted this poem:
There are days when I fear getting carried away and that this will all crash land. I do love how much I’m learning, though. After a recent show, a member of the audience told us that she had seen one of our early performances and we had come a long way from that. That just feels so, so, so very good.
Every now and then, Ishmeet says or does something on stage and I marvel at how a mind can work and how a gesture or a facial expression can be used to convey an idea. It’s like learning a new language and I’ve always enjoyed that.
I am still awkward in my transitions on and off stage. But stage fright does not cripple me as badly now. I’m learning to enjoy even the mistakes I make, laugh at the times I am clumsy. And that’s the same lesson as life itself, isn’t it? Look up at the stars but also find time to laugh when you trip over the stones. And always, make room for the flowers.
Here’s a handful of SXonomics laughs coming your way. This is our first video.
What does the future hold? Well, Aadhar card linkages and income tax returns. But also four new SXonomics shows, SX-on-Mics (our first community event on Women’s Day) and more videos. And a lily or two.
“While SXonomics touch on topics that are universally understood, such as shaming other women for their choices, there are issues that are specifically directed toward an Indian audience. The two women have dissected the way sexism in India is deeply tied in with the caste system which discriminates against those of a lower socio-economic bracket. In this way they are reinforcing the notion of intersectionality, something today’s feminist movement can no longer ignore in order to stay relevant.”
They added to the Scroll.in story by also tracing our individual journeys through feminist viewpoints.
In many of our conversations, I find myself saying, “I’ve thought/felt this for years and I thought I was alone!”. Protesting rape culture disguised as romance. Hitting back at misogyny.
Surviving hate labels like MANHATER, BITCH and SLUT. Coping with harassment, abuse, discrimination, body shaming, social pressures. Searching in vain for role models. Watching yourself go from person to battleworn warrior. Choosing to be the social outcast in an unsafe environment, because the other choice is unfit for human dignity.
So much of SXonomics is about solidarity, about finally feeling NOT ALONE in a world intent on turning us into mute sex objects/caregivers. Our individual journeys have made us who we are and now the stage gives us a chance to brew these together into a potent mix that fights back at an oppressive system. And beyond that, standing together has given us a chance to remember that we are human beings beyond being crusaders and human beings must have fun, pleasure and inspiration. SXonomics is all of that.
SXArena: Alt-Valentine: A series of short events that combine performance, poetry, improv, roleplay, readings and audience interaction. Please contact Mr.Aniruddha Chatterjee at +91-99769118555 for details. The sessions are: The Third Wheel, Un-Valentined & Digital Dil.
I’ve been relatively quiet this month, on the blog. But the words have been hard at work. My collaboration with Dr.Ishmeet Nagpal, SXonomics, has gone on to the next level. We decided to take January to take stock, figure out where we wanted to go next. And maybe as a sign from the universe, we’ve started getting noticed and counted in some very flattering worlds.
DNA reached out to us for a chat about our work. It was so heartening to know that someone somewhere thinks we’re doing something right, and not being foolish to do what we do. They featured us in a story about performing bands using art to further social messages. Do we do that? Yes, yes, we do and not just with music. But sometimes, you need the world to tell you that it sees you, as you are. Thank you, Dhaval Roy, for seeing us for our true work.
“Spoken word feminist party SXonomics use satire, improv, poetry, music and audience-inclusive performance to project feminism as a fun and relevant way of life, while sparring with “patriarchy, toxic gender roles, relationship politics and mental monsters”, like founders Dr Ishmeet Nagpal and Ramya Pandyan tell us. “
“SXonomics, on its part, is alarmed by the things that have been passed off as culture, romance and poetry. “Problematic messages in Bollywood where a woman’s consent is not respected — like, ‘Tu haan kar ya na kar’ and many other such things are a matter of concern. Films are a huge influence on the common man’s way of thinking,” says Ramya.”
For SXonomics, the goal of their caricatures, poetry and collaborations is to prompt people to think about the current state of affairs in the country. “We want to create reference points in our listeners’ heads and make them realise when something wrong happens. Many of them have come up to us and said that our pieces like Shaadi Ka Laddu and Chaar Log (a satire on chaar log kya kahenge?/ what will people say) keep coming up in their daily lives,” says Ishmeet. Ramya adds that many of their listeners (including men and women) have told them how their performance has been an eye-opener to many aspects that existed in their lives but they were unmindful of.
Ishmeet says that when a message is propagated through music or any other art form, it is likelier to stay longer with people and make an impact.
We’ve been quoted alongside bands like Kerala’s black metal caste protest band Willuwandi, Buddhist Dalit rights activist rock band, Dhamma Wings, McLeod Ganj’s JJI Exile Brothers who sing about Tibetan freedom, Imphal Talkies‘ work on North East India’s insurgency and Aisi Taisi Democracy‘s satire. It’s a privilege, an honour even, to be counted among people who are crusading for these causes using art and performance.
Thank you every one of you who has listened to, read, clapped/snapped for, sung along with, commented, liked, talked about or even thought about what each of us has had to say. You make what we all do, possible. You make it a world that can be shaped by artists and love and passion, not just guns and politics. You allow us to believe the world can be made a better place, one song, one poem, one beat at a time. Thank you.
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