Women’s History Roundtable February 2020: “Women’s Movements and Theatre” by Dr. A. Mangai

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A. Mangai is the pseudonym of Dr. V. Padma, a retired Associate Professor in English from Stella Maris College, Chennai. Her fields of interest are theatre, gender and translation studies. She has written and translated several books and plays, and has been actively engaged in Tamil theatre as an actor, director and playwright for almost three decades. She has directed over 15 plays, all of which deal with women-centric themes. These include Kaala Kanavu (A Dream of Time), a feminist history of Tamil Nadu scripted by the feminist historian V. Geetha, and pieces based on classical Tamil texts. She strives to create a language of theatre from the traditional forms of Tamilnadu. She is also passionate about community theatre, and making theatre the voice of the marginalised. Her work with the transgender community over the past few years has helped form Kannadi Kalai Kuzhu, for whom she has directed two plays. Dr. Mangai has twice been a recipient of the Fulbright Fellowship to teach and conduct research in the US, and has also taught in the UK.

Women’s movement and feminist theatre, Dr. Mangai believes, have succeeded in the representation of women without victimisation, seeing women through her own sense of agency and redefining leadership as part and parcel of grounded realities.

Sharing insights from her book, Acting Up: Gender and Theatre in India, 1979 Onwards, on the trajectory of gendered theatre practices and women’s movements, Dr. Mangai began with a gist on Agusto Boval’s Theatre of the Oppressed, which recognises spectators as “spect-actors” and attributes the act of “doing” rather than “thinking” to spectators, Dr. Mangai spoke about how this theatre movement by Boval has been used as a tool for social change.

Although riddled with scepticism, Boval’s other contribution, the Legislative Theatre, Dr. Mangai said allows one to engage with law in a very proactive way (Boval used legislative theatre as a tool to identify key community problems and the kind of legislation that would help address it). Today, however, she said, “we talk about individuality in a way that fears individuality.”

Splitting her talk on feminist theatre into “content” and “form,” Dr Mangai went on to cite some important plays that have lent support to the women’s movement and have led to some of the strongest movements/reactions and positive developments that we have seen in recent times.

She gave the example of the play Draupadi (a short story by Mahasweta Devi’s which was adapted by Heisnam Kanhailal as a play in 2000). It is about a Bengali adivasi woman who is raped by soldiers of the Indian Army. At the end of the story, Draupadi confronts the officer who sanctioned her rape. The play is said to be prophetic as it spurred, four years later, the protest by 12 Manipuri women, who stripped naked, to vent their angst against the rape and killing of Thangjam Manorama by army personnel.

Dr Mangai, who has directed four plays on female infanticide, showed a brief clipping of a play from “Voicing Silence,” done in collaboration with the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, where theatre was used as a tool to discuss gender-based issues like female infanticide. In the play, the theatre group proactively engages with the spectators and seeks their thoughts on the subject. While such forms of engagement helped the group get a sense of the ground reality, a few women were rebuked for speaking their mind.

She also feels that while theatre gives the energy and hope for artistic sharing, it also provides the chance to listen.

If the 1990s were about female infanticide, the 2000s were about LGBT issues in theatre. Dr Mangai spoke about her play on transwomen which focussed on addressing their issues as citizens, including the right to have an identity card. The play also spoke about other societal issues faced by the group. There are many in Chengalpattu, who even today, credit the play for some of the positive developments that came about for the community such as access to rights, land, etc. Dr Mangai, however, attributes this to the “right time, right demand.” But these changes also make her feel validated and with the growing number of trans people in Tamil Nadu who are entering art and films, she acknowledges the small part she and her theatre group have played in contributing towards this. Here, she cited the example of transgender activist A Revathi, who had her name displayed alongside names like Maya Angelou in Columbia University. 

According to her, every time there has been a big campaign, either poetry or literature or art has come as a supplement. However, she adds, “without a sense of solidarity, collectivism doesn’t sustain.”

She then went on to speak about the key aspects of “form.” Reinterpreting myths, like Heisnam Kanhailal’s play Draupadi, has been a favourite for playwriters. Dr Mangai believes that engagement of feminist ideology has produced this interpretation. Another aspect is the female impersonation by men.  

She credits Anuradha Kapur for being the pioneer in conceptualising and changing the way one can make a presentation. But representation of women, even when it’s based on facts, if not attuned to cultural sensitivities can be problematic. Talking about her play Avvai, Dr Mangai pointed out that her representation of Avvai as someone who enjoys toddy drew flak as it was seen as “subscribing to the image of western feminism.” This despite the fact that 40 poems, penned by Avvai, have references to toddy and drinking toddy by women was a ritual practiced by many during the Sangam age.

She also touched upon plays like Vakkumoolam and Karuppi. The former revolved around custodial rape and the fight for justice by Nagamma, a Dalit woman, during the period of Emergency and the latter is about female migrant workers in South Asia. Plays like Vakkumoolam, instead of victimising women, successfully bring out the calm, composed and steady resilience of a woman who stood for justice.  

She believes that in theatre, the process of work becomes more important than the product. And theatre/art as a tool allows you to acknowledge the various shades of feminism consciousness. Feminist theatre, she said, is like a seed, it grows on different soils, it grows slowly but it stays.  

According to Dr Mangai, it is important to note that representation of women in feminist theatre and women’s movements – from the Kurathi (gypsy) to Avvai to Manimekalai to as recent as Shaheen Bagh – is grounded in women’s lived realities.

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Rapporteur: Nandhini Shanmugham

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