Veteran theatre individual Mangai, who turns 60 this yr, says that the phrase ‘survival’ describes her oeuvre finest
In her first theatre workshop in Tirunelveli, thespian and scholar Mangai met an individual she least anticipated to see: a younger lady who rolled beedis for a residing. The lady instructed Mangai after the workshop: “I never knew that my back could be so straight.” It was a second of revelation. “It also had an uncanny connection to dancer Chandralekha’s statement about finding the spine in dance,” says Mangai.
For Mangai, who turns 60 and completes 35 years in theatre this yr, the stage can also be about ‘physical liberation’. “It is certainly different for women. We live in a society where the woman’s body is consistently subjected to shame or treated as an object of gaze. In theatre, the socially constructed images around the body are broken. When it is a trans body or a queer body, it becomes an even bigger statement. Theatre lets you be free with your body, to own it.”
Mangai’s journey in theatre is full of extraordinary moments. She fondly recollects staging a play on the enduring Manalur Maniyamma, the privileged caste widow, who turned a Communist, at an AIDWA convention in Nagapattinam. “We took six phases from the story, primarily round Maniyamma’s rise up towards Brahminical widowhood, her shift in direction of Gandhian ideology, and her doubts about socio-political questions which led her to Left politics. Also, how she outfitted herself to deal with threats by studying to trip a bicycle and by practising silambam.
Mangai says she was not satisfied about bringing Maniyamma as a personality into the play. “We finally chose to bring in her spirit, which resides in each of us. Six people played the role: anyone wearing a red shawl was Maniyamma.” A day after the play, an aged lady turned up. She instructed them about how Maniyamma had given her a trip on her bicycle when she was a toddler, after which she handed over a small donation to the group.
Mangai began dabbling in theatre within the Nineteen Eighties together with Chennai Kalai Kuzhu and AIDWA’s Sakthi Kalai Kuzhu. But it was not till 1990, after attending the Expressions workshop organised by Majlis, an organisation that works with legislation and tradition, that she recognised theatre as her calling. As author, translator and educational, Mangai was spoilt for alternative. “But I chose theatre because it had space for collective and democratic work. Also, it served as a link between the politics we believed in and the form we chose to express ourselves.”
Theatre teams for girls
Naangal Varugirom, directed by Pralayan of Chennai Kalai Kuzhu, launched Mangai as an actor. Penn, an adaptation of Safdar Hashmi’s Aurat, took her to nearly each district in Tamil Nadu. Soon she was directing performs for Chennai Kalai Kuzhu and Sakthi Kalai Kuzhu.
Mangai was additionally the founding member of Voicing Silence and Marappachi — each theatre teams dedicated to rising the participation of ladies in theatre. The teams introduced in girls from completely different walks of life to Tamil theatre — Karuppi was about girls’s collectives and the experiences of migrant labourers; in Sudalaiamma, a graveyard employee performs the final rites of a insurgent killed in an encounter; and in Avvai and Manimegalai, basic Tamil texts are given a feminist reinterpretation in Mangai’s fingers.
Her performs additionally critically study modern points via a gender lens — Pacha Mannu was on feminine infanticide, Aanmaiyo Aanmai was on the disaster of masculinity within the Tamil political area, and Kaala Kanavu in regards to the feminist historical past of Tamil Nadu. These theatre teams performed an enormous function in drawing transgender artistes akin to Living Smile Vidya, Sowmya and Revathi into Tamil theatre. In all, Mangai has directed some 35 performs.
For analysis, she has trusted writer-historian V. Geetha and Tamil poet Inquilab. “Geetha was responsible for research into contemporary issues and Inquilab for research into classical texts,” she says.
Mangai believes the tales of ladies are central to her theatre. “Everywhere, the woman’s stories remain untold.” And in war-torn Sri Lanka, much more so. When working with Batticaloa’s theatre group Surya Pengal Kalachara Kuzhu, Mangai helped enact a ritual — kulirthi (a ritual related to Kannagi temple meant to pacify and heal), which incorporates neem water, turmeric water and an evening filled with songs.
“The temple festival takes place over 10 days in a year, but when it is enacted in theatre, it heals not just Kannagi of yesteryear, but also the women from whose lives loved ones are made to forcibly disappear. They say theatre is therapeutic. I am not a counsellor, but I can certainly say that it allows everyone to open up.”
Mangai’s theatre is predominantly feminist but when there’s one phrase that will outline her oeuvre, it’s ‘survival’. “The system is forcing us to be survivors — there are various terms: cancer survivor, rape survivor etc. It is simultaneously about accepting pain and resisting it. It is about putting together the broken pieces and keeping ourselves intact. Whether my play is about a kurathi (gypsy), bard, or bhikkhuni (female Buddhist monk), the idea is to liberate the self.”
Her newest play, staged by Marappachi on September 2 on Facebook Live, is Siripputhaan Varudhu and is about Black Lives Matter and marginalised voices in India. “From where I am, I think it is my duty to discover an idiom that will offer a dignified representation of you and your stories, whether it is about the scars of a war or about the lives of a transgender. That is all I can do.”
The author is an impartial Chennai-based journalist.