Conversations on Tamil Feminist Theater, hosted by Marappachi Theater (Part 1)

This is the first installment in a two-part series on Tamil Feminist Theater

We live in a time when conflict and destruction are no longer the exception but the norm. It may be natural disasters or conflicts created by State and non-state institutions and individuals. It often feels like a dark cloud is looming over us. However, those of us who have chosen to live with the purpose of changing the world to the best of our ability always see a silver lining to these clouds. That could be a song that expresses deep sadness and thus helps with healing; it could be a slogan that demands rights in its quest for justice; it could be a dance that quietly moves into our body, soul and our very being. Art, therefore, is an indispensable part of that hope.

A. Mangai is among the many theatre practitioners in the Tamil context who have worked for the past 40 years towards creating art that – seeks to be part of social change; is against the oppressions of caste/class/patriarchy; reclaims and recreates traditional art forms; and has given us new voices and movements. Students, society at large, Sri Lankan Tamils on the island and the diaspora, and traditional artists of Tamil Nadu have been participants and spectators of this work by Mangai, among others, for the past 40 years. We planned to use the opportunity of Mangai’s 60th year to organise a celebration and a conversation on women in Tamil theatre and Feminist Tamil theatre. Those of us who have worked with her over the years were to present some of her productions as excerpts or in full and perform during these two days. We also wanted to bring together women and feminist theatre practitioners in the Tamil context across generations to have conversations about our work, its history, and the challenges ahead.

The goal of the gathering was to enable us to claim our history as our own, to face and address our current challenges, those we will continue to face, and to gain hope from our collective energy. The event was an attempt at revitalising and nourishing us all. Such nourishment is much needed at times like this. In the light of the lock-down due to COVID- 19, the event could not be held as planned, however, we organised multiple events online in order to realise our objectives of exploring multiple aspects of Tamil Feminist Theatre.

On June 6, 2020, a performance of A. Revathi’s Vellai Mozhi directed by A. Mangai was held on Zoom and FB Live. The show was followed by a bilingual (Tamil/English) panel discussion on the role of art in queer activism. It was moderated by Ponni Arasu. Panelists were from Chennai, San Francisco and Singapore. The event flyer, performance, and panel discussion are featured below. We also include written comments from Mangai and Revathi on how art, theatre, and Vellai Mozhi have presented issues of sexuality in Tamil Nadu.

Event Flyer

வெள்ளை மொழி – அ. ரேவதி | Vellai Mozhi – A Revathi | Marappachi Theater

Vellai Mozhi Play Discussion | Marappachi Theater

All Bodies are Dignified | A. Mangai

I have documented my journey of working with LGBTIQA+ communities in my chapter on “Victimhood to Dignity” in Acting Up (2015).  Sexual rights became a major discourse by the late 1990’s.  It shifted the feminist debates from victimhood and violence to desire and pleasure.  It was also closely associated with sexual health, choices and the grey area of ‘consent’ in intimacies.  Women’s movements in India wrestled with these issues at many levels and are still lukewarm about taking these up more squarely.  But the communities of sex workers and queer groups persisted.  And they also found art and theatre as integral part of their struggles.  

In Tamil Nadu, Kannadi Kalai Kuzhu ((Mirror) was formed in 2003.  They staged two plays – Manasin Azhaippu (Call of the Heart) and Uraiyatha Ninaivugal (Unsettling Memories, 2005). Both these plays were running till about 2007 at different forums.  Eventually the group disbanded.  Most members of the group are leaders of different organizations today.  Sangama in Bengaluru, Karnataka was one of the leading organizations working with the queer community.  LesBit was formed within Sangama to focus on Lesbian, Bisexual, Intersexual and Transexuals.  I had an opportunity to work with that group on their play Musical Chair in 2008.  All these plays were built on the lifestories of the participants, knit together by a central idea each, citizenship, family and rat-race.  

Theatrically, these plays shook my idea of ‘representation’ – both for the performers/ characters and for me – director/ facilitator.   It was no more about ‘getting into the skin’ but about ‘shifting our gaze’.  It was a revelation for me to realise how theatre is way poorer if it does not include these ‘bodies’ and stories.  It also expanded the collectivism of theatre in the making of texts, narratives, gestures and codes of costumes/set/props.  The ‘making’ and ‘unmaking’ of characters on stage became loaded as the performers applied make-up or wore costumes, while revealing their ‘naked’ stories.  

As part of Marappachi, we went on to work on the documentations done by Rumi Harish and Sunil Mohan all over Southern India.  Workshops helped us identify the stories we wanted to choose and the narrative of binary gendering as comic and violent aspect of our patriarchal, heteronormative society.  The result was the play Naanga Ready (We are Ready, 2015).  For the first time on stage, we had stories of transwoman, lesbian, and gay lives performed by both cis gender and trans actors.  While the content did focus on sexual and gender identity, it addressed these issues at an everyday level – renting a house, travelling in a train or at workspace.  The narrative also had a lightness scoffing at the impossibility of binary genders and sexualities.  

