Sangeeta Yadav speaks to women of grit who have carved out a niche for themselves in male-dominated professions
‘I never gave up’
She is India’s only woman commando trainer who holds a 7th-degree black belt in military martial arts. She is a combat shooting instructor, a firefighter, Professional Association of Diving Instructors in scuba diving and Himalayan Mountaineering Institute medalist in rock climbing. If this was not enough to add to her kitty, she was Mrs India World pageant finalist as well! She is also one of the 10 women in the world certified in Jeet Kune Do, a unique martial art form created by Bruce Lee in the 1960s.
Meet 48-year-old Seema Rao who has been practising martial arts since the age of 12. A daughter of freedom fighter, Prof Ramakant Sinari, who helped in the liberation of Goa from the Portuguese, Seema grew up listening to stories of India’s struggle for independence and always wanted to serve her country.
“I was a very weak child and used to get bullied by the seniors when I was studying in Mount Carmel High School in Bandra, Mumbai. They used to hit me with a book and snatch away the lunch box. People around me laughed but I wanted to change the attitude children had and become stronger. My father was a freedom fighter in the Goa Freedom struggle against Portuguese and listening to the stories sowed the seeds of patriotism in me. Stories about how my father and his friend escaped from jail, swam across the Mandovi river and reach safety to continue his work for freedom struggle inspired me. I always thought that if life would give me an opportunity, I too would serve the country. My destiny gave me my heart’s desire,” Rao says who is one of winners of Women of Pure Wonder Awards by Vodafone Foundation.
This dream came true when Rao met Major Deepak Rao, a medical student who was a martial artist as well. They fell in love and she got married at the age of 18. “My husband was into martial arts and I understood that this is what will make me strong and I wanted to be in a position where I could do things on my own. He became my teacher,” Rao says and recounts an incident that occurred on Chowpatty one day with the rag pickers who passed some lewd remarks when she was training with her husband.
“On our way back, we saw the boys at a distance and my husband said: ‘Those are the guys and it is your fight’. Saying this, he moved away. When I walked past them, they started whistling and one of the guys came in front of me and blocked my way. I looked at his face and slapped him. He got angry and attacked me. This time I tackled him with my leg. That’s when I realised that martial arts is necessary for every women. I was no longer weak,” Rao tells you.
From there, she went on to learn boxing, wrestling, Bruce Lee’s art Jeet Kune Do, shooting, etc. Soon she started getting invites to train people. “I never wanted to be a commando trainer but it just happened. I started training commandos in Close Quarter Battle art and reflex shooting method,” Rao says.
In 1996, the husband and wife were approached by the Service Chiefs of Army, Navy, BSF & NSG who wanted to introduce their training programmes to the jawans. This meant that for the next eight months in a year, Rao would to travel in remote locations to give training. She never asked for any payment in return.
She was working in a male-dominated environment and Rao could sense bias because she was a woman. “Some were reluctant to learn from me because I am a woman. But I believed in myself and live by giving personal example. For instance, if any task needed to be done, I would do first. Having to prove myself was something that I had to do time and again. I felt that was how I would have an upper hand with the men trainees,” she says.
And then there were financial hardships as well since the couple would train others for free. “We were broke and I had to sell my jewellery to meet our expenses. But that didn’t deter us. We also consciously decided not to have a child as most of the time my husband and I were away training at far off places. Having a child would have meant to take a break of five years which I couldn’t afford to do. My husband supported me,” Rao tells you, who later adopted a girl.
It was when she met with vertebral fracture and a severe head injury that made her rethink her choice of a career. “I fell on my head and had memory loss for some time. I also had severe back injuries that kept me bed ridden for four months. That was the first time when I thought of quitting. But I knew that martial arts was my life. There was no way I could give it up. I recovered and took easy. I got wiser and do things cautiously now,” Rao says.
She has co-authored many books with her husband like Encyclopedia of Close Combat Ops, A Comprehensive Analysis of World Terrorism and Commando Manual of Unarmed Combat which are available at libraries of FBI, INTERPOL, UN, and SWAT Police the world over. She has also produced and acted in a film titled Hathapayi directed by her husband which revolves around a woman and talks about Jeet Kune Do for the first time in a movie.
Her journey may have been fraught with difficulties but she says it has been worth it. She has also received the World Peace Award in Malaysia and the US President’s Volunteer Service Award. In 2011, her husband received the President of India’s Rank Award for his 20 years of contribution to the Indian Army.
The couple have designed a programme Defence Against Rape and Eve Teasing (DARE) for women to help them deal with harassment, molestation, sexual assault, and rape. “The programme equips women with not just being able to defend themselves but also teaches them how to stop the situation from getting worse. To protect yourself and not be dependent on somebody is what empowers a woman. Women need to drop the conditioning that says men are superior to them. Women today are doing better than men. If you hit an obstacle, don’t think it is the end of the world. A woman has to fight her battles. Understand the obstacle and address it, it will make you stronger. If you are getting better each day, to tackle your problems, you are on the right path,” Rao says.
