Well-known theatre personality Mangai is back with another war story

Stree Parvam looks at the harrowing realities of war through the eyes of women.

April 02, 2024 02:13 pm | Updated 02:13 pm IST

From Stree Parvam

From Stree Parvam | Photo Credit: Mohan Das Vadakara

  “Perhaps the most difficult question that we are forever left to grapple with,” begins veteran theatre artiste A. Mangai, thoughtfully pausing before continuing, “is how to end a war.” Mangai made this comment just before a preview of her new production, Stree Parvam (The Women), being presented in collaboration with the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in memory of educationist Mina Swaminathan, who was passionate about theatre. The term ‘stree parvam’ is from the Mahabharata, the 11th of the 18 books on the epic, stree parva is about the grief of women over war and its losses.

Watching the rehearsal of Mangai’s 65-minute production, a gripping and haunting portrayal, it became nearly impossible not to envision war as an expansive, chilling blanket spanning epochs and tightening around the neck of humanity. From the ancient battlefields of the Mahabharata to the modern conflicts in Gaza and Eelam, the spectre of war looms large. Yet, when the clamour of battle fades and the dust settles, what endures are the tears of women. These tears, heavy with unspoken grief, add a poignant layer to the fabric of human history.

Stree Parvam is an attempt to look at war from a gendered lens,” says Mangai. The play opens with Gandhari and Kunti stepping onto the battlefield, where they confront the harrowing sight of countless bodies scattered around. As they search for their own loved ones among the dead, they are struck by the overwhelming scale of loss and the transient nature of life.

“But this horror was not wrought by natural forces,” the chorus reminds Gandhari, unconvinced by her assertions that she had issued sufficient warnings. Instead, they recount the indiscriminate killings that stained the battlefield: Aravan, Abhimanyu, Drona, Karna, and the infamous midnight massacre by Ashwathama.

The narrative fluidly shifts among the Mahabharata, Gaza, and Ukraine.

The narrative fluidly shifts among the Mahabharata, Gaza, and Ukraine. | Photo Credit: Mohan Das Vadakara

In the midnight when people drift into sleep, entering the realm between dreams and hope, they soon wake up to the realities of war — as the play transitions to the everyday massacre that unfolds in our living rooms from Gaza.

The narrative then fluidly shifts among the Mahabharata, Gaza, and Ukraine, often touching on Sri Lanka, to portray a gendered perspective on how dreams are killed and hopes massacred. As the two women — Kunti and Gandhari — finally confess and acknowledge their guilt and grief, a ray of possibility illuminates their path. The chorus then performs the customary rituals, wishing for peace and harmony to prevail.

The play concludes with a haunting poem by Vallalar:

Karunai ila atchi kadugi ozhiga

Arul nayandha nanmarkkar alga

Nallor ninaitha nalam peruga

Ninaindhu ellorum vazhga isaindhu

(May the unkind rule come to an end. May the compassionate ones rule. May the good ones have their dreams fulfilled. May everyone think good and live in harmony).

Mangai describes the play as a “small gesture of solidarity with the people living in countries that are/have been under siege.” The play begins with Gandhari and Kunti holding hands and finally embracing each other. Mangai deeply believes that this reconciliation must have occurred when Kunti chose to join Gandhari and Dhritarashtra on their vanaprastha. For Mangai, this represents a form of feminist affective solidarity that recognises deep-seated guilt and endeavours to forgive. “It may not be easy, but worth trying.”

The theme of war runs deeply in Mangai’s body of work 

The theme of war runs deeply in Mangai’s body of work 

In her work, Mangai employs various elements to dehumanise war. A central symbol is the omnipresent white cloth, representing “life, earth, and the universe that we hold dear and are duty-bound to protect for the next generation,” says Mangai. The music in the play transitions from the fervent beats of Koothu to a soft Arabic lullaby, and finally to a high-energy rap. Concurrently, a screen displays images of war from around the world, showcasing both the devastation and the resistance against it, emphasising the human cost, which has been reduced to mere numbers.

For the transition from the state of sleep to the realm of dreams, Mangai incorporated a three-minute film by Tara Hakim, a Palestinian artist residing in Jordan. This film features familiar images, like a grandmother tenderly grooming her grandchildren’s hair and kites soaring in the sky. Mangai says she specifically requested Tara’s film to be integrated at this pivotal moment . Upon viewing rehearsal footage, Tara selected a song to accompany her film, ensuring that the shift from the Mahabharata narrative to the dream sequence was not only conveyed visually but also through evocative music.

The play attempts to dehumanise war

The play attempts to dehumanise war | Photo Credit: Mohan Das Vadakara

The play revisits the Mahabharata before moving to the war in Ukraine. The text for this segment was crafted by Yana Salakhova, a practitioner of Theatre of the Oppressed in Ukraine. This portion poignantly explores the experiences of motherhood amidst conflict . Salakhova’s words give voice to the complex emotions and dilemmas faced by mothers . “She called it the opening up of the space for the wounds to explode” says Mangai recalling her interaction with Yana.

The play begins with images from Sri Lanka by feminist activist Sarala Emmaneul. Mangai juxtaposes these visuals with paintings by the renowned artist Trotsky Marudhu.

The theme of war runs deeply in Mangai’s body of work — Stree Parvam is not her first play around war. “This time, Gaza triggered it, I guess,” says Mangai says. “It was like reliving the trauma that we had already faced, in Sri Lanka. Also, I felt a sense of urgency. Considering the times we are living in, anything anti-war should be spoken about immediately.”

But what truly resonates is the inclusion of poetry towards the end of the play. Along with the verses of Sri Lankan Tamil poets Nuhman and Puduvai Rathnadurai, the play features the profoundly moving poem ‘If I must die, let it be a tale,’ penned by Palestinian poet Refaat Alareer, who tragically lost his life in an Israeli airstrike last year.

Says Mangai, “There is an element of story in every poem — the stories must survive. It is our means of clinging to hope, even in the face of profound despair.”

The play will be staged at Asian College of Journalism on April 6 and 7.

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