Against the backdrop of the Delhi gang rape, Soorpanangu drives home the need to resist oppression of women, writes T. SARAVANAN

Can women overcome sufferings and succeed in their struggle against oppressive forces? “Yes,” says playwright S. Murugaboopathy as he explores the possibilities and provides an answer through his play Soorpanangu.

The play, performed by the Manalmagudi Theatre Land at Lady Doak College, could not have been staged at a better time. The whole country is up in arms against atrocities on women after the recent Delhi gang rape.

“Women’s stoic silence should not be taken for granted,” says Murugaboopathy. “The play tries to highlight how a woman comes up hard against oppression, realises her role in the society and establishes her identity. For which I have taken the legend of Nallathangal as my storyline.”

The legend

The legend talks about the sufferings of Nallathangal, a mother of seven children. Unable to withstand severe famine because of barren land and insult and neglect from society, she commited suicide along with her seven daughters. Ever since, Nallathangal has become a part of Tamil folklore. It is widely believed that performance of the story would bring rain during times of drought. Through the legend the play raises issues of suffering, mainly of women, in various forms.

“The Nallathangal temple is located in Arjunapuram, 8 km west of Watrap,” he says. “Even now, special poojas are performed at the temple. Nallathangal is the central subject of the traditional koothu form called ‘Paavai Koothu’. In Tamil folk stage, every actor is acknowledged as an accomplished theatre artiste only if he or she dons the role of Nallathangal,” he says.

Soorpanangu focuses on seven stories of women’s sufferings and their resistance. In ancient Tamil myths, folktales and classics, women who were betrayed, murdered or forced to commit suicide because of men, turned into nymphs and are called ‘anangu’.

“References for anangu are found in Sangam literature,” says Murugaboopathy. “There are literary references to prove that women are subjected to humiliation and harassment. Take for instance the story of Soorpanaga in epic Ramayana. Her nose is chopped off just because she loved Rama. We have used the term anangu in the context of rebellious woman,” he explains.

The playwright takes note of the popular struggles in history. Pointing out the ‘thol seelai’ struggle wherein women belonging to a particular community were not allowed to drape the sari over the shoulder, he said that women were taxed if they were found wearing sari draped over the shoulder. The audience immediately connected to the subject when the playwright included the Delhi gang rape issue in his dialogue.

The play ends on a positive note when Nallathangal and her daughters are resurrected and use grandmothers’ pestle, personal dowry objects (palm leaf boxes, fowl coops, wide winnows, brooms, vessels etc.) and the silent language of insects in kitchens as weapons to fight oppression. Her seven children depict the lives and struggles of seven women from the past and now, and seven new births, elaborated Murugaboopathy.

Emotionally draining

In a physically and emotionally draining performance, the characters bend, twist, and writhe till new characters surface. In a reinvention of the Tamil theatre tradition of cross-dressing, the male performers in the play acted as women. They sought the help of angelic or ghostly wild feminine spirits, otherwise called ‘soorpanangu’, to fight against the established systems, opening the space for healing through creative elements.

Featuring tribal musical instruments including the didgeridoo, the Australian aboriginal wooden wind instrument, an African string instrument, an Indonesian instrument made of bottle gourd, a Thai instrument that croaks like a frog and an Afghan flute, the play brought out the pangs of women through the rhythm of the land. It transcends the limits of body, space, time and performance.

The playwright’s brilliant rendering evoked an immediate response from the audience. N. Rajkumar set the colour tone of the play through his lighting.

Stressing traditional rituals in their performance, the actors from Manalmagudi, especially Ranjan and Vijayakumar, have exemplified their emotional and physical intensity with great control. Their synchronisation and timing weave memorable sequences.

“The play is one year old,” says Murugaboopathy. “The issue is the same, only the awareness has increased manifold.”

The play is selected for the 15th Bharat Rang Mahotsav (Indian Theatre Festival) and will be staged in New Delhi on January 19.

“Atrocities on women,” says Murugaboopathy, “will stop only if the society stops seeing women as commodities.”