Theatre Theatre

When a gravedigger mourned a death

The play traversed the tricky border between reality and fiction  

“The corpses that no one wants… Yes, there are those too. The unwept and unmourned,” said the gravedigger.

In a lifetime spent burying, cremating or ‘putting them in place,’ the gravediggers have seen all kinds of people in their death. They have seen those that are grieved for by their loved ones who accompany them to their final resting place. The regular kind, perhaps. However, they have seen another kind too — those that are just dumped, mostly by the State after being named dishonourable and a traitor to the nation state — the corpses that no one wants, like the gravedigger said.

Over the years, public memory has witnessed news items reporting the death of those killed in encounter killings, often named as ‘terrorists’ or ‘traitors’ by the police and the State. News channels have relayed police accounts of these incidents. One has also heard the woeful tales of the families of those ‘traitors.’ But, incidentally, has anyone heard the gravedigger’s account of how he or she buried these men and women?

Maraa, a media and arts collective, hosted Marapachchi theatre’s ‘The Gravedigger,’ a play that presented a gravedigger’s account of one such death. This was a play about how a gravedigger found Seeralan, an activist belonging to the radical left in Tamil Nadu, who was brutally tortured and killed by the police and the State after being named a ‘traitor’. Written by V. Geetha and directed by A.Mangai, the play was performed by Ponni Arasu, a member of the troupe. Seeralan, as Mangai recounted, came from a family that was given to politics. “Seeralan’s mother was a member of the women’s movement and his father was a member of the trade union movement. Many groups come together over the death of this young man,” she said contextualising the play.

While the performance was based on the real life of Seeralan, the troupe, rather than presenting his life story on stage, presented the testimony of the gravedigger who was witness to his death, instead.

The play traversed the tricky border between reality and fiction. While one was aware that one was watching a performance, the fact that the story was a real one made it all the more unsettling and complicated. The gravedigger began the play by speaking of how her father told her that burying the dead is actually a labour of love. “They say that those who bury the dead for a living do not cry. Now, if they do. That’s just bad news, no?” she asked the audience.

Weaving the personal and the political, the gravedigger spoke of her own life as she testified to the police about what she saw that day when Seeralan was beaten. “I was 17 when I turned gravedigger. My father used to say that all the world’s a graveyard and we are all children of the ashes. Appa dealt a lot with the orphaned dead. Sometimes word would come through a bullock cart and he would be asked to go to such and such a place and dig a deep hole and just empty the cart. He didn’t like that lack of ceremony and respect as the police or the army stood and watched,”she said.

Switching to Seeralan, she spoke of how they (the police) stripped him naked and “did unnameable things to him. Not once did he curse them. They know not what they do and they shall repent, appa used to say,” she said switching back to her own life.

There was a particular politics that the performer wanted the audience to absorb or listen to. Seeralan, the gravedigger said, used to attract people as he sang songs of protest. He mobilised workers from not only his village but from the surrounding eight villages. Unfortunately Seeralan lived in a world where “the wages for sin was death and the wages for justice was death as well.” As the gravedigger said, “Seeralan held up a mirror to their faces. They didn’t like what they saw, so they got rid of it. Law, Nation and Traitor are words they use to hide what they do from themselves. What is this nation, after all? If it makes them murder, then I’m fine in the land of the dead,” asserted the gravedigger.

The fact that the performance was located on the terrace of a house in Indiranagar made the play even more interesting. “People never know when this play ends,” remarked Ponni at the end of the play as the audience sat quietly even after she had sung the last song and delivered the last line.

As the gravedigger, Ponni’s performance was powerful — she was contemplative and sombre. There was a sense of banality in her account. There was ample amount of sarcasm, hurt and internalisation too.

Necessitating a discussion, the audience asked both Mangai and Ponni about the process of creating such a play. “Geetha based the play on a series of interviews Karthikeyan, one of her journalism students did for The Hindu from Madurai. He interviewed ten gravediggers. We also had a friend in Madurai who went and spoke to them. Also, it is important to note that women do not usually get the gravediggers’ job. Only when sons leave, daughters get the gravediggers job,” explained Mangai.

“Geetha also wrote this play overnight after sitting through a tribunal that debated whether the SC/ST prevention act was working. Over three days, the panel that Geetha was part of, heard the testimonies of the Dalit communities on the act,” added Ponni.

“I’m happy that some windows opened as we were performing on this terrace today. People in surrounding homes were curious enough to partake in this conversation. That is how universal this story actually is,” said Mangai.


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Printable version | Aug 3, 2021 7:01:00 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/theatre/when-a-gravedigger-mourned-a-death/article7035893.ece

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