A paper of Theatre Activism by Pritham K Chakravarthy
Photograph from Krishna Gana Sabha
Growing up in a Brahmin ghetto, studying in high-walled convent school, with no men but my own kith and kin I began in cloistered surroundings. Though training in dance and music was a part of it, performance was never thought of as an option. So when I faltered into Sabha drama at the behest of my maternal uncle, it was only seen as child’s play. For some time, they thought, and then she will let it go. But I did not. Never thought of it.
Though I have been involved with Tamil theatre for over 20 years now, to evolve my performing style into a specific form came about in 1996 by default when Gnani, a senior amongst Chennai theatre activists, was making a television serial on 50 years of independence. The script involved a dramatic performance of about 4 minutes. Gnani had done the script based on recordings of Rathnabai set in the early part of the last century and revolving around the stigma faced by middle class widows. When he called me to do it; time was limited and I had no clue about how I was going to do it. It evolved during the shooting, as a kind of ’sit-down-and-I-shall-tell-you-my-story.’ Even then it had not a definite form and was still in its maiden stage.
In 1998, my involvement with Voicing Silence, gender wing of MSSRF took this form into yet another level of maturity. A. Mangai, [a woman theatre director based in Chennai had returned full of ideas after her Fulbright scholarship. She had three interviews with women, done as a student project at the University of Madras, Department of Tamil, which fascinated the two of us from the word 'go'. But reading out one of the scripts to friends did pall our energy, to take it up as a performance script initially. The narration is linear; there is nothing dramatic or dynamic. What is fascinating about an old Dhobi woman talking about her life and donkeys? How do you term this theatre?'
The doubts raised were so loud that Mangai for the premier at Dalit Kalai Vizha [Dalit Arts Festival] decided at the last moment to add song, a chorus and possession dance. I went on stage at 11.30. The piece was preceded by an Oppari [traditional lamentation] performance and to be followed with a Thappattam [a folk drum dance]. We had no idea how our piece would be received. What followed was a surprise to all of us. The piece initially planned to last about 30 mins. took all of 45 minutes when I got off stage. The women in the audience were right on line with me adding to my performance with loud nods and crackling their knuckles. When they actually followed me out into the rain to give me a hug and demand when am I going to do it in Pervakottai, in front of the real Marudhayi [the name of the Dhobi woman], I felt several inches taller. Truly Marudhayi makes me feel like a giant even today every time I speak her words. That play has now traveled a variety of audiences including feminist groups and hard-core theatrephiles.
That led to a long search to read more than what my own femininity limited me with. It was a chance viewing of an, ‘Oh! Feel sorry for us’, type of a film on the aravanis [hijras], which prompted me to go in, and explore that community, which I had selectively forgotten. But, hesitancy of experimenting with my body for a subject like this deterred me for a while.
Nirvanam. Panchagini Human Rights Conference, 2001. Photograph by Venkatesh Chakravarthy
In mid-2000, I personally interviewed six aravanis and came up with a 45 minutes story about a generic aravani, Nirvanam, which was then shaped by members of the Thamizhnadu Aravani Association. Once I had met my aravani sister in a church and started talking to her over a cup of coffee in a roadside stall, things fell gradually into place. It then took five months of meetings with six different aravanis, in my own house, often in the presence of my daughters, sometimes by appointment, sometimes by-chance, in suburban trains, on the beach, at tea stalls, sometimes recorded on tapes, sometimes recorded in memory, but always documented with mutual trust that gave shape to what ‘Nirvanam’ is today. The promise to retain their dignity, portray not just their pain, but their determination and sturdiness in withstanding it, their pleasure in coming into their womanhood, finding solidarity with fellow travelers, and daring to exist against all odds; molded both the form and content of my performance. Being invited to perform at The Edinburgh International Festival 2002 was perhaps the acknowledgment the piece needed to be vindicated.
On my return from the US after my Fulbright, I have been following a similar interview-tell a story pattern to address two major issues along with two NGOs working on those: Domestic Violence, along with PCVC [Prevention of Crime and Victim Care] and Child Sexual Abuse along with Ashreya. In both cases I conducted extensive interviews with victims, psychologists and legal experts before putting my story together. The stories were then dry run amongst experts and in the case of DV victims too. Hands Off and Hit Me Not are today being circulated amongst factory workers, school parents and corporate agencies to create awareness on these issues both in English and Tamil.
In December 2003, Venkatesh Chakravarthy, the person I am married to, was invited to script a play for me based on the behind-the-scene scenario of film actresses in the Tamil Cinema for the ‘Amman and Avenging Women in Tamil Cinema’ seminar. The script of Kannadi, as the piece came to be called, travels from the early 1930s when the Devadasi women, after the drafting of the Abolishment of Devadasi Act in 1934, move to the city to find employment in the Tamil cinema-a process that went on well into the 80s when middle-class anxieties and pressures started acting on them. After its premier at the seminar itself, in English, the play has travelled widely within the city both in English and Tamil and has recently been invited to be performed at the Conference on Post-colonialism and Popular Culture at Stella Maris College, Chennai.
The decision to only tell stories, stories about womanhood, was a conscious one. In 1996 I thought it was only a natural progression to my own evolution. But then the stories I started saying were not mine, though the way I said them were mine. Immaterial to who got the story, from where, I had to find my own comfort zone in putting forth the story which did not have classic Greek literary structures, which were linear, but real, to make the characters true, dignified, and not caricatures. I made false steps. Fell on my face, got up, dusted it and started all over again.
With five full-length one-woman acts, three scripted and performed by me, it seemed that, perhaps, I have there was little new to say on gender. That was when Maitri Gopalakrishna called asking for an appointment. I had not yet heard of the Kuttu Festival 2005. I have been briefly acquainted with Hanne M. de Bruin and P. Rajagopal, but know not much of their working style. 'We, as the curators of the festival would like you to come up with a one-woman piece exploring the Mahabharata from a contemporary, feminist point of view.’ The call was huge and daunting.
I had just two months in which to cover at least five versions of the epic and at least two different commentaries and the themes already taken up for performance by other traditional and modern south Indian theatre, puppetry and dance groups and then zero in on what I would like my piece to cover. Also this was my sixth venture in preparing a text for myself. I had the onus of keeping the piece in line with my agenda of preference, that of ‘performing gender’. When stumbling on to Irawathi Karve’s Mahabharata text, Yuganta, that helped. Then watching the way Vinapani Chawla had spring-boarded from the same text Yugantha for her script on Bhima helped me to arrive at a convincing script based on the life of Dushala.
The emergence of Dushala as a play is embedded into a long Indian history of the treatment of the girl child. In fact, it was the absence of Dushala that made my script. To be born as the only sister of the Kauravas, growing up in the beautiful city of Hastinapur, having watched the entire epic unfold under her eyes, being as much a victim of the circumstances, but remaining a passive agent to all fascinated me. In all the versions I read during my preparation, I could find her mentioned just four times and in all cases only her name. I decided to watch all the other women through the eyes of this silent spectator. Girl child neglect weaved itself into the text with ease. Next came working out the performance itself.
In all my scripts I have given particular attention to clothing and props. While Nirvanam is consciously performed with the clothes I am in on that day and keeping all else to a stark, bare minimum, and keeping in mind to erase my sexuality, Kannadi works on real excess. For Vellavi, the script about the old Dhobi woman, it was colors spread across the performance area. For Dushala I had the choice of recreating the said regal costumes normally used for Mahabharata performances or come up with something more contemporary. Though I had the floor plan of the performance area, I decided to wait until the day of the show itself to work out my style. Two saffron screens already available with the organizers decided it for me. I decided to use black as my beginning and end colours adding a green scarf. The sackcloth skirt, which the Festival’s costumer Margot van Dam, designed became my own stage costume to which I added a mud pot and a long cycle chain. I try not to impersonify the character, but keep both the teller and told separate from each other. That way it avoids the traditional identification with the character and allows her to unfold on the performance.
If gender everywhere is a social construct, then do I choose my gender to be performed for the day like I choose my costume for the day from my wardrobe? If its other- the masculine-[ only] defines the idea of feminine how do I understand ‘feminism’ -as a transgressive way of life? If culture is not limited to geographical or linguistic distinctions, how do I come to terms with my own past, and thereby function in the present and future? Is my past my own or does the community I emerge from have a claim to it also? Is it then limited by how other communities view this past? Is every deed of mine defined by some dark secret from my past? If all identity is already assigned as something unchangeable, then when do I begin to question the ‘I’ itself and the way my body is circumscribed by this culturally constructed identity? What if, if I let my body break the shackles of these knots; no matter how badly it is hurt in the process and to recognize that I am not alone?
Definition of how I see gender, sexuality, culture, and identity have shifted greatly in this last decade. I have come to understand that all these are fluid and that each one of us operates under very split conditions. Ideally it is this split condition that I would like to explore in future. While reading [the same], I began to expand this idea of split condition to all avenues from where we gather all our conditionings my own studies, my history, my chauvinism of holding my first 30 years with a pride of being Tamil, then understanding my upper caste identity splinters it no matter how much I de-brahminise myself, my first academic step into learning about gender then spreading into more organic expressions of the same in everyday life, my comfort zone of story-telling as opposed to more traditional acting, and my activism is what I would like to marry into my forthcoming performances. Thus they can become not a mere personal journey, but a human journey that can be taken up to study any situation by anybody in the future.