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A feminist touch to Asian theatre

At the recent Asian Women Directors' Theatre Festival held in New Delhi, 21 plays with tremendous variety in style and theme were staged. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN surveys the scene...

Nadira Babbar's "Begum Jaan"... depicting the changing times.

TWO MAJOR questions were debated at Poorva, the Asian Women Directors Theatre Festival, New Delhi (January 3 - 10). One, whether women directors left the stamp of their gender on their work; and whether there is a distinctive Asian aesthetics in the theatre. The event was organised by Natarang Pratishthan and the National School of Drama, in collaboration with the ICCR.

The 21 plays from the Asian countries had tremendous variety in style and theme. There was little common ground in terms of conception or execution beyond the fact that the works came from nations that were once colonised. Some directors did choose to tackle what may be called women's issues. Acclaimed for its production values and ensemble acting, "Panaw'' from the Philippines turned serious issues like domestic violence, environmental pollution and poverty, into a rollicking multi-media musical show.

"The Lineage'' (Japan) had disturbing layers beneath the simple allegory. A bride who is away up on the mountains all night, gets bitten by a dog and returns to give birth to a strange child with canine propensities. The Hindi narration linked the events, as characters made entrances and exits in acrobatic modes. Much was left to viewer imagination.

Indian plays? Some profiled less known women from mythology. B. Jayashree's "Manthara'' (Kannada) highlighted narcissism in the Ramayana heroes, while Tripurari Sharma's "Mahabharat Se'' combined realistic and folk techniques to deal with Duryodhana's spouse Bhanumati's disillusionment.

Nadira Babbar's "Begum Jaan'' showed changing times through celebrity vocalist grandmother and journalist granddaughter. In Usha Ganguli's "Rudali'' (Hindi), bonding women empowered themselves by turning professional mourners. Female bonding was a major motif in "Sonata'' (Amal Allana). The play provoked debates on the male gaze on women's relationships, and inadequacies in dealing with lesbianism. To this writer though, that was precisely the source of irony. The three working women, educated, single, long-time friends living in the metropolis, see themselves as men see them, unable to break conformist fetters. They continue to define themselves according to the perspectives of patriarchal society.

Some of the plays revealed new facets when seen in the context of women's theatre. Kirti Jain's "Aur Kitne Tukde'' made a deeper impact as it came after two plays which had focussed on the Gujarat holocaust (Maya Rao's "A Deeper Fried Jam'', Anuradha Kapur's "The Antigone Project''). Careful detailing was a characteristic in all three, as also the unambiguous clarity in looking at issues very close to the directors' hearts.

Jain had a wonderful script by B. Gauri, based on Urvashi Butalia's book on the Partition. In arrestingly orchestrated scenes, the historic event flamed to life through the depiction of consequences borne by mothers, wives, sisters and daughters.

The narrative meshed memories, personal history, silences and screams from victims, exiles and refugees. When the warring nations agree to "restore'' the abducted women from both sides, the women find themselves once again torn from home, to return to a family which spurns them, and a motherland which scorns them. Sadia may dream of going home to her brother. Yet, she has no option but to claim the identity of "Sumangala'' thrust upon her by the callous abductor husband. Kartar Singh goes across the border to recover his wife, but finds her swathed in a burqa, unable to respond to his love. The worst sequence was the killing of women by their menfolk in the name of "honour,'' as they feared defilement by the enemy. The play was inventive with props and in the continuous fading in and out of scenes. The acting, however, was not free from melodrama, the music pedestrian. "Night Please Go Faster'' from Cambodia was a chilling reminder of totalitarian atrocities. The last segment of this triptych ("S-21'') has two photos _ of a young man and woman, taken by the Khmer Rouge authorities after blindfolded confinement _ coming to life in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Disappointments? In trying to recreate Ibsen's "A Doll's House'' as it had been produced years ago by the legendary thespian Shombhu Mitra, daughter Saonli Mitra ended up with mimicry sans soul ("Putul Khela'', Bengali). Anamika Haksar may be commended for daring to dramatise Dostoevsky's "The Idiot'' in her "Baawla'' (Hindi), and the way in which she made the woman protagonist central. But the production relied too much on visuals, some discordant, others drawing too much attention to themselves.

"Thathri-Realising Self'' (Hindi) had a riot of imagery _ riveting, flamboyant, exhibitionist. You wished the young debut director (J. Shailaja) had curbed herself from indulging so much in spectacular visuals, as moon and snake descended from above, and cooks stirred with tridents a giant cauldron into which they sliced a woman's limbs. To centre-stage a woman's body cooked and served on a banquet plate seemed too obvious and literal. The acting style veered between the realistic and the symbolic. But Shailaja's treatment of the real life interrogation (smartavicharam) of a brahmin woman for her illicit sexual relationships had fire and youthful dash. In a stirring finale, the protagonist pours water over herself, breaks the pot, and walks away, upright, to find a new life. A fine touch.

Street theatre found its space in Poorva, with "Woh Bol Uthi'' (literally, she rose to speak) by Jana Natya Manch. A little girl refuses to be cowed down despite the family's favouring the male child; the dutiful middleclass woman prevents her daughter's being married off to a corrupt official; a factory worker insists on a separate toilet for women being added to the union's demands. The play used visuals, movement, choreography and characters with a subtlety not associated with the genre. Veenapani Chawla's "Brhannala,'' which adapts Kudiyattam techniques to an English dramatic monologue, has gained polish, depth, and freshness in repeated performances. The evolution of an organic musical score for this production seems to be an achievement in itself, as also the sense of timing and synchronisation of every element onstage.

"Brhannala'' (Arjuna as a female impersonator) explores the image of Ardhanarisvara, half man, half woman, as a means of uniting polarities, unifying vision. Many motifs, ancient and modern, from folktale to nuclear physics, find their place, including the comic take off on the dog-tiger encounter. Male solo performer Vinay Kumar melds the physical and the metaphysical with a fine-tuning rarely seen on the Indian stage.

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