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The word "Soorpanangu" is a concoction that is drawn from two root words-Soorpanagai, the demon sister of Ravana, and the Tamil word "Anangu" which means "Woman". In a deeper sense, "Anangu" can be interpreted as "demon", "one without form", or "invisible". Indeed, an apt description of the pitiable state of Woman.
The press write-ups for the play appeared impressive, as did the fantastic photographs that appeared along with write-ups. The play, staged at the fabulous Ravindra Kalakshetra, had a formal inauguration, and all the guests emphasized on the experimental nature of the play.
Dr Tamilavan, Tamil writer and poet, traced one of the roots of the experimental style of the play to the "Chiru Patrigai" (literally "small paper") or Tamil literary magazines which are circulated in small pockets.
Akkai Padmashali, rights activist with Sangama, an organisation that campaigns for sexual minorities, spoke and sang movingly about the troubles and perils of being a transgender. This is a topic that receives serious consideration in the play through transgender actor "Living Smile" Vidya, who is a writer and assistant director of repute. These speeches served to set a serious tone to the play itself. Audiences expecting a serious statement on gender issues were surely not disappointed.
The play itself showcases a series of sketches about the unbearable oppression that women have to face in a male-dominated society. A thread that begins the weaving of the play is the legend of Nallathangal, a woman who committed suicide along with her seven children during a severe drought three hundred years ago. Nallathangal has since become part of Tamil folklore-a ritual performance of the piece was expected to move the heartless gods in heaven to send rain during times of drought.
A series of other threads are explored and the plight of women is shown from different perspectives. Soorpanagai is cruelly castigated for expressing the single desire of lusting after Rama. Other sketches focus on the custodial rapes of tribal and Dalit women, the predicament of displaced agrarian women who have to spend long, back-breaking hours in construction sites to eke out meager livings, and metaphors that associate sweat and hence, salt, with the stifled sighs and sorrows of women.
Other characters that impact the psyche of the audience include the oppression of Muslim women, a set of characters in outsized purdahs who have to bend, stoop, and show not an inch of flesh, while perhaps their aspiration for education would be considered a crime. The innocent women who were trapped within the terrifying confines of the Eelam war, and women subject to domestic violence and police brutality.
As a stark contrast, you remind yourself of the thousand different ways in which men dominate women, and you squirm uncomfortably in your seat.
The characters themselves are organic and no single character holds sway throughout. Even physically, the characters are all part of a chorus that bends, twists, and writhes to become a flowing organic miasma from which the characters surface and dive back into.
The action is true physical theatre with its forest of arms, legs, heads, and bodies. The director’s understanding of drama is revealed in the fantastic and stylized movements of the actors down to the minutest movements including the simple act of wearing a dress. Their synchronisation and timing form memorable visuals that leave you gasping in astonishment.
The props in the play are a statement by themselves. Daily utensils like sieves, ropes, sticks and bales of hay acquire new symbolisms and reflect the daily drudgery of women. Ropes confine and release, while sieves tie the women down and yet become wings hoping for freedom. Pounding sticks that pound the many varieties of rice become a thrumming rhythm that can only be called primordial or tribal. Attention to minute details makes the action magical. Props and people appear, transform, and leave as if by magic. There are no sets to speak of in the conventional sense; the actors themselves are the living sets.
Costumes add another layer to the gender statement. Most actors are men playing "streeparts" (another ritualistic tribute), and they are differentiated as women only when they wear long paavadai-like pyjama skirts and blouses. In a very strange mixing of metaphors, these costumes reveal more than they hide.
The music is consistently disturbing and is meant to be so. The Urumi, which is a kind of tribal drum that drones, along with a constant haunting and wailing voice (instrument?) that soars over the rhythmic beats sets your nerves on the edge. The actors themselves contribute to the rhythm with their movement and staccato voicing of the dialogues. There are no melodic instruments for most part, and the only relief is provided by a flute at the very end of the play. The lights do what they must do best-adequately support the play.
The director does not let you off the hook in terms of emotional intensity even for the tiniest instant. Catharsis comes in the form of women giving birth and suckling their young ones. This scene is magical too; dried out gourds become breasts, wombs, and babies in the hands of the actors. The final scene is memorable, as all the gourds transform into the teats of an animal and the actors become the suckling younglings. This is perhaps an atavistic throwback to the animal nature of humanity.
Language becomes a problem at the level of comprehending the details. Despite knowing Tamil, I had to rely on interpretation. However, in terms of the big picture, language becomes secondary and irrelevant because of the vibrant visual and emotional energy of the actors.
The actors from Manal Magudi (literally "snake charmer’s mud or sand pipe") are excellent and display great emotional and physical intensity and control despite the punishing ritual of movement and dialogues.
Renowned director Muruga Bhoopathy, who also scores and performs the music, clearly understands how theatre can prey upon the minds of the audience. His command over the syntax of drama is excellent, and the physical and emotional highs in the plays make a lasting impact.
Should you watch this play? Not if you are looking for an evening of light entertainment. However, if you believe that effective theatre must disturb, this play disturbs and deeply so. If you do sit through this two-hour experience, perhaps a window to the meaning of humanity may open somewhere.
The play was organised by a Tamil literature reading group named Aarangal and a Kannada Theatre group Halukuriki Theatre on 06 October 2011 at Ravindra Kalakshetra.⊕