A woman's point of view?
"Poorva", the festival and conference of Asian women directors, saw much debate on the gender balance and the question of aesthetics, reports GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.
A telling metaphor for communal disharmony _ Kirti Jain's "Aur Kitne Tukde".
A handful of women from Asian countries/on mist-filled days/unravel knots from/the past,/bearing which, we tug at the present./No scream, no weapon,/just the fog around,/as they seed the dreams of their times/crafting a new existence/for a luminous future...
IN this verse (originally in Hindi) actor/director Vibha Mishra (Bhopal) summed up her view of "Poorva", the festival and conference of Asian Women Directors (January 3-14). The event was organised in New Delhi by Natarang Pratishthan, a theatre resource centre, and the National School of Drama, in collaboration with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. The festival of 21 plays, from Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Japan, Malaysia and India, became both a point of reference for the conference, and a reminder that practice is the axis of theoretical speculations.
The "Poorva" conference showcased a Who's Who of Indian women directors and actors B. Jayashree (Bangalore), Mita Vasisht (Mumbai), Jyoti Subhash (Pune) Anjana Puri (Bhopal) Jayoti Bose (Kolkata), Kalairani (Chennai), Veenapani Chawla (Pondicherry) besides Delhi veterans like Kirti Jain (the project was her brainchild), Amal Allana, Anuradha Kapur, Anamika Haksar and Tripurari Sharma.
Nor were theatre critics (Kavita Nagpal), scholars (Lakshmi Subramanyam), educationists (Meena Swaminathan), activists (Moloyshree Hashmi), archivists (Pratibha Agarwal) or editors/publishers (Anjum Katyal) left out.
Replaying the Khmer Rouge atrocities in "Night Please Go Faster" from Cambodia.
But just as exposure to Asian theatre made the "Poorva" festival an event to remember, the presence of the Asian delegates made the conference a special one, since they spoke of direct, hands-on experiences. English was not easy for some speakers, but they proved that when the mind is clear, language is no bar to communication.
Most participants did not waste time in speculating whether it was necessary to identify theatre directors by their gender, a label that had been testily rejected at the inauguration by doyen Vijaya Mehta and Usha Ganguli. But, do specific characteristics identify a woman's point of view as distinct from a man's? Divergent opinions emerged, valuable in themselves. A remark that triggered excited discussion came from Arundhati Rao (Bangalore) who wondered why women directors confined themselves to "smaller" subjects like dowry and female infanticide, leaving the "larger" issues to be handled by men.
The festival itself had showcased global issues Kirti Jain's "Aur Kitne Tukde" made the Partition a telling metaphor for communal disharmony, Anuradha Kapur's "The Antigone Project" and Maya Rao's "Deeper Fried Jam" were gut wrenching commentaries on the Gujarat holocaust, as also on intolerance, socio-political violence, and environmental pollution. The Cambodian play "Night Please Go Faster" replayed the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime.
The debate entered psychological terrain with Anuradha Kapur's intervention, "The male director is expected to be a central figure, commanding, infallible". Women directors admit vulnerabilities, but sometimes their openness to suggestion is mistaken for incertitude. Actors too carry the idea that "Dad is authoritarian, Mom is gentle," agreed Sally Jones (Canada), while a wry Pham Thi Thanh (Vietnam) laughed, "Now that I have won medals and awards actors listen to me!" Amal Allana believed that "the personal nature of our work demands a different relationship between actor and director, as also investment of far more time, a more giving" approach from both. Beginning on a quiet note ("We are making a conscious effort to change the perception that a female has no right to obedience as a male has") Vinay Kumar, an actor working consistently with Veenapani Chawla, threw a bombshell when he added that no woman director had yet broken the traditional patriarchal mode of dealing with characters, male or female, to develop her own. The protests continued through the succeeding days.
Not that the conference had no self-critiquing. Are women directors setting up their own hierarchies? The plays showed that women were not free from stereotyping men even as they protested against male stereotyping of women. Nor were women as free from ego as their greater receptivity to suggestions implied. More disturbingly, it was acknowledged that funding for feminist ventures like the Poorva conference continued to come from hugely patriarchal organisations. No changes in the offing either, for a better gender balance in the matter.
Amal Allana's "Somata".
Labours driven by product and process came in for acerbic debate. The inevitable question of cross dressing lost itself in digressions; though Catherine Diamond offered food for thought when she described the sea change in Yasmina Reza's international hit "Art", when it was staged with women replacing the three male characters. Comedy gave way to pathos.
A fascinating artistic account came from Leow Puay Tin (Malaysia) who writes modular, bilingual texts on cards, to be shuffled and used in varying ways. She is delighted when other writers add their parts to her work because "I need to invite others to help me understand the complex thing called the human psyche." Tin involves audiences to construct and contribute as participants, though the risk does not always pay off "Audiences in Manila just fell asleep on me". Video snippets of "Pachai Mann" (Voicing Silence, Chennai) served as a prelude to director Mangai's moving account of touring villages with a play on female infanticide. But it threw up disturbing queries: what happens when urban actors depict scenes before those who actually live them out? How do they deal with the angst that such reminders may arouse in the viewers for whom the play is a slice of life? How are actors (whose lives are completely at variance with what their work depicts) trained to deal with them?
Easy informality promoted meta-lingual and multicultural bonding. Every speaker was given close attention, and everyone got adequate time for interventions, queries, and comments. But, with no skilled moderator to sum up, or stop participants from straying, at times the focus got blurred.
Young voices were given their due Zuleikha Chaudhari and Rabijita Gogoi made a good start with their clear-headed, no-nonsense approach. With touching honesty, Rowanthie Chickera (Sri Lanka) shared her doubts in working with disadvantaged groups. "As a member of the mainstream majority community I am not only an outsider to them, but an adversary".
Finally, did the delegates arrive at any consensus about Asian aesthetics? Does such a thing exist at all? There were as many answers as there were participants. But a quiet voice (Dang Tu Mai, Vietnam) touched off echoes: "Beauty is the struggle for living, for survival. Through many struggles we have to create a sense of values." The women directors at Poorva shared a vision: they saw creativity as a process of healing.
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