Sujith Nambiar, Ahmedabad:  The excitement was palpable at the Prakash Higher Secondary School auditorium, as Ahmedabad’s first all-women comedy collective Mahila Manch co-founded by Preeti Das and Shefali Pandey, performed ‘The MAA BAHIN Show’ as a part of their monthly stand-up comedy series ‘The Period Show’. Hosted by ace journalist and comedian Preeti Das, the show was aimed at reclaiming the titles of Maa and Behen, which have, over the years, become insensitive and patriarchal abuses and slurs used profusely by people on a daily basis..

The performers of the evening were Shefali Pandey, Aarti Nair, Aarti Boriya, Vidya, Preeti Das, Pooja Vijay and a special parody song titled the Maa-Bahin Song was performed by musician Nicolette Gore, singer Namrata Varshney and Gujarati film and theatre actor Deeksha Joshi, which called out misogyny and sexism. More than the rib-tickling jokes,  the wavering reactions of the audience were a delight to witness. The various routines, combined with Das's acerbic wit, held up a mirror to society, making you wonder if it was actually ok to laugh at certain jokes, or if they were meant as lessons. Das, one of the founders of Mahila Manch, says the platform was meant to encourage more women to highlight issues important to them, through comedy.  “As a stand-up comedian in Gujarat, the biggest problem I have seen over the years is the almost nil participation from women in the comedy industry. Pushing it further is this toxic, tightly knit ‘boys-club’ ethos that discourages girls from taking to the stage.

Sunday's show began with Nicolette Gore, Deeksha Joshi and Namrata Varshney performing a parody version of a popular song from Hindi film, Gangs of Wasseypur. Lyrics of the song that went something like ‘I am a maa-behen, they want to see my bun. When I pull it out, why mankind wants to run?’ (full lyrics here) called out the prevalent sexism and patriarchy amongst us which has from time immemorial dictating women on what’s ladylike and what unladylike. Deeksha, who’s not new to performing on stage in front of a large audience tell us she was nervous and excited at the same time for this. Nervous because Nicolette and Preeti are people under whom she had studied during her college days and now she’d be sharing the stage with them, and excited because this platform was providing her to be who she really is and there was no character or script to keep her bound. Heaping praises on Mahila Manch and its ladies, Deeksha says that it’s great to see this collective throw light on topics like feminism, gender disparity and the social taboos connected to women, using humor as a tool.

It was a refreshing change in the comic scene of Ahmedabad as generally stand up comedy is considered to be a men’s/boys-only club where even if a woman attempts to be a part of it, she is eventually pushed out. All the sets performed on stage were peppered with quirky humour that subtly put forth issues of gender inequality in the society, objectification of women, male privilege and racism. While Shefali Pandey poked fun at the names of coffee shops in Ahmedabad that identified themselves as ‘coffee bars’ and which was equivalent to applying salt on the wounds of those who were having a hard time surviving in the dry state that is Gujarat, Aarti Nair spoke about the everyday racism she encounters as a South Indian in Gujarat, where many find it hard to believe that people belonging to southern states have a fair complexion too and not necessarily the accent. Aarti Boriya’s set on how annoying relatives with their insensitivity and casual sexism gets on her nerves received many laughs and widespread applause as probably everyone in the auditorium could relate to it. But the highlights of the show were the performances by Vidya and Pooja Vijay.

Vidya, who is a queer woman, spoke about the weird and awkward reactions she deals with on a daily basis regarding her gender from men and women alike, and how comedy helps her educate people to understand better the pressing issues of the LGBTQ+ community. Bangalore-based Pooja, who is also the country’s first stuttering comedienne, cracked up everyone in the hall with jokes about her speech-impediment and her funny encounters with people skeptical about her stammer. Talking about her very first trip to Gujarat, Pooja says, “I was pleasantly surprised seeing the reception from the audience as my biggest fear while taking to stage here in Ahmedabad was that my content is mostly in English and if the audience would get my jokes. But it was such an amazing experiencing being a part of Mahila Manch’s innovative concept. I have performed before in all-girls comedy shows, but they were mostly individual comediennes getting together and having a good laugh, there was never an all-women comedy collective like Mahila Manch.”

Shefali Pandey, the co-founder of Mahila Manch and a technology entrepreneur tells us that the collective started off by performing their first ever show at a friend’s living room in Manekbaug and since then there’s no stopping them. From living rooms and cafes accommodating about 60 to 100 people to their last show which was a packed auditorium, they have performed eight shows in Ahmedabad and one in Baroda too. Pandey, who started comedy just six months ago, says that every show by Mahila Manch’s has a cause attached, be it the taboo around periods, body shaming, politics, atrocities on women and the latest one being the insensitive use of abusive words woven around mothers and sisters.

"I have been attending Mahila Manch events from the beginning and have also been a part of their shows and performed with them. This is an extraordinary initiative picked up by them.  With a perfect line up like this, I've never seen such diversity on stage before. This show was a rollercoaster ride for my emotions and I enjoyed every part of it," says Pushan Brahmachari one of the attendees, who is also a stand-up comedian himself and regularly organizes open-mics in the city.

The Mahila Manch is planning on having a show next month called ‘The Minority Show’ which will have artistes and performers belonging to the minority community in the society. And we are sure they’re going to hit it out of the park this time too, like they have been doing it ever since their inception.

Sujith Nambiar tweets @sujith17nambiar. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more