STAGING DREAMS OF CHANGE - Strands of history that remain incomplete
The writing of history need not be a solitary exercise conducted among dusty books in a library. Nor need it be an exclusive business monopolized by scholars. History — or some of its strands — can be portrayed onstage and debated in full public view. These were among the cheering thoughts that came to mind when I recently witnessed the performance of a “feminist docudrama” that maps afresh a little chunk of history.
The docudrama, called Kalakkanavu or “A Dream of Time”, is unusual not only for its content and form, but also for its overall objective. As far as content is concerned, it retells almost a hundred years of history from a feminist perspective. The form is equally ambitious: the drama pieces together select extracts from Tamil women’s writings, speeches, songs and stage performances from the mid 19th to the mid 20th century. The central objective is a debate on women and change; but this is not just a scripted debate to be presented onstage. It’s open to the questions and comments of the “actors” and the “audience”. To this extent, the script, written by V. Geetha, is in a state of becoming, open to further dialogue. In fact, the idea of dialogue seems central to the enterprise — a dialogue with the past to explore some historical moments that precipitated the beginnings of social change; and a dialogue between those historical moments and present-day debates to enrich our understanding of what we are living through.
The dialogue hangs on the framework of five historical moments that made change less of a dream. During each of these landmark moments, women were enabled, in some way or the other, to imagine their lives travelling beyond the domestic sphere of marriage, motherhood or household work. Each of these individual journeys also left a legacy for other women — by giving them models through which they could rethink the nature of personal and social relationships. The models are not always “successful” — some of these women paid a terrible price for venturing off the safe and familiar path. But the models said it could be done. Change was possible; at any rate, re-thinking the familiar sanctioned world could pave the way to change.
The first of these historical moments is a period of nationalism when the “new Indian woman” was a recurring motif in what nationalists and reformers had to say. In Tamil Nadu too, the great nationalist poet, Subramania Bharati, is credited with having imagined the new woman into existence through verse and song. Bharati’s new woman was fearless in her commitment to the national cause; she was an equal partner in the grand adventure of nationalism. (There was, however, “the muse and mascot element” — part of this new woman’s role was to inspire men to be courageous and self-sacrificing.)
Thus the play begins with an examination of the truism that Bharati’s new woman is an important ancestor of today’s feminist. Several female contemporaries of Bharati respond onstage through words from newspapers and magazines, diaries and letters. Together they suggest that we need to look beyond Bharati and ask a couple of new questions. What did the age of science mean to women, for instance? And did the emerging rationalist and anti-caste ideologies influence women?
Having considered the “new woman”, the play moves back in time to focus on the relationship between conversion to Christianity and status. What did the new religion mean to women? Which class or caste of women was drawn to it and why? Several stories emerge as these questions are tackled. There’s the story of Grace Samuel who spoke of marriage in terms of companionship. She felt her faith gave her the means to redefine her marriage as a relationship between equals and friends. There’s the story of Clarinda, a Marathi Brahmin widow, who dared to “live in sin” with an East India Company soldier. She was one of the first upper caste converts to Christianity. There’s the story of the Nadar women, who struggled, with missionary support, to gain the right to wear the breast cloth denied to them by the upper castes. There are also the stories of the numerous lower-caste women converts who worked with Amy Carmichael, an Englishwoman involved in rescuing girls dedicated to temples against their wishes.
Having arrived at the devadasi issue, the play allows us to hear two different female voices in tandem. Ramamrithammal and Muthulakshmi were two remarkable women from the devadasi community. Ramamrithammal was a community activist and a vocal member of the self-respect movement led by E.V. Ramasami (“Periyar”). She publicly denounced the priests, landlords and institutions responsible for the maintenance of the devadasi system. Muthulakshmi drew upon a discourse of rights and morality to argue against the devadasi system. But in their protest against the injustice of this system, both women had to adopt a “moral public voice” — either by castigating the immorality of the caste order and denouncing dasis who would not abandon their vocation as Ramamrithammal did; or by working to legislate the system out of existence as Muthulakshmi did.
But what was “moral” and why?
The play examines this vexed question through the life of a stage actress and singer, K.B. Sundarambal. Her troubled marriage and love life as well as her stage career attracted gossip despite a measure of legitimacy that came with her involvement with the Gandhian movement. The point is that women in public life were essentially vulnerable; and the tool that reduced them to this vulnerability was the construct called “morality”.
