This digital theatre performance questions the depiction of female body in medical textbooks

Written and directed by Ayesha Susan Thomas, ‘​​The Amazing Flabby-Breasted Virgin & Other Sordid Tales’ mixes verbatim theatre with playful interactive elements

By Reema Gowalla

Textbooks are always trusted. But what happens when there is a fallacy in what we have been reading and acquiring knowledge from all our life? We question what’s written in those books? Playwright-director Ayesha Susan Thomas was caught in sort of a doldrum when she came across a news article by Dr Suchitra Dalvi, in which the Mumbai-based gynaecologist voiced her concerns over the inaccurate depiction of the female body in medical textbooks. Ayesha’s latest piece of art spotlights the misconceptions that we refer to with so much reverence, and the danger these entail.

A playful, irreverent digital performance, ‘​​The Amazing Flabby-Breasted Virgin & Other Sordid Tales’, or FBV, is a KathaSiyah presentation that investigates the source of these lessons on the female anatomy that are unapologetically dispensed to the students of medicine and sometimes even to the practising physicians. It probes the complexities of violations that surround sexual and reproductive health rights in urban India. According to Ayesha, this mixed-media performance forms part of an educational arts project that throws light on the systemic issues in both medicine and general education today. Supported by Asia Safe Abortion Partnership, Sunayana Premchander, Mallika Shah and Charulatha Dasappa are the producers of FBV.

Navigating the myths and magical thinking that define the non-masculine, non-heterosexual body, FBV “poses surreal and satirical questions about how women’s bodies are taught, perceived and practiced within medical education in the urban Indian context”. For instance, a textbook of forensic medicine in standard use across India today defines the breasts of a ‘virginal woman’ as “hemispherical, firm, plump and elastic”, while that of a ‘deflorate woman’ as “enlarged and flabby”.

Ayesha Susan Thomas (image credit: Sakshi Parekh)

The fundamental problem, Ayesha thinks, is that even after being aware of the facts through our own lived experiences, we do not usually contradict or question what’s printed in these books. “The patriarchy within medicine is so deep-rooted that it is only exposing a deficit in our own education system. FBV attempts to nudge the audience to shrug off this passive disposition toward the knowledge we gather from these books; ask questions; and possibly be a participant or stakeholder in creating and rendering the accurate information. That’s probably the only way to address this systemic issue that, for generations, has also influenced the way gynaecologists or obstetrician-gynaecologists deal with women’s health,” she elaborates.

Sunayana Premchander

According to Sunayana, the comedic and spoofy treatment of the matter at hand in the performance is deliberate. “The way women’s bodies are described in textbooks is bizarre, and we want to address the issue with the same level of bizarreness. That said, the purpose of the piece is to increase the urgency for change. The harm that these textual inaccuracies cause in real life cannot be overlooked any longer. For years, misconceptions have marred the quality of healthcare access to women, so much so that these directly affect the choices a woman makes regarding her own body — be it childbirth or abortion,” she explains.

Traversing several layers of discourse and redesigning for nearly two years, FBV’s latest avatar is taking the stage, albeit virtually, from February 4 to 6 and then from February 11 to 13, at 11.30 am and 7.30 pm respectively. The script was first developed under the mentorship of Abhishek Majumdar at The Bhasha Centre Playwriting Programme 2019–20.

Chandini Naik and Freya Kothari are the performers of the show, while Krupa MV is the visual artist and Anoop Unnikrishnan is the sound designer. Tanvi Shah and Karen D’mello are the dramaturgs.

Bearing in mind the fatigue caused by ‘going online’ through the pandemic, the makers have experimented quite a bit in terms of keeping the performance as interactive and live-like as possible. “Verbatim theatre and interactive elements dovetail to make FBV a playful and an engaging experience, where the audiences are provoked to react and ask questions,” says Ayesha.

Gaurav Singh Nijjer

Adding to that, the show’s technical director Gaurav Singh Nijjer says, “During the hour-long runtime, members of the audience can access and enter the work through audio, video, games, text and a live performance. Juxtaposing all these mediums to tell a relevant story has been an intriguing journey. Zoom meetings have sapped our energy and patience over the past months. So, while adapting the piece into the tech format, there was a deliberate effort to design it in a simple way so that people find it fun, easy and playful. Instead of having an overpowering effect on them, we wanted the audience to take control of what and how they access the intricacies of the work.”

In the future, the team is hoping to reimagine the show as an offline, live performance.

For the digital piece, you can book your tickets here.

Chandini Naik and Freya Kothari in a still from the show

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