Women theatre: Voice through darkness

Last Updated: Thu, Apr 11, 2013 08:59 hrs

Samanwyay celebrates women's theatre in all its aspects. Inspired by Kolkata-based veteran Usha Ganguli, on its fifth year of celebration, it shifted to Tagore's Santiniketan. Shoma A. Chatterji reports

Theatre -written, directed and performed by women, though men are also an integral part, is at the core of the Samanwyay festival. Inspired by veteran Usha Ganguli whose Kolkata-based Hindi theatre group Rangakarmee is nearly four decades old, it occupies a special place in the cultural calendar as it invites theatre practitioners from across the country.

This year the venue of the four-day festival shifted from Kolkata to Santiniketan, the abode of peace and culture founded by Tagore. The response was phenomenal. It offered a brilliant prism of solo performances culminating with the only group performance Hum Mukhtara by Rangakarmee.

The festival opened with Rangakarmee's Antaryatra conceived and performed by Usha Ganguli herself. She invests the script with her personal introspections intercutting them with 'voices' of some of the most memorable women from the fields of literature, theatre and real life.

Antaryatra, turns into a celebration of womanhood as Ganguli pays tribute to these strong women through her collage of characters. They are drawn from real life, each rooted in a distinct social space but bonded through the basic identity of being a woman, per se and a survivor at that.

With her excellent command over props, the play uses different geometric shapes like squares, triangles, circles and so on, to shift from one character to the next, from one situation to the next, voicing the angst, the anger and the protest of women.

Sanichari in Rudali from Mahasweta Devi's story, Himmat Mai (Bertolt Brecht's 1939 German play), Nora from Henrik Ibsen's Doll's House, Kamla from Vijay Tendulkar's play, are women fighting against adversity.

Teejanbai who practices the Pandavani style from Chhatisgarh needs no introduction. On the second evening, the 71-year-old performer enacted the Draupadi Vastraharan episode from the Mahabharaat in her typical story-telling style. This used to be an exclusively male performance in which women sat and sang in the backdrop.

But Teejanbai radicalised this by becoming the first ever woman performer of Pandavani at the young age of thirteen. She dances, sings, enacts and delivers lines from different characters in the episode in a solo performance in her strong, guttural voice. She uses her ektara and on cues from her live musical accompanists, makes ideal use of the proscenium space striding about with the confidence and the intensity that defines her stance and her persona.

To transform through a theatrical performance Rabindranath Tagore's unforgettable short story Jeebito-O-Mrito, and through a solo performance, would seem rather daunting. But Anuradha Kapoor, director of National School of Drama, who also is a founder of Vivadi, (a noted Delhi-based group of painters, writers, artists and theatre persons) and actress Seema Biswas have made this possible, credible and stunning in impact. Santinketan was perhaps the appropriate venue for the play.

In the Tagore story, the narration is in the third person by the author. In this play, we hear Kadambari's 'voice' for the first time as she takes us from one moment of shock to the next, narrating her life story that begins - and ends - in the crematorium. She wakes up on her own funeral pyre, terrified to discover herself on it, frightened by another smoking pyre next to her, wondering whether she is dead or whether she is alive. "Kadambari died to prove that she was alive" is the immortal last sentence of Tagore's original story.

In this solo performance, Seema Biswas, one of the most talented actresses whose Phoolan Devi in Bandit Queen is still recalled, pulls attention to her plight by voicing the story of her life in flashback. Her performance was so overwhelming in its impact that as you walked out of the hall you remained haunted by the 'voice' of Kadambari who jumps into the well to prove that she was not dead.

The last day saw the only group performance of Hum Mukhtara, Rangakarmee's new play. The title Hum Mukhtara, points out that all women across the world are Mukhtaras like that unlettered, rustic but gutsy young woman called Mukhtar Mai of Pakistan who was gang-raped and then she fought for justice. She did it because "all women have been abused, violated, victimised, humiliated and oppressed at one time or another not only by men but more importantly, by family members, society and the legal and judicial system of each country that holds man as supreme and woman as one who should be controlled by man," says Ganguli who conceived the play. She also acts as the anchor and leader of the chorus of women who represent all the Mukhtaras hidden within us, waiting to come out.

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