I went on to work with Rumi Harish and Sunil Mohan again in 2018.  Both of them along with Radhika Raj, then a student of TISS, Mumbai had discovered the history of Begum Mahal, a building right on the banks of Ulsoor lake in Bengaluru.  There is only a bus stop by that name there, now. A huge hotel is built on that land. Together they gathered stories about the Begum and the Mahal from both official sources and the memories of people who lived in the area.  It was an amazing illustration of an urban landscape that was so fundamentally inclusive of all so-called ‘deviance’ in terms of class, caste, sexualities and genders, becoming, over time, non-inclusive. Almost like a parable for our present-day cities and the profound exclusion of the poor and marginalised. 

Rumi Harish strung their interviews into a play. We did readings of the play first and embarked on production of the play in 2019.  Freedom Begum was produced by Raahi with assistance from India Foundation for the Arts and crowd funding in 2019. The play was multi-lingual with Kannada being the main language. Like in our previous collaboration, we had some cis-gendered, heterosexual persons who were allies and trained actors along with actors from within the queer community in the cast. Perhaps, the group this time was not ready for a mixed cast, like the one we had in Chennai. There was discontentment. Some community members (also, members of the organization), who were in the cast, felt they were not given inclusive treatment during the development of the production. The process was not in keeping with the ‘transfeminist’ ethics that the producers had in mind. There wasn’t adequate will or intent to resolve differences in spite of this being a collaboration that is more than a decade old. 

The group has since disbanded; the text was copy-righted and the production had to be folded up, at least for the time-being.  It was indeed a heavy blow to my directorial process of creating a safe and equal space for all. While that is a life-long learning process, it is one that requires patience, but also trust and goodwill built over the years. In the absence of that, tough political conversations do not have space. Further, the commitment to learning the skills required for performance are demanding and cannot be rushed. Each participant should come with a certain sense of dedication and commitment to the process, without which the art form cannot be adequately explored individually by the actor, and collectively in the production. 

I wanted to put it out here so that one knows that the collectivism we hail from and continue to respect, is not always easy.  We need to constantly find language to negotiate differences with kindness and openness without irreparably breaking bridges built over so many years! An all-encompassing, inclusive radical politics, after all, is impossible without the difficult and rewarding terrain of building solidarities!

Revathi will elaborate her own journey in theatre.  I admire her tenacity and will power to hold on to her positivity, compassion and warmth.  The performance of Vellai Mozhi is flexible enough to include her comments on the here and now.  Each time I watch the show, I see her adding and changing a few things.  I am quite a stickler for keeping to the rehearsed performance.  Surprises are scary on stage.  But with Revathi, I am confident she is on the dot!     

Staging My Life | A. Revathi   

I was no in any way qualified to enter into the auditoriums where performances are held.  When I walked past them, I would watch the posters and banners in front of the halls.  Though I was curious to see the place and the events happening, fear and hesitation would grip me.  Perhaps, the guard at the door will not let me in!  

In 2011, my autobiography, The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story, was translated from the Penguin English edition into Kannada language by Du. Saraswathi.  It was published by Gauri Lankesh’s publishing house – Called Lankesh Prakashana- as Baduku Bayalu. Parts of that book was performed as a play by actors working with Dr. M. Ganesh in 2014.  He was running a theatre group called Janamanadhata at Heggodu in Shimoga district, Karnataka.  Members of that group were performing this play.  I got to see the 49th show of this play in Kolar.  Till then, I have never seen a play or entered an auditorium.  I can not fully express my experience of watching the play.  I could not speak; tears rolled down involuntarily; I had goosebumps.  It felt like my whole life was being played like a television show right in front of my eyes.  None of the actors had seen me before.  But through my writing they grasped my life in all its intricacies and enacted it.  The play was close to 90 minutes long.  I was so moved that I went up on stage and congratulated everyone.  

Later, I spoke to Dr. Ganesh and requested him to continue the shows of this play for one more year at least.  I could see first-hand how the play can sensitise the audience about trans lives.  I also expressed my desire to join the performance.  He agreed to both.

So, in 2015, that group travelled with this play along with a new play on Ambedkar.  These two years saw close to 100 shows of Baduku Bayalu.  Only when I joined the group did I realise how theatre works.  He re-worked the sections I could be part of.  For three months, I stayed at their place and trained.  He asked me to be myself on stage.  The enactment of my character was done by the actor named Chandru.  However, there were specific movements to be mastered.  I had to keep track of my cues; wear a skirt and blouse or other costumes that were needed. 

The group had only two female actors.  There was a separate space for them to change and the male members had a different place.  In proper auditoriums, we would have green rooms.  But sometimes a stage would be set up in the open and temporary places would serve as green rooms.  The best part of the experience was that I did not feel discriminated against.  They treated me with love and respect.  They called me ‘akka’ or ‘amma’ – elder sister or mother.  

