Yael Farber: “I find it very deadening not to be engaging with things that are difficult or emotional”

An interview with the director of <em>Nirbhaya</em>, a new play about the Delhi rape case that shocked the world.

I was in Barcelona when I heard Jyoti had died. I didn’t know her name then but I knew she was a young woman like myself and my friends, and that her death highlighted a need for change.

On 16 December Jyoti Singh Pandey boarded a bus in Delhi with a male friend, Awindra Pandey. What happened next is etched into public consciousness. The driver and his five companions beat Awindra unconscious then took turns to rape Jyoti on the floor of the bus as it circled the streets. When she fought back they raped her with an iron rod which destroyed 90 per cent of her intestine. They then threw the couple from the bus and attempted to drive over them, before disappearing into the Delhi night.

The news was broadcast and people prayed for Jyoti’s recovery. Not knowing her name they lit candles for a girl they called Nirbhaya, the Marathi word for Fearless. Nirbhaya has now become a familiar name for a young woman who fought to live, but who eventually died, a beautiful, intelligent girl who has in death become a potent symbol for change.

When I heard that writer and director Yael Farber, moved by the incident, was creating a play around it, I felt this was to be an important production and wanted to hear more about the ideas behind it, so I met with Farber in a small Edinburgh cafe to discuss her show.

After seeing Nirbhaya I am somewhat in awe of her. I left the auditorium feeling completely drained yet absolutely alive. Jyoti’s story is a framing device; in between Jyoti boarding the bus and getting attacked five other women tell their stories of rape, violence and abuse. The testimonies glisten, these women hold nothing back.

Although Farber felt strongly about the case the idea to create the play originated from one of the actors. “There’s an actress in Mumbai who was one of the performers, Poorna Jagannathan. She contacted me on Facebook because she had seen my work and said ‘Women are ready to speak here, will you come and make it work?’ and of course that was an amazing invitation and I said yes.

“It was very quick to do the work for this year but we just felt this time next year this story would have passed back into the tide of indifference. This young woman died and if her life were not to be in vain we have to carry forward what it evoked on the streets.“

Farber is keen to see attitudes towards women change, and she hopes Nirbhaya will be part of a larger process of breaking the silence. “We didn’t want to just tell the story about Jyoti because to do that is to suggest it’s an anomaly in some way. What we wanted to do was show that this sits inside a larger frame, a wider tapestry of an endemic violence against women. We felt that by bringing personal testimony it provokes this civic gesture which

is that these five women get up every day and break their silence in front of witnesses as a way of saying ‘this is the only way forward, if we begin to speak, we begin to take apart this idea that we should carry the shame’ because we live in silence when there is a currency of shame and when you start to speak you are.”

I ask Farber about the creation of Nirbhaya and she tells me how closely she worked with the actors . “It’s testimonial theatre which is different to verbatim [in that] it requires the engagement of a playwright, and that was my role. I gathered their testimonies and did a lot of research and interviews and group sessions with them but then I, I would go away and craft and find the words and trajectory to condense it, each piece could only be possibly ten minutes.”

Something I found poignant in Nirbhaya was a child’s yellow dress which was handed to Poorna by Japjit Kaur, playing Jyoti. “Theatre is about evoking memory, thoughts, sensuous responses to things and sensory responses to things,” says Farber. “If she just told us she was a child and [the abuse] happened then we will hear it but if we see a little yellow dress we will understand it and we will remember what it was like, to wear your favourite yellow dress and you know just to evoke that image inside us because we want to bring the audience on a journey with us. With each story Jyoti hands [the actor] their object, in other words saying ‘remember yourself, speak about this, tell your story, bring your testimony.’”

I mention the recent case of a thirteen-year-old abuse victim being labelled ‘predatory’. Farber frowns and shakes her head. “Extraordinary, but yet it’s appalling but not extraordinary, this kind of stuff happens all the time and I, think across the world in different ways, we, we create some kind of diversion from these, and we have to find ways to break the silence.”

It is apparent in Nirbhaya that as well as seeing the injustice in the world (she has previously written about apartheid) Farber also sees beauty – the performers speak about Delhi as ‘a city where god runs in the wires’ and the way Farber speaks has a flow and rhythm akin to poetry.

“There’s such brutality and difficulty, but there’s such beauty as well,” she says. “The sacred and the profane live alongside each other, so inside all that difficulty and pain, there is immense, very profound sense of spirituality and divinity.”

Was it not difficult for her, though, writing about such an intense and horrible subject matter?

“I find this kind of work very fulfilling, so for me difficulty is part of it. Of course it’s difficult, of course it’s emotional but I’m grateful for those things,” she says. “I find it very deadening not to be engaging with things that are difficult or emotional. It’s not easy, but it’s my work and it’s where I draw my purpose from. For me, difficulty is part of all the work I do. I trust if something is difficult because it’s usually worth it.”

A performance of Nirbhaya. Photo: William Burdett-Coutts
© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit