As a director and text coordinator, again and again Mangai has taken up well known female figures from mythology, history and contemporary times and shown them as women who stand by their own beliefs refusing to toe the conventional line imposed by partriarchy. They chart their own destinies whether it is Manimekalai who gave up all to become a Buddhist nun or the poet Avvai, "our very own Sappho."

Mangai’s “Pani Thee” will be staged at the Natyarangam festival at the Narada Gana Sabha, today, August 28. This feminist play in the Isai Natakam and Koothu styles is about Ambai-Sikhandi, one of the most interesting figures in the Mahabharata. It has seen numerous performances. The theme is exploited to the full by veteran Isai Natkam artist Usha Rani.

“Sujatha Vijayaraghavan invited us for the Thennangur workshop two years ago. There we had wonderful technical discussions about variations in approach in different performing art forms. For instance, how in Isai Natakam and Koothu, you can undo your make up and even make changes to your costume on stage while even wiping your face is taboo for a Bharatanatyam artist during performance,” says Mangai(pseudonym for Padma), writer and director of “Pani Thee.” Mangai, who teaches English, is an academician, theatre personality and activist.

“The seeds of “Pani Thee” were sown when I met writer Krithiga a long time ago and she spoke about Ambai — how in the Mahabharata , she does not have a single narrative of her own despite being the eldest matriarch. Later when I worked with transgenders, it really connected. In “Manasin Azhaippu” and “Uraiyatha Ninaivugal,” the basic question of masculinity and femininity came up,” she says.

As a director and text coordinator, again and again Mangai has taken up well known female figures from mythology, history and contemporary times and shown them as women who stand by their own beliefs refusing to toe the conventional line imposed by partriarchy. They chart their own destinies whether it is Manimekalai who gave up all to become a Buddhist nun or the poet Avvai, “our very own Sappho.” “If we need two images for the national rubic, they are these two women,” says Mangai who has done research on gender and ethnicity in the theatre. The actor-director is also the author of books on women’s issues and the theatre.

Mangai was one of the founder members of the Chennai Kalai Kuzhu in 1984. The group performed street plays throughout Tamil Nadu, raising consciousness on various issues including awareness on literacy. She became the co-ordinator — Mina Swaminathan was Hon. Director — for the Voicing Silence project of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in 1983 and their partnership led to a significant body of feminist theatre.

“I was then an activist with AIDWA,” she says. “Sakthi” a theatre group in AIDWA, which she founded, staged plays for women. “Mina came to do a workshop for a play on Manalur Maniamma,” she recalls. Thus was formed an association that lasted for nearly 15 years and which resulted in a number of plays that gave a voice to women. Voicing Silence also worked with traditional women performers of Tamil Nadu in the drama and Isai Natakam styles as well as marginalised women’s groups.

Women-oriented themes

They were all women centred themes, quite often improvised by the artists who participated and my job was to string them together. There were an equal number of women performers as male on stage. In fact one of the objectives of Voicing Silence was to ensure an equal ratio,” Mangai laughs. Some of the plays put up by Voicing Silence were “Pacha Mannu”(on female infanticide), “Mauna-k-Kural,” “Avvai,” “Vellavi” and “Manimekalai.’ Mangai also helped organise the Kulavai festival, women’s theatre meets, for Voicing Silence from 1996 to 2003.

What did Voicing Silence succeed in accomplishing?

“Primarily it was identifying there was a feminist theatre and to consolidate an emerging trend of feminist theatre,” she replies “This was a trend that was emerging nationally and it was our generation born in the late Fifties who has made this possible. In the Tamil context Voicing Silence has helped evolve and produce texts that had a gender focus. As for me, working with traditional performers made the journey in the theatre less lonely.”

“In India there has been a very rich exploration into feminist concerns and this has that has not been adequately documented,” says Mangai who is at present working on a monograph of “Gender and Theatre in India.” “The aesthetics definitely changes when there is a feminist angle as does the process of the theatre.”

As for male reaction to feminist theatre, she says “There is support from a few but there is a certain kind of indifference which brackets you into a ghetto. I also move with the literary circle, so I don’t feel it in a glaring way. But there are men who are able to view feminist concerns sensitively. I have had a wonderful collaboration with writer Inquilab who wrote “Avvai,” “Manimekalai” and “Kurinji Paatu.”

And does feminist theatre help in addressing problems women face?

“Even if the theatre just helps in raising questions that are taboo, then its fine,” says Mangai. She along with Inquilab formed Marappachi, “ a registered trust for education in art.”

Mangai is now working on “Sanchari.” It is a debut script by Sumathy Murthy, Hindustani singer based in Bangalore who is an activist working with the voluntary organisation “Sangama.” It is a Kannada play with music by Sumathy and traces the rag Kalyani from its Greek and Persian roots and its journey in India. “It raises questions of national identity, sexuality, love and desire — as a woman what your status is and where you are. It will be staged in September. After ‘Pani Thee,’ this is my next solo piece, a challenge in terms of text and music,” says the director with excitement.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012