Mangai and her theatre of liberation

Mangai   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In her first theatre workshop in Tirunelveli, thespian and scholar Mangai met a person she least expected to see: a young woman who rolled beedis for a living. The woman told Mangai after the workshop: “I never knew that my back could be so straight.” It was a moment of revelation. “It also had an uncanny connection to dancer Chandralekha’s statement about finding the spine in dance,” says Mangai.

For Mangai, who turns 60 and completes 35 years in theatre this year, the stage is also about ‘physical liberation’. “It is certainly different for women. We live in a society where the woman’s body is consistently subjected to shame or treated as an object of gaze. In theatre, the socially constructed images around the body are broken. When it is a trans body or a queer body, it becomes an even bigger statement. Theatre lets you be free with your body, to own it.”

Extraordinary moments

Mangai’s journey in theatre is filled with extraordinary moments. She fondly recalls staging a play on the iconic Manalur Maniyamma, the privileged caste widow, who became a Communist, at an AIDWA conference in Nagapattinam. “We took six phases from the story, essentially around Maniyamma’s rebellion against Brahminical widowhood, her shift towards Gandhian ideology, and her doubts about socio-political questions which led her to Left politics. Also, how she equipped herself to handle threats by learning to ride a bicycle and by practising silambam.

A scene from the Ávvai’

A scene from the Ávvai’   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Mangai says she was not convinced about bringing Maniyamma as a character into the play. “We finally chose to bring in her spirit, which resides in each of us. Six people played the role: anyone wearing a red shawl was Maniyamma.” A day after the play, an elderly woman turned up. She told them about how Maniyamma had given her a ride on her bicycle when she was a child, and then she handed over a small donation to the group.

Mangai started dabbling in theatre in the 1980s along with Chennai Kalai Kuzhu and AIDWA’s Sakthi Kalai Kuzhu. But it was not until 1990, after attending the Expressions workshop organised by Majlis, an organisation that works with law and culture, that she recognised theatre as her calling. As writer, translator and academic, Mangai was spoilt for choice. “But I chose theatre because it had space for collective and democratic work. Also, it served as a link between the politics we believed in and the form we chose to express ourselves.”

Theatre groups for women

Naangal Varugirom, directed by Pralayan of Chennai Kalai Kuzhu, launched Mangai as an actor. Penn, an adaptation of Safdar Hashmi’s Aurat, took her to almost every district in Tamil Nadu. Soon she was directing plays for Chennai Kalai Kuzhu and Sakthi Kalai Kuzhu.

Street play by Chennai Kalai Kuzhu

Street play by Chennai Kalai Kuzhu   | Photo Credit: B_JOTHI RAMALINGAM

Mangai was also the founding member of Voicing Silence and Marappachi — both theatre groups committed to increasing the participation of women in theatre. The groups brought in women from different walks of life to Tamil theatre — Karuppi was about women’s collectives and the experiences of migrant labourers; in Sudalaiamma, a graveyard worker performs the last rites of a rebel killed in an encounter; and in Avvai and Manimegalai, classic Tamil texts are given a feminist reinterpretation in Mangai’s hands.

Her plays also critically examine contemporary issues through a gender lens — Pacha Mannu was on female infanticide, Aanmaiyo Aanmai was on the crisis of masculinity in the Tamil political space, and Kaala Kanavu about the feminist history of Tamil Nadu. These theatre groups played a huge role in drawing transgender artistes such as Living Smile Vidya, Sowmya and Revathi into Tamil theatre. In all, Mangai has directed some 35 plays.

For research, she has depended on writer-historian V. Geetha and Tamil poet Inquilab. “Geetha was responsible for research into contemporary issues and Inquilab for research into classical texts,” she says.

Mangai believes the stories of women are central to her theatre. “Everywhere, the woman’s stories remain untold.” And in war-torn Sri Lanka, even more so. When working with Batticaloa’s theatre group Surya Pengal Kalachara Kuzhu, Mangai helped enact a ritual — kulirthi (a ritual associated with Kannagi temple meant to pacify and heal), which includes neem water, turmeric water and a night full of songs.

“The temple festival takes place over 10 days in a year, but when it is enacted in theatre, it heals not just Kannagi of yesteryear, but also the women from whose lives loved ones are made to forcibly disappear. They say theatre is therapeutic. I am not a counsellor, but I can certainly say that it allows everyone to open up.”

Mangai’s theatre is predominantly feminist but if there is one word that would define her oeuvre, it is ‘survival’. “The system is forcing us to be survivors — there are various terms: cancer survivor, rape survivor etc. It is simultaneously about accepting pain and resisting it. It is about putting together the broken pieces and keeping ourselves intact. Whether my play is about a kurathi (gypsy), bard, or bhikkhuni (female Buddhist monk), the idea is to liberate the self.”

Her latest play, staged by Marappachi on September 2 on Facebook Live, is Siripputhaan Varudhu and is about Black Lives Matter and marginalised voices in India. “From where I am, I think it is my duty to discover an idiom that will offer a dignified representation of you and your stories, whether it is about the scars of a war or about the lives of a transgender. That is all I can do.”

The writer is an independent Chennai-based journalist.

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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 8:05:20 PM |

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