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Flash Review Dispatch, 1-8: Healing and Homesickness
In India, Poorva Televises the Revolution for Asian Women Artists

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2003 Maura Nguyen Donohue

NEW DELHI -- It has never been so obvious how important artistic expression is for revolution, healing and celebration as it has been over the past five days at Poorva: the Asian Women Directors Theatre Festival.

Beginning last Friday and concluding this Friday, Poorva, the fourth chapter of the Asian Women and Theatre Conference (with prior festivals in Japan and the Philippines), is showcasing 20 productions by women directors from India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines. Following the festival there will be a four-day conference to encourage dialogue and debate around concerns for women artists. The event is organized by theatre resource center Natarang Prathishthan, along with the National School of Drama and the Indian Council of Cultural Relations. It has support from the Ford Foundation, which also supported a 10-member delegation of Asian Diaspora artists based in the U.S. (including one Vietnamese Irish American instigator of improvisational jam sessions) to attend as festival observers and conference participants.

There have already been 12 different productions presented, all followed by a morning-after discussion series. Day 2 discussion brings us right into some of the nitty gritty about the need for and potential dangers of a 'women's' festival. The discussion moves through concerns about breeding mediocrity to acknowledgement of the impelling need to correct the inherent "original negligence" in a system that can allow a 'national' theater festival to occur without a single female director. It becomes overwhelmingly apparent that artists coming from each of the represented countries are fighting similar though distinct battles for inclusion and representation.

As I think cumulatively about the many works I've witnessed in the rush of the past five days, it also becomes overwhelmingly apparent that it is women primarily who suffer the immediate consequences of global, state and/or personal violence. Of course, the recent 'riots' (actually carefully orchestrated pogroms), and violent sexual subjugation of women in the western state of Gujarat are on everyone's minds. How could you ignore stories of a woman eight months pregnant who begged to be spared only to have her assailants slit open her stomach, pull out her fetus and slaughter it before her eyes, or of a young woman and her three-month old son, killed because a police constable directed her to 'safety' and she found herself instead surrounded by a mob which doused her with kerosene and set her and her baby on fire? The role of the arts and activism has never seemed more of an imperative, as the performances here bear out.

From India, Kirti Jain's "Aur Kitne Tukde" looks at the holocaust of Partition, when in 1947 Pakistan was created as a separate state for Muslims and roughly 500,000 people were killed, 12 million migrating between India and Pakistan. Jain focuses on the experience of four women (three with real-life models) who survived gang-rape, mutilation and forced exile under the patriarchal concept of "honor." She skillfully crafts the movement on stage so that we are brought from a children's game suddenly into the re-creation of mass female suicides, or a playful game of tug-o-war turns into the dance of a woman being dragged from her home. In one horrific sequence during which a Sikh village has been surrounded by Muslims, we see a sword crashing clay vases out of the upraised hands of young women onto the ground, portraying the sacrifice that the men have decided to make of the unmarried girls of their own village for the sake of their community's 'honor.'

From the Phillipines, the Mebuyan Peace Project's stunning "Panaw" presents a domestic violence survivor's spiritual journey to Mt. Malakinay. The ensemble of six women uses rousing music employing indigenous vocal and instrumental techniques and Mindanaoan inspired dance to transport the viewers into a truly visceral response. My response was so physical I can still only describe it as an encompassing rush of homesickness for an unknown place.

India's Usha Ganguli presents "Rudali," an exquisitely staged production that follows a middle-aged woman's passage out of poverty via the unusual profession of hired mourner for the elaborate death rituals for the rich. Ganguli's eye for the composition of a scene and the piece's creative sonic transitions raise this work above the mass of other compelling but notably more static plays. From the same country, the dynamic Maya Krishna Rao places her own body and voice at the crux of local and international politics as she riffs and weaves her way through "A Deeper Fried Jam." Rao, a trained dancer and well-known stand-up comedian, acknowledges the plight of women in a city struggling through significant physical harassment of women, but not as a victim. Dead serious, a lightning-rod for strength defying pre-conceptions of gender and age, she reminds us that women, though victimized, don't need to remain victims.

Dancer, choreographer, and writer Maura Nguyen Donohue is the Dance Insider's Asia bureau chief. To read more about Donohue and her dance company, Maura Nguyen Donohue/In Mixed Company, please click here.

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