Who set the rules and standards of this morality? The play examines this dilemma through the public and political choices made by the women who became followers of Gandhi, the women active in the Tamil language purity movement, the women who participated in communist struggles. There’s a range of forgotten voices that are narrated back into memory through song and verse — from that of the intrepid Manalur Maniamma, who organized Dalit agricultural workers in east Tamil Nadu and who died in suspicious circumstances, to that of the Sufi thinker and novelist, Sidi Juaniada Begum.
The play ends with numerous women who were active and articulate in Periyar’s self-respect movement. Jeyasekari, Neelavathi, Kunjitham, Janaki — these are only a few of the women we discover as we hear their views on socialism, female labour, abortion, contraception, motherhood — in short, issues and debates we live through today. Critical voices are not muffled. With Periyar’s emphasis on self-criticism providing the context, we hear some sharp and acerbic comments on male activists in the self-respect movement who were unfailing radical — till they entered their own homes.
Finally, attempts like Kalakkanavu examine the concept and practice of feminism in a public setting. Could feminism be more than an idea, or a feeling? Is it a political choice that influences the personal and the political in equal measure? Answers are not always possible; and when they do come, they are rarely simple or unmixed with new questions. But what this debate of a play manages to do is acknowledge certain strands of history that remain incomplete. Then it asks questions, the first step in any significant project to understand ourselves.
An explanation of some terms for my non-Tamil readers:
Deva-dasi - literally, "God's maid"
In reality, a temple prostitute. The temple would pay their meager living expenses out of its revenues, and in return, the devadasis provided entertainment to the masses on special occasions, via song and dance, but more importantly, provided sexual services to the priests (and other men rich enough to pay for such service via the temple). Generally looked down upon by most of society - because they were prostitutes, and regardless of their supposed "status" as "maid of the Gods". Girls from poor and/or lower caste families were often sold into such sexual slavery, perhaps because the parents believed that it was a good thing for the girl ("at least she will always have a roof over her head"), or because they lived in such desperate poverty that the money brought in by selling the girl into this kind of slavery could help them educate the more-important boy child(ren), or because they were flat out greedy for the money.
Of course, considering that girls are still looked upon as a "burden" to their parents until they are married (when they become the husband's and in-laws' "responsibility"), even in this day and age when a majority of urban women are working second jobs outside the home, in addition to their first job of general household slave... I mention urban women in particular, lower-middle to middle-class, because that is what I am familiar with, and have observed. The poor, I have only observed in terms of the servant who used to work for my grandmother, cleaning the house, washing dishes, etc. I would see her go from house to house, doing a LOT of drudge work, to be paid a miserable wage in return. By the time I grew up enough to become a self-aware feminist, I had moved to the US, so all I can do from here is support the few legitimate charities that focus on helping them. As far as I am aware, the majority of rural women already do an enormous amount of work every day, inside and outside the house (mainly, working all day beside their men in the fields, then coming home and doing all the household chores as well, rearing children while being severely nutritionally challenged, among ever so many more disadvantages). I know I wouldn't last so much as one DAY!
Heh, somehow my explanation drifted into a rant... Usually happens on the occasions that I try to contemplate the role and position of women, past or present, in the patriarchial societies that predominate around the world. Notwithstanding the current circus playing around the Republican VP nominee being a woman - all that she possesses in common with any woman with an ounce of common sense and self-preservation is two breasts and a vagina. In every other respect, she is so anti-woman, it has to be seen to be believed. It terrifies me that she and ol' zombie-McCain might yet win this election (and if they do, I might just take up dear b-i-l's offer of a job in his company and move to England - that's how bad it can and will become here in the US of A if the voices of reason are trampled in favor of religion- and fascism-based insanity for another 4 or 8 years). I would much rather the US also had a multi-party system - the field looks ever so much better when you have actual choices - versus the kind of "this one is not as bad as that one, so I'll hold my nose and vote for him/her" dichotomy and stranglehold that the Republicans and Democrats have. Then the politicians will be actually forced to work in a multi-partisan environment and learn to live with compromises, instead of ramming through one party's objectives while mouthing pious rot about "co-operation in a bi-partisan environment." Hmmm... maybe I should move to England. Although New Zealand or Iceland would be way more tempting :-)
Argh! Feminist rant turned into political rant! Sorry folks, looks like this is ranting season at chez Radi - I am going to fall into silence again until my rant-y mood lifts.