Women of conscience

With candor and conviction: The play situates itself in a fractious political climate

With candor and conviction: The play situates itself in a fractious political climate  

Shanta Gokhale celebrates the vulnerability and strength of Irom Chanu Sharmila

Even with career accolades for her life’s works coming her way in quick succession this season, noted critic and writer Shanta Gokhale continues to add to her literary oeuvre prodigiously. Six decades and counting, hers is a writing career that has moved and inspired readers across generations and across the arts. In September, she was the recipient of the Ooty Literary Festival Lifetime Achievement Award and spoke eloquently of the portents of our time in her keynote address. Earlier this month, she picked up a similar honour at the youth theatre festival, Thespo. This week will also mark the premiere of Menghaobi — The Fair One, a play she has written on Irom Sharmila, which is an homage to a revolutionary certainly, but also to the person behind the icon.

Directed by Mahesh Dattani, the play situates itself in a fractious political climate with the candor and conviction so characteristic of Gokhale’s writing. The ensemble is led by Padma Damodaran (as Irom Chanu Sharmila) and Sukhita Aiyar, and the production is overlaid with the sights and sounds of Manipur. The state is a land that is now so geopolitically removed from India, that bridges such as these might need to cut through deep-seated cultural alienation and decades of angst. After handing over the manuscript to Dattani, Gokhale hasn’t attended any rehearsals, trusting her director’s vision implicitly. As she says, “It is now our play, mine and his together.”

All that drama

Although she has translated countless works, Gokhale’s last staged work was Avinash,which was directed by theatre maverick Satyadev Dubey in the late 1980s (with Seagull publishing the script in 1994). Dramatic writing is a form she has always been attracted to, and there are several plays she has written that are part of an unpublished canon of sorts. “One never knows why a group that initially shows interest in a play finally doesn’t take it up,” says Gokhale, of the false starts she has experienced when it comes to her dramatic works. Even Menghaobi took its time to make the transition from page to stage — the first act was written years earlier. The second act was written more recently, after Sharmila’s real-life abdication — the decision to end her fast of 16 long years that has attracted opprobrium and encomiums in equal measure.

The themes of messianic deification and the ever-swaying mindset of the mob finds echoes in another ‘lost text’ — Pramilabai Chup Ka?, a play that Gokhale had written in the 1990s. It was a magnum opus in Marathi set ‘in the round’, with actors assigned roles for a performance by the drawing of lots — such that each actor would need to know all the parts. “It was a way of making theatre more democratic,” she explains. At its heart, the play showcases the conflict between father and son, between a moral figurehead (like Sharmila indubitably is) and his followers. It was a project that was perhaps ahead of its time, but now experimental groups in Marathi theatre are pushing the envelope to an extent, so the time might be rife for the still topical play to be resuscitated.

A stately fight

When it came to Menghaobi, Gokhale brought in essences from Antigone, which was essentially a single woman’s fight against the might of the state, and from Manipuri folktales like Pebet. These influences provided the play with the evanescent flavour of storytelling, that Dattani evokes through both verbal and movement theatre. A reading of the play last year imagined its warm and outstretched conversations taking place around a campfire. “While Antigone died for the cause, I find it remarkable that Sharmila, even in the throes of a fast, can say she doesn’t want to die,” says Gokhale. Humans are frail, but living gods are often not afforded even a modicum of vulnerability.

The central dialogue in the play is between Sharmila and a woman from the mainland, as it were. “She is a counterpoint, someone who is well-meaning but so smug in their middle-class comfort zone that Manipur might not even fall on their radar,” adds Gokhale. In her own way, Sharmila has cultivated a world-view that Gokhale finds admirable — joining forces with universal ideas of love and peace, connecting to Gandhi and Mandela. Ultimately the play is about two women of conscience, poles apart though they might be, who represent far more about our worlds than they might themselves consider.

The play premieres today, with shows till Sunday at G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture at 7.30 p.m.; and at Prithvi Theatre on January 2 and 3 at 9 p.m.; see

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 2:23:53 AM |

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