Mangai explores themes of gender, caste and sexuality in her many projects

Mangai, a Tamil word for ‘woman' or ‘lady' is an apt pseudonym for Padma V., an acclaimed theatreperson, writer and gender rights activist from Chennai.

This multifaceted and vivacious woman who is in her early 50s writes plays and stories mostly in Tamil, while teaching English at a college for women in the southern metropolis. “Hailing from Thanjavur, I studied in Tamil at Besant School in Chennai. But my parents were keen that I pursue English literature,” she explains.

Mangai spent a few years at Kalakshetra, when “attai”, the institution's legendary founder and dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale was there. “Although I did not learn dancing, I gained valuable exposure to the performing arts,” she says.

Politics and gender

Mangai was in the city for a performance of Aanmaiyo Aanmai, a Tamil play she directed, performed by her theatre group Marappachi. Written by feminist historian, author and translator V. Geetha, it is a thought-provoking satire on the political history of Tamil Nadu, from the viewpoint of gender. This hilarious and meaningful 90-minute production in the Commedia dell' Arte style combines dialogue, music and dance seamlessly. Maraa, a community media and arts collective, and the women's studies department at United Theological College organised the performance.

Interestingly, the cast and crew of Aanmaiyo Aanmai comprises people from diverse backgrounds. Among them is Living Smile Vidya, a transsexual lady, who is involved in theatre and is assistant director in the Tamil film industry.

Diverse experiences

Since the 1980s, Mangai has been actively involved in initiating theatre troupes such as Chennai Kalai Kuzhu and training new actors. Meanwhile, she herself learnt about the nuances of performing, participating in workshops by the late Badal Sircar.

From 1992-2003, she was a key figure in the Voicing Silence project of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. During this period, Mangai brought out street plays such as Pacha Mannu (green earth) that highlighted the issue of female foeticide and infanticide.

Since 2006, she has explored themes and taboos about gender, caste and sexuality, with Marappachi, a cultural space she started in Chennai with poet Inquilab.

Happy accident

Mangai, who has also been associated with the All-India Democratic Women's Organisation, says: “Even today, I don't think women outnumber men in theatre. For me, theatre almost came about as an accident and I am happy to be around.”

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