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Tagore’s Women: strong women who dominate on and off the stage

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Photo credit: Robert Workman

Asiya Islam
WVoN features writer

It’s not often – and certainly not often enough – that you come across theatre dominated by strong women characters.

It’s even more rare for women on stage to express their sexual desires, talk of pleasure and take the lead in the ‘act’.

‘Tagore’s Women’, a double bill of the plays ‘Purnjanam/Born Again’ and ‘Endless Light’, is remarkable for doing all of that.

Performed in the dark, cold, eerie vaults of Southwark Playhouse, Tagore’s Women by Kali Theatre captivated its audience by its portrayal of the many facets of contemporary personal lives amidst global political struggles.

The plays ‘Purnjanam/Born Again’ by Sharmila Chauhan (directed by Janet Steel) and ‘Endless Light’ by Sayan Kent (directed by Elizabeth Freestone) explore different themes but are tied together by the presence of powerful women orchestrating the stage, making the performance stand out from the usual mainstream theatre.

‘Tagore’s Women’ continues Kali Theatre’s 20-year record of championing new writing by women writers from a South Asian background.

The plays grew out of a series of workshops by Kali Theatre exploring strong female characters in the works of Rabindranath Tagore, a celebrated Bengali poet, playwright and anti-British rule activist.

Janet Steel, artistic director of Kali Theatre said:

“Tagore was writing strong female characters at a time when the emancipation of women in India was almost non-existent. We wanted to explore what some of those characters might do in a modern India.”

How does Tagore’s work from 20th century then translate into modern life?

Sayan Kent, author of Endless Light, said:

“I found that his [Tagore’s] love of nature, his concerns about the inequality of women, and his feelings that we are people of the same world rather than defined by national boundaries, all chimed with me. From there on, connections revealed themselves as I began to write.”

Inspired by the innocence of Nandini in Tagore’s ‘Red Oleanders’, Kent sketched Endless Light.

Set against the backdrop of environmental havoc, it explores how individuals try to live in a harmonious place in themselves while also struggling to find a place in the world.

This concept of a ‘place in the world’ or belonging is also explored by reflecting on the ideas of mixed heritage and diaspora.

In the play, Chandra, the environmental activist protesting against the destruction and degeneration caused by coalmines in Mumbai (India), is torn between the land of her father (Mumbai) and the land that has been her ‘home’ (London).

Kent believes it to be a personal exploration of her own identity and mixed heritage: “It is important to me that we care for each other whatever country we live in and that the environment should be a concern of everyone on the planet.

“She [Chandra] is driven by her work and allows that to dictate her life, but things are going wrong and she has to confront who she really is and what is really important to her.

“Once she stops resisting she can move on emotionally. Belonging is fundamental to who we are but it can also limit us.”

Similarly, Sharmila Chauhan’s ‘Purnjanam/Born Again’ delves into the idea of twin homelands.

The backdrop of the play is formed by the protests in Mumbai which are strongly reminiscent of the recent riots in the UK. Using the scene of burning Mumbai as a microcosm for global politics, the play raises questions about responsibility and activism.

Commenting on the diasporic element of the play and its female characters, Chauhan said:

“Indian culture has a history of liberated sexuality and in more recent times extreme suppression. Where else do you find films obsessed with love, but no kissing?

“Mumbai itself is a city heavy with sexual energy. Suketu Mehta describes it being ‘under constant state of orgasm.’

“I wanted to explore this dichotomy and the effect this may have on two young people who are at the cusp of East and West ideals. Most of all I wanted to show a liberated Indian woman who, though afraid, is ready to take a risk.”

It is with this thinking that Chauhan penned the Mumbai middle-class wife Divya for whom an extra-marital affair is “guiltless and almost glib”, the modern Mumbai girl Muni who is frustrated by the non-consummation of her childhood love, and the Temple Girl who “as a daughter of the continent embodies all its magic, wisdom and extremes.”

All of these female characters, Chauhan said “have differing beliefs, yet their strength comes from being able to challenge not only those around them, but themselves in the search for their own personal truths.”

Particularly intriguing is the Temple Girl, the energy behind all activity on the stage. Her reverence to Kali Ma, the Goddess of Strength (worshipped especially in Bengal), was embodied in her.

Through her character Chauhan explores the deification of women in Hindu culture:

“The deification of Hindu women…is a residue from earlier times when Hinduism was much more matriarchal and the ‘mother goddess’ played a greater role than her male counterparts.

“As that’s changed, in Hinduism and many other religions, and the predominant figures are male, the traits for femininity have become constricted.

“One of these is ‘pure’ woman – the woman who is ‘Goddess like’. The main issue I have with this approach is not just that it is in total contrast to the lives of everyday women, and therefore an unattainable ideal, but that it allows no complexity both in the spiritual and earthly realms.”

Rhyming in their explorations, both ‘Purnjanam/Born Again’ and ‘Endless Light’ contain a strong and refreshing female diasporic voice. The characters are complex and real, the ideas are pertinent and the performance intriguing.

Rabindranath Tagore once wrote: “And just because woman has been insulated, has been living in a sort of obscurity, behind man, I think she will have her compensation in the civilization which is waiting to come.”

Dare I say that that civilisation has arrived? ‘Tagore’s Women’ made me think that it has.

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