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Theatre as feminine voice

The women directors of our country were in focus at `Kulavai 2002' . The plays represented idioms and languages that make India's theatre, writes ELIZABETH ROY.

``VOICING SILENCE'' of the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation has been in the past decade working towards women's awareness and empowerment with its focus on gendered theatre and giving a ``voice to the voiceless'' (presumably women being the voiceless in this context).

The group uses theatre as its tool and medium for communication. Every year as a part of its programming ``Voicing Silence" organises ``Kulavai,'' a theatre festival-cum-seminar, which becomes the cause for sharing, exposure and bonding among women in theatre. ``Kulavai 2002'' brought to point the women directors of our country, ``their vision and their work.'' Are they at all sidelined? Why should women who direct in theatre be referred to as `women' directors when men who direct in theatre are just directors? The festival brought to the audiences of Chennai three plays designating the great churning of cultures and idioms and languages that make India's theatre - whether by women or men.

It was good to have Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry back in the city so soon after The Other Festival, which showcased her ``Unopened Love Letters." The same group presented Kitchen Katha in Punjabi. The hour-long performance was designed in the story telling style and adapted from Esquivel's ``Like Water for Chocolate." In Kitchen Katha, the story of the grandmother's passion and sensuousness is told by the grand daughter, the inheritor of intensely experienced feelings and a large kitchen teeming with life and activity and (quite literally) fire. In addition to the very good music integral to Mansingh's theatre (and in fact to Punjabi theatre in general) all the sound effects came from jilebi-s sizzling in the hot oil, spices being pounded, vegetables being chopped. There were garlands of chillies both red and green, massive quantities of atta being kneaded. Strong aroma of herbs and roti on a hot tawa wafted into the audience kindling in them strong fires gratifying the senses. Further appealing to the senses, in a definite sexual way, was the narrator drenched in water, flour and blood red paint.

Everything glowed in warm shades of golden brown of the earth. Aesthetically it was a most satisfying experience and technically a perfect production. If the acting could have matched the passion of the play it would have led to a pleasurable implosion.

``Ganapati" from Adishakti directed by Veenapani Chawla used a totally different idiom. Four performers on a range of percussion instruments (the mizhavu dominating) told of the legends of Ganesha and Marthanda. Dominant motifs were those of ``creation, celebration, destruction and return.'' If one looks at the performers as musicians, then the incredible level of acting that came from them strikes one. They got across the story, the mood and the feel with just percussion, some very subtle animation and an absolute minimum use of language to punctuate the rhythmic flow. The audience heard many voices in the polyphony.

The performance stood out for its finish and restraint while it stirred primordial fires within the audience. It was like being a participant at the Thrissur Pooram, surrounded by resplendent elephants, graceful in their body language responding to the thunderous percussion.

However, the jugalbandhi style of interaction between the saxophone and the percussion towards the end seemed to have little to do with the core of the performance and tended to turn a little gimmicky.

Contemporary touch

``Manimekalai" from Voicing Silence was an activist rendering of a classical text of epic dimensions. The play gave a contemporary touch to the predominantly caste-based issues that Sattanar's epic dealt with - the role Buddhism played in empowering the underprivileged, in particular their struggle against Brahminical oppression. Manimekalai turns her back on her world of material wealth, on the comforts of tradition and societal approval to find her freedom in the precepts of Buddhism and service to humanity.

Mangai, Chennai's director with a cause, worked with a group of rural artistes from the ``isai natakam" tradition, using their style as the language of her production. People flocked in to see the play and responded with much gusto.

A couple of questions, however, came to mind. If Mangai had digressed a little less into other political issues could she not have gone deeper into the wealth of issues Manimekalai offered? Is it at all justified speculating on the impact a more evolving Tamil theatre tradition (and one is not referring to the avant-garde movement) could have on the larger theatre scenario in Tamil Nadu? These and other questions would not have come up if Kulavai had not brought together for Chennai diverse theatre.

Kitchen Katha transcended gender limitations by presenting a fairly neutered cast of actors playing male and female roles. Veenapani Chawla presented Ganapati using only male actors while Mangai presented her epic using only women actors.

If there is a lesson to be learned in all this it is that men may be from Mars but women are directors, and many of them the very best.

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