STAND-UP FOR YOURSELF
She is funny, witty, bold, a go-getter with a no non-sense attitude. 29 year-old comedian Aditi Mittal speaks her mind and can have you in splits narrating stereotypical and hypocritical views about women and the society. From becoming one of the first five Indians to be featured in an Indians only stand-up show — Local Heroes to her first solo show Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say and her recently launched Bad Girl web-series, Mittal has done it all with much élan.
“My masi always says ‘when will you get an actual job?’ I tell her laughter is my job,” Mittal laughs.
While pursuing her undergrad in the US, Mittal took up odd jobs like giving pedicure-manicure, work as a bartender, baby sit and even worked in a production house. Comedy became a part of her life when she came back to India after the 2009 recession. She stayed jobless for months. It was then she got to know about open mics and tried her luck at it.
“The function of comedy for me is a about people coming together. That people in the crowd instantly laugh and think ‘Oh I never thought of this that way’, or ‘I know exactly what she is talking about’. For me the sound of laughter is the sound of unity. It’s amazing when the audience react in the same way, to the same thought at the same time,” Mittal says who is one of winners of Women of Pure Wonder Awards by Vodafone Foundation.
For a woman, to get into the business of comedy was no cake-walk. Like in any other fields, men had an upper hand in Stand-up Comedy. “It’s been a journey of standing up for what I believe in. The comedy industry for women has a sticky feet and a glass ceiling. For the longest time, we have seen disapproval, been asked to shut up and mansplaining ( to comment on or explain something to a woman in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate way by a man) or man being the main narrative. For instance, if you are sitting in a room full of men, you will not be allowed to talk or you will be told to shut up. As if I don’t count and my point of view is immaterial,” Mittal says.
Though she faced a lot of failure, she never stopped trying. “Failure is the most important element for a person to succeed especially in comedy. Comedy teaches you how insignificant you are in the larger scheme of things. One should not be ashamed of one’s failure. When you fail, you work harder,” Mittal opines.
Her stand-up act on underwear was not received well. She was trolled on social media and people hurled abuses and questioned her character. “My idea to do comedy has been to make fun of things that are more powerful than you are. That way, comedy makes an impact. In the first two years of my stand-up, I went through a tough time. It made me question my decision to pursue this line. I thought I was the stupid person here. It was overwhelming for me to deal with everything thing then. Now, I don’t think. My masi gets horrified. She tells me: ‘Aditi tu khandaan ke samne kya kya baat kerti rehti hai’. And I tell her that mujhe farak nahi padta. The price of being a feminist woman is much higher than if you are a feminist man. The feminist men get praise and money and the feminist women get to hear that you are too loud,” Mittal tells you.
Self-sufficiency is what Mittal aims for and considers it important. “I want to be self-sufficient. It gets rid of sticky feet. It’s about you saying I am capable of doing something and I will do this because this is what I want to do. No matter what field you are in, self-sufficiency, whether it is economic, health, mental or emotional, is very important for a woman,” Mittal explains.
For most people, comedy is about making fun of women and propagating sexism and one such incident left Mittal horrified. “I was doing a parody award show and we were asked to write a joke on supporting actress. The men come up with an idea to display the picture of the actor’s boobs and write their name below with nominations. I was aghast and told them that you aren’t just making a statement but propagating sexism. I refused to stand on the stage with a projector at the back with someone’s boobs on it and people making awful jokes about it. I fought with them and came up with 40 other things that we could do. The idea was dropped, but I knew if I had not been there in the room, the men would have felt proud to come up with this idea. When you hear comedians propagate old ideology on a progressive platform like comedy, it irks me. Would you joke about disable people? Yes. But not of them, but of the society,” Mittal says, who gets her strong-headedness from her masi.
“My mother passed away when I was very young. It is my masi, (I call her mom), who brought my brother and me like her own children. Being a single woman in1980s and to bring up two children and manager her life was a brave step. The way she has taught and encouraged us has made me what I am today. I learnt to laugh even the worst of situations because of her,” Mittal says.
Looking at women doing comedy, many started treating it as a separate genre and called it woman humour. “When I started doing comedy people would come and say ‘arrey wah, you are doing woman humour’. I’m not doing woman humour. I am doing humour. The understanding that woman is a genre is rubbish to me. I tell everyone that women constitute almost 50 per cent of the population. We need to stand up and be counted,” Mittal says.
It was not surprising that her web-series Bad Girl become viral. “Facing all the bashing and criticism that made me contemplate on many things, I started feeling lonely and started Bad Girl with another comedian Nidhi Goyal who is visually disabled. I wanted to showcase women who are doing unconventional work. It is said that well-behaved women rarely make history. So let’s be bad,” Mittal says.
Her advise to other comediennes: “Get on stage as many times as you can. Remember your audience will be your final boss. If you are good you will get work. Be quick and think on your feet. I have realised that comedians never make fun of anything unless we love it secretly or it mean something to us. Otherwise why would we spend time thinking about it? It is very easy to be in the system and smile and never disagree. That’s how 80 per cent of women survive. You diminish yourself in order to be accepted by the people which I am not ready to do. If you see other women who are doing something that you may aspire to do, then just stand-up for yourself. You have women in every field today who are doing brilliant work. You can do it too.”
(The article also got published in Pioneer Newspaper : http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/sunday-pioneer/special/wonder-women.html).