Malaysian composer Rekha Raveenderen has worked on many music projects in her career but her most recent one – composing the soundtrack for Dirty Secrets, an international dance short film – has been especially meaningful: It was her first activism piece.
“I’m really honoured to be part of this project. I’ve worked on so many music projects but this is the first time my music is part of work that is advocating for social justice, and on an issue that women face globally,” says Rekha.
The dance short film is an autobiographical piece that traces the life of three-time Indian National Champion of Bharatanatyam (Indian Classical dance), Prathiba Natesan Batley, and the sexual abuse and violation that she has experienced in both in India and the United States.
Sexual abuse and harassment isn’t something that’s confined to a region but it happens all over the world, says 44-year-old Prathiba who is founder of Eyakkam Dance Company, which advocates for social justice through dance.
Prathiba and Rekha, who have never met in person, liaised with each other via WhatsApp and Zoom for the project. The pair were first introduced several years ago by a mutual friend but it wasn’t until the pandemic hit three years ago that they started working together.
The international collaboration comprises an all-woman cast and crew from Malaysia, India and the US, and has both Tamil and English versions.
Rekha created the music while the script, dance choreography and art direction was done by Prathiba.
“It was about 10 months after being introduced by a mutual friend when we actually started working together but Rekha has really brought the performance to life with her music,” says Prathiba.
“Prathiba contacted me after I released a piece I had composed in memory of my late mum in May 2022 called Mathair (Mother),” says Rekha.
“I felt Rekha executes emotions through her music really well and I wanted to work with her,” adds Prathiba.
Years of abuse
“The abuse started when I was a six-year-old living in Chennai, India. When I moved to the United States at age 20, I thought I could finally be free from it. But I realised that abuse still happens, although it takes on a different form,” says Prathiba.
Adding to her own traumatic experiences, several events that were reported in the news made Prathiba want “to do something about this human rights violation that happens to so many women”.
Prathiba details the 2012 Delhi gang rape case, known as the Nirbhaya case, where a 23-year-old woman was beaten, gang-raped and tortured in a bus and died 13 days later, while her male companion was beaten, gagged and knocked unconscious with a metal rod.
“And in 2013, there was the Mumbai gang rape where a 22-year-old woman (photojournalist intern) was gang raped by five men including a juvenile, when she went on an assignment to the deserted Shakti Mills with a male colleague, who was beaten and tied up. In another case, an 18-year-old call centre employee reported that she too was gang-raped inside the mills complex.
“More recently, two months ago, in Manipur, two women were paraded naked and sexually assaulted by a mob of men. There have been so many cases that people have become numb.
“I wanted to do something. I wanted to do a dance short film to give survivors a voice and encourage more discussion on the issue. I hope this can be a call to action, and that more survivors will come forward to tell their own stories, and that people will finally understand this happens to all women, not just those with a certain persona,” she says.
Ethnic yet international
Rekha says that the thought process that went into the project was different from previous pieces she has worked on.
“In the past, I’ve done songs or music for films and I’d have the script and visuals beforehand. But in this case, I had to complete the music before the dance could be choreographed,” she explains.
According to Rekha, sexual abuse and harassment is also a topic that requires greater sensitivity, even when it comes to composing.
“I had to be more sensitive to get the right emotions to convey Prathiba’s story. And since it starts in India and then goes to the US, the music theme has to have ethnic elements and yet sound international. Moreover, the topic of sexual abuse and harassment is a global one,” she says.
“Based on the few conversations we’ve had, I knew Prathiba was a strong person. The pain she’s gone through has carried her through her life and given her strength. She’s a survivor and I can see in her that sense of fearlessness, power and confidence every time I speak with her. Foremost in my mind was that I had to be able to tell her story in a way that depicts her accurately and authentically,” she says.
“So the music theme has to have an essence of the pain and hurt she’s gone through and yet reflect her power and strength. And it mustn’t sound too angry or vulnerable,” she adds.
Rekha says that she started working on the theme for the music first. Inspiration, she says, came to her early in the morning one day.
“It came to me around 2am or 3am when I was tinkling on the piano. I hummed along as I played it on the piano for Prathiba, and she liked having the female voice element so we included it. Some of the choices I made in developing the theme – particularly when she moved from India to the US was in the selection of musical instruments. I introduced different instruments at different points. There is the voice part, then the flute which is very ethnic. And, for the part depicting the time after the move to the US, I bring in stronger strings and the electric guitar,” she says.
“Prathiba was very happy with the outcome. The only adjustment that we made was some slight volume adjustments because the focus is on her narration in the story and the music has to complement this,” Rekha explains.
The dance short film was partially funded by the Dance/USA Fellowship that Prathiba was awarded in 2022 for her work in addressing social justice issues through the Indian classical dance form, Bharatanatyam.
“My projects focus on advocacy and activism for social justice through my dance company Eyakkam, which means movement, and this doesn’t just refer to physical movement, but also social movement,” says Prathiba, adding that she will be working on a project about the caste system next.
“Doing the dance short film has been very cathartic. I hope that the women and men who watch this, who are survivors of similar violations, will realise they aren’t alone in the trauma they’ve gone through and will come forward and talk about it,” she says.
“I hope the film will create dialogues that help people understand the viewpoint of survivors. Usually, survivors are questioned and blamed while the perpetrator is given the benefit of the doubt. I hope people will take a kinder and more compassionate approach towards dealing with survivors, and that people will be more open to seeking healthy healing,” she adds.
The response to Dirty Secrets has been positive and encouraging, says Prathiba, a former university professor of statistics.
“Many women contacted me after the release of the dance short film. Some of them were crying. They shared stories of similar experiences they’ve gone through, which they’ve never told anyone before.”
“The short film also received a standing ovation from both the men and women in the audience when it was shown in St Louis at the summer Performing Arts Academy to an audience of 300 people.”
The dance short film, which is available on YouTube and other social media, has received 30 awards as well as recognitions (finalist and honourable mentions) from international film festivals.
It is also being screened at an International Women’s Film Festival in Philadelphia in the US this month (Sept 21 - Oct 1), and at the Louisville Film Festival in October, and several others.
“Prathiba is very brave and courageous to share her story and I hope it creates awareness and change in the system, and tells other survivors out there that it’s not taboo to speak about it. She’s someone who has been through unspeakable things and has proven she can speak about it and show her worth, and she’s doing so much in her professional capacity to empower other survivors,” says Rekha.
“When Prathiba ends her narration with ‘Is that the best we can do?’ musically, I also conclude the piece with a question mark. The music doesn’t really ‘end’, it intentionally seems as if it’s ‘hanging’ because the issue isn’t resolved and the listener is meant to think about it further,” she concludes.
View Dirty Secrets on YouTube.