Finding her space

Sajitha Madathil traces her evolution in theatre as an activist, actor and playwright

This is a personal narrative of a theatre activist. I am not alone as there are quite a few women who have carried their gender-sensitive thoughts to the theatre and I can see the changes that have happened to theatre in Kerala after such interventions. These changes have not only influenced the visual language and content of the productions but are also slowly changing the space of theatre itself.

I have been working in the field for the last two decades. The 1980s played an important role in shaping a woman’s life in Kerala. It was probably the first time when youngsters like me began to hear about feminism. Kerala’s social and political movements have always had a strong affiliation with theatre. This inevitably helped the feminist movement in communicating with society through the medium. Street plays of Manushi (a pioneering feminist group comprising college teachers and students under the leadership of writer Sara Joseph) on women’s issues were an eye-opener to students like me then. I got a chance to attend a theatre workshop of women’s street theatre group Samatha, Thrissur, led by professor and activist Ushakumari in 1987. It was an interesting experience, which gave me a lot of confidence as a performer. Here again, theatre was a tool to communicate certain issues.

I was an activist with the People’s Science Movement (Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad) and feminism was a hot topic in our movement as well. With their strong network among the people of Kerala, they decided to work on Kalajatha, a travelling troupe of street-play performers. The topics we chose were issues faced by women in social, economic and political spheres. An activist like me would know what to say through the plays, but we, the women in the group, didn’t know how to write a script or how to direct a theatre piece and we shared our thoughts with well-known script writers in our group, who, obviously were men.

A scene from the play Matsyagandhi

A scene from the play Matsyagandhi
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We thought writing a script was something too technical and the only thing expected from young women like me was acting. That’s the way I started my acting career. Acting on the street excited me but it also disturbed me. The topics were new and they were about our life, but the same old images — husband beating up wife, the woman cringing and weeping, the never-ending routine of household chores, illiterate ‘better halves’ — were repeated. Sometimes, women were portrayed as ‘goddesses’ with their long hair hung loose, inflicting curses on society. This canon of street plays changed only after the deliberate intervention of women theatre activists.

Activist groups, however, gradually moved on to other topics. But what was unexpected was the way such cultural activism changed the perception about the lives of women activists. I realised that it was difficult for me to continue with dance, which was my earlier interest, and felt that theatre possessed a magic; that it was the only space with which I could connect my creativity and social concerns. In Kerala, cultural activism among women was not something new. Actors such as Nilambur Ayisha, KPAC Sulochana and singers like Medini, Meenakshi, Anasooya and many others were active in the political cultural activism of the Left from the 1940s. But their contributions were not seriously counted until recently when we all started trying to trace our roots.

The 1990s was a period when all of us were going deeper into different cultural spaces. The Women’s Theatre Workshop conducted by Stree Padana Kendram was different from earlier ones. That was the first time we started discussing the problems of representation of women’s body in theatre. That was the time we began to understand the invisibility of women in Kerala’s cultural history and there were a lot of questions about this newly-invented space. It was not only about restricted movements prescribed for women, or about creating poses and positions and gestures that exploited the role of women as a sexual object but also about the socio-economic status of female actors. Our tasks included producing written theatre experiences, highlighting neglected women playwrights, understanding the grammar of theatre and finding spaces to work within a predominantly patriarchal space of theatre.

Though women had started working on the stage even at the beginning of theatre in Kerala, their presence was largely invisible in traditional theatre history. However, I came to consider theatre as a new space or medium to intervene in the social sphere.

That was the first time theatre became an object of study from the perspective of women. Examining the images of women on stage, searching for women playwrights, directors and producers, reasserting the creative identity of working women in popular theatre, questioning underlying assumptions of an entire field, including canon formation, have become part of this search for our own space. My book Malayala Nataka Sthree Charithram, which received the State award for Best Theatre Book in 2010, talks about this invisible women’s theatre history.

Finding her space

I, along with friends, Sreelatha and Sudhi, both alumni of the School of Drama, initiated a women’s theatre group, Abhinethri. We consider this as a space to experiment with our ideas and continue our creative quest. We produced a play, Chirakadiyochakal, from two monologues of G Sankara Pillai and the experience of going through the production was unforgettable.

It must be pointed out that there are a lot of positive dialogues happening now. Sreeja Arangottukara has been writing, directing and acting in her local group for the last 25 years; Nireeksha, a women’s theatre group established in Thiruvananthapuram, has been going strong for the last 20 years; actor-script writer Jisha Abinaya has been practising her theatre for the last two decades; Shylaja Jalal and Mini IG, alumnae of the National School of Drama, have been working in Kerala to bring about qualitative changes in the theatre sphere; actor-singer Shylaja Ambu has created her own space in a patriarchal world with her works. Kerala is progressive in many ways but our spaces are very complex. Family, academic institutions and society at large often discourage women working in theatre. But our earlier struggles in theatre are getting positive responses.

A few young women have taken up theatre as their career and contemporary theatre artistes are becoming sensitive towards gender politics. A lot of women have started writing and directing plays as well.

We may differ with each other in our feminist perspectives but the fact remains that a space has already been created in this predominantly patriarchal medium. We continue in our efforts to define and shape it.

(The writer is professor and head of the department of acting, KR Narayan Institute of Films. She is also a playwright and award-winning actor)

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