Avvaiyaar and Manimegalai have been enshrined in literature, but what about less legendary women like Nagamma and Sudalai? Mangai of the Tamil theatre group Marappachi tells Kavitha Muralidharan why their plays are so feminist.

Sudalaiyamma’s almost condescending glance over the dead bodies that arrive at the graveyard gives way to despair when she is denied the opportunity to perform the last rites for Seeralan – a young political activist killed in an ‘encounter.’ Her usually effortless strutting turns to surreptitious steps as she walks towards the police station where Seeralan’s corpse lies; she is overcome by fierce passion. Knowing full well that she could be charged with sedition, Sudalaiyamma performs the last rites for the dead Seeralan. Moments ago, it was Nagamma who demanded all of the audience’s attention — with a run-down yellow cloth bag tucked under her arm, and seeking justice for her sexually assaulted daughter.

As haunting images from the dark days of emergency, Seeralan and Nagamma have long remained forgotten, until Tamil Nadu-based Marappachi theatre group decided to bring them on stage.   Staged recently, both Sudalaiyamma and Vaakkumoolam have been scripted by feminist-historian V. Geetha.

Seeralan’s tale is narrated through the fictional character of Sudalaiyamma, the graveyard worker who is determined to perform the rites despite the police threats. Nagamma on stage was chiselled out of veteran leader Mythili Sivaraman’s essay on the woman from Economic and Political Weekly. “Justice Chandru and advocate Geeta Ramaseshan among others helped us by sharing things that they knew about Nagamma,” says A. Mangai, director of the plays and a trustee of Marappachi.

In its eight years of existence, Marappachi has brought powerfully etched women characters on stage ranging from literary figures Avvai and Manimegalai to political figure Manalur Maniyammai and the earthy Nagamma, who achieves a sort of legendary status just by seeking to quench her thirst for justice. The women in Mangai’s plays are engaged in everyday resistances to institutions including caste and society. “Avvai and Manimegalai have literary impressions, but characters like Nagamma and Sudalai remain largely ignored in our literary space.”    

 Marappachi’s first production was Kurinji Paatu (2006) penned by poet Inquilab. Writer and theatre person Thamizhachi Thangapandiyan played the main role.  Kaala Kanavu (2007), again scripted by V. Geetha, traces the feminist political history of Tamil Nadu. Marappachi’s Kannada production Sanchari (2009) was based on history of the Kalyani raga. It was written by Sumathi Murthy and performed by a single actor who traverses through the never-ending nomadic journey of the raga through nations, lovers, rivers and oceans.

 While Pal Sanreere (2010) penned by Inquilab depicts the other woman (a sex worker) questioning the patriarchal values of unequal treatment meted out to women who have lost their husbands, Yaadhu Nam Ur? (2010) by the same playwright gives voice to the pains of Tamils who worked as indentured labourers in 19th century and has been contextually adapted to reflect the travails of Tamils living in camps in Sri Lanka. Even before starting Marappaachi, Mangai was actively engaged with theatre. “It makes collective energy possible” she says. “I don’t think it is possible in any other form.” A theatre has many drawbacks, including a lack of shelf-life, but Mangai says the intensity it lends to that moment gives her the high. Apart from research involved in writing the scripts, Mangai as a director takes about eight months to stage a performance. “All my actors have their hearts in the right place. The skill is important but for the kind of issues we take up on stage, some kind of commitment is also required.”

Though Marappachi’s performances are largely reflections of a political past it is ironic that, they also get a current context on many occasions. When Sudalaiyamma speaks about the system victimising an activist like Seeralan, it begins to tighten the noose around many necks. Thagippu was on the anvil for long but when it was staged, Sengodi had just burnt herself to death demanding clemency for death row convicts in Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. “In fact, Thagippu was first staged at Kanchi Makkal Mandram to which Sengodi belonged. We thought it was a sort of tribute to her,” Mangai says.

For Geetha, the feminist framing of issues has sustained her interest in theatre. “I actually got interested in what Mangai was doing because of its gender perspective. Framing things that we already knew through a feminist lens fascinates me.” Geetha says the stage has its own demands but it also means many things come together to make a work of art.

Working with women across different generations is also an intense feminist process, which Geetha and Mangai thoroughly seem to enjoy. “It is a rare phenomenon across the globe but I think I am really blessed to have a playwright whom I can relate to, with whom I can hold a dialogue,” Mangai says.

The team intends Marappachi to be part of various cultural expressions of dissent. “The group will simultaneously question the hegemony of caste and gender embedded in our culture. It aims to build the courage to accept the prejudices deeply laid in us and the strength to eradicate them,” Mangai says, defining her vision for Marappachi.  “Theatre does not give you back much. But I have actors who don’t expect much either. I have no complaints, no regrets,” she says.