Most often after the show ended, members of the audience would come up and speak to me.  They openly expressed how they had the least idea about trans lives.  Many were scared of them in public spaces and gave them money just to get rid of them.  The play revealed the hardships faced by a trans person in this society.  They said the play opened their eyes and minds to understand trans community.  We also sold copies of the book during the shows.

In one of the shows, the Chairman of Alva’s College, Moodbidri had driven down to watch this play at Shimoga.  After the show, he announced that his institution will admit trans people if they wanted to study and will support them completely.  He even said they would build a separate hostel facility if needed.  Unfortunately, the community did not pick up the offer and we lost that opportunity.  

After that I returned to Namakkal, my native place.  One day, Dr. Ganesh called again and asked me to perform a solo show in the Vishwamanava International Theatre Festival organised by Rangayana at Shimoga.  I was quite diffident.  I had no idea about the form.  He reassured me that it would not be very difficult.  But I felt I had to do it well.  So, I approached Mangai.  She readily agreed and asked me to come down to her house in Chennai.  She asked me to share the things I would like to include in this play and helped in giving a form to it.

This show opened in Coimbatore as an event of Sahodari Foundation run by a trans artist and activist Kalki Suramaniam.  Then, I went to Shimoga and performed it in Kannada.  Many people appreciated the performance.  They said it was almost professional in quality.  My Kannada accent was of course Tamil inflected!  This event helped me gain the confidence to continue with the performances.  I kept performing the shows in Tamil and Kannada.  I also performed this play in Kerala, where they understood Tamil quite well. This show provoked a lot of questions.  Many wanted more details about legal aspects, policies and government support for the community.  I could share the struggles we had waged for so many years.  Also, the fact that even the approved legal measures have not been implemented.  The play, therefore, became a pretext for discussions on many unspoken issues.

In 2019, SAATHII, an organisation of repute came forward to help me take this play to more places.  Dr. Ramakrishnan, who heads SAATHII helped me with a Fellowship to travel with my play.  Each time I did the show, I could see my performance getting polished.  Many friends supported me throughout. Shyam added his music, Srijith Sundaram honed my skills, Umesh of Jeeva Foundation, Bengaluru and many others stood by me.  

In a way, this play gave me a deep sense of satisfaction and lifted my spirits.  Srijith then cast me in his Malayalam play Parayan Maranna Kadhakal. It is an ensemble production by a trans group in Kerala, called Mazhavil Dhwani.  I understood the difference between a solo and group performance.  Vellai Mozhi has got an easy flow, probably because it is based on my life. The test for my skills would be to perform a text by someone else, I think.  Many have also suggested that I add the life stories of other members of my community too.  I am keen on doing it as well.

Compared to a 200/300-page long book, a half an hour play is certainly more powerful and has the potential to touch many people.  Also, while performing, it becomes the collective story of many Revathis in our society.  In fact, in the play, I speak as a concerned citizen about the violence meted out to young girls, acid attacks on women who refuse unwanted attention, honour killings in the name of caste and religion, and the impunity with which voices of resistance are silenced.  These are questions we raise; these are issues for which we need to protest.  These are people with whom I want to ally myself.   I get such a fulfillment in doing a show that contains all these themes.

I wish I can continue to work in theatre with many more themes and voices.  At this moment under lock-down, it seems like a dead end; but I am sure we will see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

To read more from A. Revathi, visit here.

About the contributors:
Marappachi is registered as a not-for-profit cultural organization. Founded by Late Poet Inquilab as the Founding President in 2006, it attempts to practice art and theatre that is relevant and contemporary. A. Mangai has been with the group right from its inception. The group addresses deeply ingrained prejudices in our society like caste, class and gender. The group works with students, art practitioners and organisations and movements to address social transformation through theatre. Some of the major productions of the group are Inquilab’s Kurinjippattu and V. Geetha’s Kaala Kanavu, a docu-drama on the history of feminist thought in India. Marappachi has been inclusive of the queer community right from its inception. Members of the group are also engaged in research on theatre history. The group wants to uphold process over product-driven modes of making theatre.
A. Mangai is the pseudonym of Dr. V. PadmaShe retired as Associate Professor in English from Stella Maris College, Chennai. She has been actively engaged in Tamil theatre as an actor, Director and Playwright for almost three decades. She hopes that her academic, activist and artistic selves can find a vibrant intersection. Her fields of interest are theatre, gender and translation studies. Her passion is to concentrate on community theatre – to make theatre the voice of the voiceless, or the marginalized.  She has directed over thirty -five plays so far. All of them deal with women –centered themes and characters. Her book Acting Up: Gender and Theatre in India 1979 Onwards has been published by Left Word, New Delhi.  
A. Revathi is transfeminist activist, writer and a crusader for LGBTIQA+ community in India. Her books The Truth About Me, A life in trans activism and Our Bodies Our Selves (Unarvum Uruvamum) are pioneering works on trans lives.  Her career as a writer won her a place on the Columbia University Butler Library banner.  She finds theatre a powerful art form.
Suggested Citation:
Marappachi Theater. 31 August 2020. “Conversations on Tamil Feminist Theatre (Part 1).” AGITATE! Blog