The fabric of womanhood

Capturing the mood: Meera George’s latest work

Capturing the mood: Meera George’s latest work  

Drawing from Kathakali and Kabuki, Meera George’s “Still I Rise” reflects on gender stereotypes and caste struggle in Kerala

A woman emerges on stage, dressed in the traditional white Kerala sari, her body shining with white paint. A figure on stage snatches her opulent nose-ring, another one takes her jewellery, and as she turns her back to the audience, the upper part of the sari is pulled away. Performance artist Meera George’s latest work is embedded in her encounter with different cultures, pinned on ideas of womanhood, history and mythology.

Presented by the Shalini Passi Art Foundation and curated by Arshiya Lokhandwala, the performance is titled ‘Still I Rise’, citing Maya Angelou’s famous poem.

Operatic origins

The performance draws from operatic genres like Kathakali and Kabuki, exploring the theme of caste struggle in Kerala in the 19th century. For the artist, the formalistic exploration complemented her return to cultural history. “Keeping performative art forms as the base for the narrative, I took up a storyline from my culture, looking carefully at a period of time characterised by the oppression of women based on caste hierarchy that no one speaks about anymore,” says George.

Devised in four acts, with live art alternating with video work, the performance celebrates the stories of unsung heroines. The narrative moves through various roles, from victim to warrior. The opening act, for instance, focuses on the tale of Nangeli—a poor woman from the Ezhava caste in Travancore. In an era when dress codes defined caste structures, women from this community were not allowed to cover their upper body or wear jewellery and a ‘breast tax’ was levied if they wanted to do so. An exasperated Nangeli, unable to pay the tax, decides to chop off her breast with a sickle. At the end of the opening act, a few objects are passed around to the audience, denoting a golden breast on a banana leaf.

To highlight this period in the history of Kerala marked by patriarchy, George decided to explore various performing art traditions of the state, including Kathakali, Kalaripayattu and Chavittu Nadakam. The figure of Draupadi is cited in the video works and the fabric of the sari emerges as a strong visual and performative motif. “The women of the Ezhuva community were weavers of this beautiful fabric, but not allowed to wear it,” reflects George, “in the Draupadi narrative, the woman is disrobed, but at a point the transformation occurs where she is also actually protected by the same fabric.”

For the curator, Arshiya Lokhandwala, the element of the operatic was a point of emphasis, “The various episodes highlight the layers of exploitation of women in history, referencing it back to current times, driven by operatic aspects within contemporary performance.”

Redefining gender roles

For the artist, the genesis of the work dates back to the last decade where she worked on an immersive performance in Japan on the theme of gender. The video work was earlier created alongside an installation designed as a kabuki stage set covered with the fabric of the sari. “Similar to many art forms in Kerala, the Japanese Kabuki has been a male-dominated field,” reflects the artist.

She was fascinated by the importance of the ‘Onnagata’—the male actor who plays female roles in Kabuki theatre.

“While in Kathakali we now have some all-women troupes also, in Kabuki, till date women are not allowed to perform these roles. I met an Onnagata and interviewed him. When I asked him— how does one show pain or anger through the female role, he pointed out that women on stage do not show pain or anger, it is not part of their character, they will break into song to bring out their sorrow, but never enact.”

Cultural motifs

Challenging gender stereotypes, George applied the make-up characteristic of the bold, male character in Kabuki—‘Kumadori’, in the later acts of the performance. The visual language highlights the white and red hues, from the sari to the make-up, evoking cultural motifs around the theme of womanhood and resilience.

As an intersection between forms, the performance work is positioned within a variety of performing art traditions, drawing parallels between Kabuki and Kathakali.

The gravitas of the operatic genre gets diluted in the melange of forms without an immersive experience. The transition between forms is quick, and juxtaposes Japanese and Indian performing arts idioms, borrowing certain aspects of the art forms to build a multicultural narrative around gender roles.

Bringing together contemporary art, cultural history and social themes, the performance work leaves much unsaid, and more to think about.

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Printable version | May 27, 2020 4:24:48 AM |

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