teeth have a memory
Teeth Have A Memory is a nascent project, which was my MFA graduation piece. It's the first play I have written, directed, and performed in.
The play uses the metaphor sexual violence is colonisation as its basis. This is then abstracted as themes of surrealism and absurdism take over. The protagonist is baking a cake on the day of her birthday as visitors continuously interrupt her. Teeth, the only bone-like elements in our body that are exposed and express our emotions when we speak, smile, or choose not to expose them is tied to sexual assault and migration. Teeth can be moved, people can be moved, and nations are built by people, and nations are assaulted by external and internal forces, and as a result, the bodies are assaulted. Essentially, the play is autobiographical in that I took my body as the site and source from which I explored the larger physical and metaphysical world it inhabits and the impact this had on me, and the implications of that impact, and in turn, the impact I have on it.
When teeth are moved, they can move back, because they have a memory, and when people are moved, they can want to move back, because they have a memory, and when women are assaulted, like when nations are assaulted and colonised, they can scream in pain for more than a decade because they, too, have a memory. I make particular reference to the 1947 Partition of India, which is where I was born, although this dissipates as the plot unravels. In this sense, the play is much like the cake itself: a multilayered metaphor. It's raw, cruel, brutally honest, and unabashedly feminist.
It's a work in progress. It was pure madness trying to bring it to life.
I am very grateful to the all-female cast and crew for humoring my playful nature, and who experimented with me endlessly, as I rewrote and re-edited the script, and directed them and myself in scenes I had written, whilst performing in them as well. It was all a bit too much at times, something I'll bear in mind for the future. Less can often be more.
Also, this was very challenging subject-matter, so thank you to their patience and sensitivity towards the material.
So far it has had only one full performance in front of an audience.
I hope someday to give this project a new life, and perhaps publish it and hand it over to another cast and creative team, but for the time being there are no further performances planned.
When it returns, which it will, it will incorporate any excluded elements and themes, and tell the whole story as effectively as possible.
1) I'd like to add since some find this concept and performance inflammatory that the desire behind telling this story is to humanise what can become an incredibly dehumanising, isolating, and alienating experience, particularly when colonial history, religion, power, gender-based violence, mental health, and the social phenomenon of the transnational capitalist class factors into the historical materiality of the contemporary immigrant story. Add energy and the climate crisis to that and the art becomes part of the incredibly inconvenient yet irresistible and urgent truth no one should ignore.
2) Reactions to this art become a part of the art and are as revelatory as the art itself, and any attempts to ridicule, undermine, silence, or plagiarise are only furthering the aim of the art, which is to expose the reality of human behavior motivated by varying degrees of gender consciousness.
3) What do I mean by gender consciousness? I mean the fact is that the issue of sex and sexuality in India remains taboo and there is a veil that society at large prefers over some fairly harsh truths regarding gender inequality. There is a lasting colonial influence (Buggery Act, Section 377, Mughal invasion of India, violence against women during the Partition of India) on how sexual repression and prudishness became the norm in India, which is something that this play targets. Early on in the Indian entertainment industry it was more acceptable to show scenes of rape or assault than actual consensual intimacy, and this normalisation of patriarchal control over women's bodies had and continues to have wide-scale repercussions in society. Religious influence, both pre, during, and post colonial times condones violence against women, which continues to dictate contemporary social attitudes regarding sexual morality and makes toxic patriarchal behavior permissible. In fact, after the 1947 Partition, both Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers decided not to acknowledge all the forced marriages and abductions of women that had taken place. The recovery process was long and incomplete. This historical mark of violence left a deep-rooted impact on the social psyche of those nations and the status of women in society. Today, the worst consequence of all this, I would argue, is the violence caused by sexual repression particularly with regards to the LGBTQIA population and the micro-aggressions and misogyny that are tolerated and perpetuated by the roles given to women on screen, stage, and real life.
4) Furthermore, I'm not saying I don't respect the choices men and women make based on their own cultural, religious, or political views. My intention is not to be perceived as passing objective judgement from any enlightened or moral higher ground, and nor do I believe I have the right to do so. I do however believe that it is my right as an artist to question whether or not those views are really their own and ask what it means to truly have a choice and thereby a voice. I cannot and will not apologise if that is seen as offensive or dangerous because often those men and women seem to have no problem passing judgement from their perceived place of objective moral higher ground. That hypocrisy is truly disgusting. It takes soil from a sex workers' workplace to make the idols of female Goddesses and yet they themselves are treated like sinful women.
5) Never ever make the mistake of blaming a victim of sexual assault. The second assault endured by sexual assault victims is the reaction to them coming forward about their assault. In that light, those who criticise or threaten a victim for coming forward are as bad as the original perpetrator.
6) The physical and mental health consequences endured by repeated assault are a unique form of torture. I know, because I had to endure it. This play shows that because no one wants to see it. It's more convenient to pretend that it's an insignificant issue, a minor transgression rather than a severe violation. The audacity to make that an issue of honour is something that is beyond terrifying.
7) This story started from an incident that occurred with me, but I made it about more than that because the truth behind any kind of trauma, physical, emotional, or generational, is that it is far more complex than a mere matter of crime and punishment. In that respect, so is all of human history. So, if you can understand one person's story then the world itself might become a little clearer. Particularly when that person's life and experiences have an implication on, for better or worse, all of humanity. I'm not saying that to glorify my existence. I'm saying it because awareness and conscientiousness come with a very high, immeasurable, and invisible price.
To put it another way, this is the story of a journey worth remembering as it will continue to be provocative, ask questions, and offer new insights for us to understand the material and immaterial universe in which we all as a human species play merely a tiny, inexplicable, yet critical part.
My hope with this art is that we remember to play it better now than we have before.
All the photographs here were taken by me with the consent of the actors and performers present. Unfortunately, not all actors who took part in performances of Teeth Have A Memory to date are featured, but they will be as this work develops.