This week I met Rakhi Mutta.
I’ll describe her the only way I can:
She is a graceful and modest sari-laden feminist fairy godmother, whose gift of sparking awareness towards under-represented groups comes to fruition through her natural flair for storytelling.
I was not familiar with her work upon attending the beautiful performance piece, The Good Indian Bride; I knew just that this piece was an extension of a photo series by the same title that had been featured in the 2015 Nuit Blanche exhibit. Ms. Mutta has worked in community development for years and always paid special mind to high risk communities. Now she is using her creativity and eye for the visually stunning to create a dialogue about hushed topics.
I was running a touch late and a bit frantic about it. When I arrived outside of DAIS, cigarette in hand, I peered through the steam coated glass and was immediately extra confused. I could make out a packed room of spectators, all directing their attention to the front of the room where Rakhi and her team stood, extravagantly dressed in a modern version of classic East Indian garb. I was sure this was the “wedding reception” I was missing but upon ditching my dart and entering the jam-packed room, I realized they were beginning the piece with a panel.
Rakhi Mutta and her team of strong women of colour spoke on the piece and its personal significance to them, while answering the room’s inquiries. There was empowering talk of how as women of colour, it is our duty to plant a seed, and accept that we might not even be around when that seed sprouts. It’s about leaving a legacy of value, making history. I caught the tail end of this section, and heard Rakhi inform the room of the presence of two counsellors available to them, in case anyone should feel triggered. I’ll admit I was not sure what she meant, what could possibly be so triggering in a performance piece surrounding a North Indian marriage? I’d soon find out.
We were then instructed to enjoy ourselves and drink our hearts out at the open bar, as it was, after all, a wedding celebration! Lastly, we were encouraged to interact with the various actors in the room while we waited our turn to be taken up into the installation rooms in small groups.
The walls were adorned with photography of beautiful young East Indian women in traditional clothing, contrastingly positioned in provocative poses. As I made my way deeper into the area, I found a young and fresh-faced Indian woman sitting on a couch, pouring tea for an older Indian woman. I stood by and observed their body language beneath the hum of voices echoing through the room. The respect and innocence coming off the young woman towards her elder (and soon-to-be husband’s mother) was clear to see.
A young bride-to-be will join in a tea ceremony with her partners mother, where she will act in the utmost respect and grace in order to gain the approval of her new mother-in-law.
I then made my way to the bar where a white and red wine spread covered the bar top. I then noticed a striking bartender with long, neatly tied onyx black hair who stood behind the bar, motionless, with a piece of black tape over her mouth. I almost overlooked her in her timid manner and utter silence. I began to understand the presence of counsel for people who might feel triggered. I felt a bit shaken as I took a drink off the table and thanked the woman who could do nothing more than blink downwards at me in acknowledgment. I made my way back into the room to wait my turn to view the performance upstairs.
It was then, upon walking back towards the main room, that I took note of the other ornately dressed East Indian women, all clad in the same black tape the bartender was sporting earlier. I was both bewildered by the costumes in the room, and unnerved by the facial accessory and which accompanied them. My gaze hit a trail of delicate translucent fabric on the floor and rose to the hands of one of the women, who was gently holding a copy of the evenings program in her hands. Spotting a beautiful candid, I approached with my viewfinder glued to my eye. The young woman spotted me and readjusted the program in her hands- posing for me pliantly, anticipating my needs from miles away. I approached her after the photos had been taken, to share with her what she had helped capture, but with the slick black tape across her lips she threw me a wavering look and as her glance hit the ground so did my stomach. This was obedience, the ideal. The Good Indian Bride was embodied into the bartender, the young lady pouring tea, and the other taped up women I interacted with that evening and the tone was solemn, passive and opulent.
When it was my groups turn to be led into the installation room upstairs I had the pleasure of telling Rakhi Mutta how stunning she and her troupe looked, and to ask her who was responsible for the aesthetic in the room that evening: Mani Jassal, one of Toronto’s very own. Of course, it made perfect sense that these two women should collaborate—both have strong roots in their culture and traditions; the messages they convey are forward-thinking and their execution exudes rebellion. After overdosing on Rakhi’s undeniable poise and charm and fan-girling quietly at Rupi Kaur (who, if you don’t already know, is an incredible poet and another empowered young WOC to be reckoned with) I was led upstairs for the piece, finally.
Rakhi Mutta (left) Rupi Kaur (center) Komal Minhas (right)
I could try and explain but so much of it was visceral;
I shivered deep,
and fell inwards into myself, all evening.
East Indian culture teaches young women to smile close-mouthed, look downwards and make little sound, so as to be demure as possible.
Two young women rub a lotion on their younger counterpart while instructing her to stay out of the sun if she wants to grow up to marry a nice respectable man. The caste system has affected India in respects to racism, and like many other cultures, theirs equates skin fairness to greatness.
The smell of jasmine hit me like a brick wall in this room. The Suhaag Raat marks the moment the newly wed bride loses her virginity. It is to be given, as a gift, to her new husband. She must wait by herself in bed for him to find her, and drink the safron almond milk from her hands for fertility before accepting her “gift”.
The dowry has been outlawed in India but is still the cause of the death and abuse of countless women. This installation was to represent one bride- fresh faced and still unmarked, and the other bride having been scathed by the repercussions of the dowry demands not being met. In many cases, the groom would leave the gas on overnight, so that upon making breakfast in the morning, his new wife should burn and be forever scarred.
If you ever get the chance to see their works, you should definitely do so. Here’s some beautiful creative women you should be following:
What a beautifully put together, meaningful and necessary performance.