As I entered the dimly lit room, I was greeted with an empty chair, a spotlight on it. At that moment I knew, that “With Nothing On” was a show that would leave me, with nothing on. The title of the show is absolutely fitting. I entered the theatre with no preconceived notions (the writers intentionally created a mystery around the show’s content), and I left the theatre with naked emotions; my vulnerabilities, with nothing on.
“With Nothing On” comprises 3 solo act performances written and performed by Bhagyashree Tarke, Joyeeta Dutta, and Simrat Harvind Kaur. The show starts with Bhagyashree’s tongue-in-cheek comedy set “Trial and Terror”, setting the tone for the entire show. In their set, they vivaciously frolicked around heavy themes of childhood trauma, sexual abuse, and well, religion. Their dark humour lit the room with laughter and warmed the audience for the 2nd act of the show. The 2nd act “What would you like to have?” shows us Joyeeta’s character, a conventionally attractive air hostess, grappling with societal pressures of being the flawless, “hairless” feminine beauty that every woman “needs” to be. From paying parlour wali aunty 500 Rupees extra for a bikini wax, to recounting instances of being bullied in school for her body hair, all culminating in her final breakdown where she outbursts in Assamese. Joyeeta’s character vehemently pushes the audience into a disquiet space; a perfect breeding ground for revelatory thoughts. This bubbling drama set the stage for the last act, Simrat’s “Jooda” which was intense, like your regular theatre drama but with sprinkles of humour. The final act shows us a 16-year-old Sikh queer woman, trying to make sense of gender amidst the throes of puberty. Once fondly called “Sher Puttar” by her father,
Simrat’s Sapan finds herself perplexed by the change in her family’s behaviour towards her now that she is becoming a “woman”. We witness Sapan grappling with the disparity in how certain actions are accepted when performed by male family members but frowned upon when she does the same. Her journey also delves into the societal stigma surrounding her queerness, making her question if her queerness is something immoral. In the final act, clothing and physical appearance are used to challenge the conventional ideas of masculinity and femininity, urging us to consider the possibility of embracing both aspects in one’s identity.
All three acts were fiercely feminist and had a shared theme of childhood trauma meshed with complex themes like gender expression, sexuality, and societal pressures of being a woman. As a Punjabi queer, I related the most to Sapan’s character. It felt like a scene taken from my teenage life. Watching a young Sapan question her gender and sexuality, opened a chest of neatly wrapped memories of my adolescence. A queer Muslim friend who accompanied me to the show related the most to Bhagyashree’s act, where they talked very openly about themes of sexuality within Islam. Intersectional characters like these represent entire communities and “With Nothing On” leaves an echoing impact with its diverse themes and characters. The show’s themes had something for everyone to take back and ponder about. Because we bury our painful experiences so meticulously, theatre acts like these urge us to connect with the parts of us that continue to influence our daily lives. Theatre has always fascinated me, to immerse yourself so deeply in a character, to live a story that may not be your own; it teaches us resilience, it teaches us courage. Theatre gifts us a space to express and experiment with emotions and “With Nothing On” triumphs in using this space to tell stories that echo in the audiences’ minds long after the curtain falls.
I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the writers/performers, Simrat Harvind Kaur. Here is a peek into my very lengthy, stimulating, and intellectual conversation with them:
The third act of the show delves into the complexities of queer identity, including the intersectionality of being Sikh and queer. Could you elaborate on how you approached this intersectionality in your performance, and why it’s important to address such unique experiences within the LGBTQ+ community?
My performance piece came from a deeply personal space; it reflects my own journey. I grapple with the conflict between accepting myself, embracing the queer community, and my deeply rooted familial and religious identity. Regardless of my personal beliefs in God, spirituality, or cultural identity, my reality straddles two different worlds, and this duality influences my performance.
Discussing such intersectional experiences is crucial because we need to shed light on the diversity of the people within the community as well. As an introverted queer woman coming from a religious minority in India I see myself being intimidated and sometimes struggling to blend in within queer spaces too.
It’s important for me to share stories that are in context to our overlapping identities because there are times when I feel the need to see more sikh queer artists’ experiences that I could relate to personally and get inspired by. Our religious/cultural identity shouldn’t have to be exclusive of our queer identity. It’s not easy to be out and expressive of the two together but I hope to reach there by taking this leap and keep sharing stories reflecting on the politics of these overlapping identities through my artform. I long to see more queer Sikh people, for those I grew up with to understand that one of us can be queer without the need for secrecy.
“With Nothing On” is a collaborative project with three distinct solo acts. How did you coordinate and align your individual performances to create a cohesive narrative? Can you share any challenges or memorable moments from this collaborative process?
At the outset, we didn’t have a predetermined theme for the show. Each performance took its own unique path. However, as we progressed through the writing process, we discovered that all three narratives, while distinct in context, revolved around the complexities of identity, rooted in culture and influenced by broader societal and political dynamics.
What intrigued us was that, despite our diverse personal experiences and contexts, we found a common thread of identity crisis, childhood, trauma, and abuse that united all three performers. These themes emerged as a shared and relatable reality.
As a queer artist, your work inspires others within the LGBTQ+ community to explore their own creative expressions. Can you share any advice or insights for emerging queer artists who want to use their art to tell their own stories?
I say, just share your stories. It’s vital for queer individuals to have their narratives heard, as it fosters a sense of community where we can exchange experiences, find common ground, heal together, collaborate, celebrate, and support each other through challenges.
However, I must acknowledge the precarious political and societal environment we inhabit, which may not always be safe for our diverse identities and intersections. When we share our stories, it’s crucial to do so in a relatively safe or what I like to call a ‘brave space.’ A brave space honors courage and respects vulnerability. As a team of three friends embarking on this journey, we provided each other with a space where we understood each other’s identities and could openly work on the stories we wished to share.
Additionally, it’s essential to have a support system in place. When we delve into personal material within a performative context, we must be mindful of how we handle the stories we’re exploring. Seeking guidance from professionals becomes important, whether they are therapists, creative arts therapists, intimacy coaches, or whoever you can have access to. Surrounding yourself with individuals who can hold space for you is invaluable for this purpose.
How do you envision the role of theater and the arts in advancing LGBTQ+ visibility and acceptance, both in India and globally?
Sharing our stories is essential so that we can foster more communities where we can exchange our common yet unique experiences. Historically, theatre and the arts have consistently served as powerful political tools for expression, advocacy, and healing.
While actors often seek a diverse range of characters to portray, there’s also a yearning for representation within the industry. This show was an effort to carve out space for myself, a space that I wasn’t finding elsewhere. When more queer artists step forward to share their stories through their art, they will be creating that space for themselves, even if it’s not readily provided by others. This, in turn, will undoubtedly increase visibility and acceptance in society.
It’s intriguing to note that through the arts, many individuals have found the courage to share their truths with their families. While mainstream media reaches a wider audience, theatre possesses a unique power of expression. Live art can profoundly impact people because it’s authentic, immediate and right in your face.
Theatre like any art form, allows us to immerse ourselves in other worlds, to live through other people’s stories, or even to discover that they’ve stepped into our world. It speaks the universal language of emotion, the primary means of communication of humans. It transcends the barriers of words and labels, connecting us on a deeper level.