Chandala, Impure preview: Through fresh eyes

Indianostrum Théâtre’s Chandala, Impure uses the classic Romeo and Juliet narrative to look at caste critically

August 05, 2019 05:48 pm | Updated August 25, 2019 06:38 am IST

In our country, where this play takes place, lives an old demon “who feeds on hate”; who divides the world into four varna s — at the height of purity are Brahmins; below them, Kshatriyas or warriors, then Vaisyas, the merchants and finally, Sudras, the servants. Then there is a fifth category, of people who are considered so ‘impure’ that they are not touched — the Chandalas.

Against this blooms the timeless love story of Jack and Janani. Chandala, Impure by Indianostrum Theatre, to be staged at The Hindu Theatre Fest 2019, is a story about love and individual aspirations which looks at the caste system through a critical lens. Directed by Koumarane Valavane, the play premiered at Festival des Francophonies en Limousin in France and will complete 40 shows this year. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What inspired you to work on Chandâla, Impure ?

The choice to adapt Romeo and Juliet was triggered by quite a few honour killings in Tamil Nadu. Among these, one that left a deep impression was that of Shankar and Kausalya. Kausalya took her family — who had killed Shankar, her husband — to the stand for justice, and is now an activist crusading against hate crimes related to caste.

During a discussion with a theatre colleague from Kerala, I came to know about a very shocking ritual followed by some people there, which relates to the purity of a woman dying a virgin. Disturbed, I wrote a short story — The Scale of Purity . When Indianostrum Théâtre was commissioned by Festival des Francophonies en Limousin, we thought of transposing the universal love story Romeo and Juliet in the Indian caste system. It seemed as if the caste system is a shape-shifting monster, adapting itself to new situations, even as laws are being put in place to eradicate it.

Koumarane Valavane, the director

Koumarane Valavane, the director

How did you shape Chandala?

We tried to explore the caste system from the point of view of Indian youth — how they are coping with it, what their aspirations are, their values and how they are affected by their place in a community. Some of the actors come from similar backgrounds as the characters, so their own experiences helped shape the journey of Chandâla. We have also looked at the role of a community in an individual’s life and the role an individual plays in a community. One of the attempts is also to explore the influence of cinema on the “idea of love” for our youth. Is it creating an illusion and taking them away from reality? Is it commoditising and objectifying human values and emotions?

Did the fact that Romeo and Juliet is a universal text make it more apt for subversion?

When we started the process of this play, I proposed that we begin with Romeo and Juliet — especially in the first part of the play — which is about the energy of the youth and their desires for life. I gave them freedom to explore these ideas in the context of a middle-class family and a Dalit family. During these improvisations themes like cinema, songs, dances, Cupid, Shakila movies, cycle rickshaw, sewage, instruments like parai , gana songs, the shop where youngsters in the play meet, emerged organically. Parallelly, we made the narrative of this legendary play our own. The last part is a diversion from the original play, in consonance with outcomes of honour killing.

Can you also introduce your protagonists, Jack and Janani, to the readers and their treatment of the larger concept of caste?

For Jack, we followed almost the original character of Romeo — melancholy and romantic. Jack is an educated Dalit boy, but ignorant of caste segragation. Janani was a different story altogether. We did not want a typical fair and lovely caricature of the character. It took us more than a month to find this character and the actor who played her.

Documentary filmmaker Pankaj Rishi Kumar captured this journey in his IDSFFK award-winning documentary Janani’s Juliet . In the second part of the play, which takes departure from Romeo and Juliet ’s storyline, we emphasise more on the struggle of Janani.

Chandala, Impure by Indianostrum Theatre will be staged on August 28, 7.30 pm at the Music Academy, Chennai

Tickets available on  and The Hindu's Theatre Fest page

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