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Flash Review Dispatch, 1-28: No Cutting
In the Killing Fields and Other Climes with Asian Women Directors

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2003 Maura Nguyen Donohue

NEW DELHI -- The 4th chapter of the Poorva Asian Women's Theater Conference blazed to a brilliant end January 14 with a jubilant bonfire in the National School of Drama's courtyard. Many of the first year grad students, who had spent the past two weeks serving as a magic fleet of volunteers, let loose with songs and dances, often joined by many of the women whose work had been presented at the festival.

Ironically though, a woman couldn't get served at many of the lantern-lit booths that had been set up to provide delicious catered morsels. I waited while at least five men (who arrived after me) were served before I yelled at the men working the booth, stormed away and found out that most of my companions had experienced something similar at other booths. One doesn't want to be an insensitive or ungracious guest but when a well-meaning friend said there was no point in getting angry I was indignant that we could speak of revolution on stage, or in the safety of a conference room, but continue to accept the most mundane discriminations without retort. So in proper New York fashion I strode back, slammed my dish of food flat onto their grill and then sweetened the bitter taste in my mouth by sharing some fresh hot dripping jelabi and creamy chai with fellow New Yorker, and birthday girl, Gita Reddy.

While the conference was bogged down by poorly chosen panelists and inexperienced moderators, the second half of the festival offered performances of several stunning works. Three programs showed how art becomes a crucial interface for dealing with tragic events in the modern world and two works employed traditional arts from Southern India to aid an expansion of the vocabulary of contemporary theater.

Mita Vashist presented "Neeti Mankikaran," a playful, comedic work performed by members of the Mumbai(Bombay)-based group, Mandala. The company includes trafficked girls rescued from red light districts. These juveniles have survived the violence of the estimated $12 billion global sex industry, but to see them on stage one could never imagine the physical degradation these bodies had experienced. The troupe evolved out of a 9-month training period in dance, voice, reading and acting and was formed after the success of the initial public performances. Vashist's aim is to impart skills and she told me that she never asks her performers about their experiences as sex workers. The work, as Vashist says in a program note, was a return to faith in choosing the art of theatre. "The beauty of a theatre workshop process is that it heals wounds without uncovering them, creates laughter without erasing tears and cleans the blood without bloodletting."

Videographer Ein Lal collaborated with director Anuradha Kapur for a Hindi production of Bertolt Brecht's "Antigone." Brecht re-cast Sophocles's "Antigone" in Nazi Germany, but adhered to the Greek tragedy model and original storyline. He connected classic tragedy with his time, relating the horrors of Antigone's epoch to those perpetrated by the Germans during World War II. Kapur and Lal have now taken Brecht's version and set it against images of the recent religious and sexual persecution in Gujarat province. Lal's video installation provides a parallel visual text, connecting the Muslim community in Gujarat to ancient Argos. Lal uses documentary footage and paintings as a way of shifting the focus from Kapur's tightly directed play to real life relevance. (See my previous Dispatch.) The subversion in this classic play continues to remain an important tool in declamations against tyranny around the world.

The National Theatre of Cambodia presented three short works that all dealt with the repercussions of the Khmer Rouge. Interestingly, this month marked the 24th anniversary of the end of the Khmer Rouge's bloody reign that left over 1.7 million dead. For some, it also marks the beginning of a 10-year occupation by Vietnam, which is perhaps why the relevant programming date went unmentioned. While all the works were rather steady and slow in pace, especially the two performed without translation, the subject matter was inescapably important. Here artists become the forces that retain cultural memory while bringing their stories to, and seeking retribution in, the larger, global community.

American-based Sophiline Cheam Shapiro performed a solo dance entitled "The Glass Box." During the conference, Shapiro showed footage from "Samritechhak," her Cambodian dance drama version of Shakespeare's "Othello." Though the vocabulary and aesthetic of the dances are too subtle for an untrained viewer to catch the deeper meanings, Shapiro's work is driven by social commentary. Her "Othello," which premiered in 2000 in Phnom Penh and will tour the U.S. this month (see below for dates and venues), stands as an accusation of the aging mass murderers who have remained free men in Cambodia. In fact, at the same time the company was performing in India, negotiators were in New York resuming talks on setting up a UN war crimes tribunal. No Khmer Rouge leader has ever faced justice for the atrocities committed during their rule. Shapiro restages the ending so that Othello bows at the feet of the innocent Desdemona and begs for punishment. He becomes a military leader taking responsibility for the deaths of the innocent, unlike the current leaders of Cambodia.

"Photographs of S-21," by French-American playwright Catherine Filloux and directed by Nou Sandab, deals with the exhibition by the same name that was shown at MOMA in 1997. In 1993, two American photojournalists found 6,000 negatives in the back room of S-21, a former high school in Tuol Sleng, where more than 16,000 men, women and children were brought for torture and execution. There were only 7 known survivors. The controversial exhibition of 100 chosen photos toured the US and in the play, two of the photos come to life to comment on their personal experiences and share their feelings about being made into display pieces. The play subtly challenges the audience to question its own role as consumers, and curators, of tragedy.

Shailaja J., the youngest director (she graduated from the NSD in 1998 and helped coordinate Poorva), presented a spectacular visual tour-de-force, "Thathri - Realizing Self." The tale is based on a true story from Kerala, the state in southern India from which Shailaja J hails, about the "smartavicharam" of a Brahmin woman in 1905. The smartavicharam was a severe form of social blackmail used to ostracize 'errant' women. In the story of Kuriyedathu Thathri, she responds to the system of abuse by patiently exacting her revenge on the men of the community. When she is brought to trial she reels out the names of close to 70 men and provides proof of their infidelities, requiring their excommunication as well. The character of Thathri, though at one point seemingly captive in a clear, plastic box, is never seen begging. She is presented as resilient and defiant (in fact, she is the only woman in the entire festival who manages to slap a man back). Here the interface is between tradition and modernity, an interface of symbolism in both content and form. Elements of traditional Kerala dance forms such as Theyyam and Kathakali are updated and woven into the lush visual landscape that this fiery director has orchestrated. The enormous headdress of a Theyyam dancer becomes the electric light soul of Thathri, ever present on stage. Brahmins wear vinyl black rain coats, a character wears a football helmet and stands behind a sheet of plastic with a flexed bicep painted on it, and images of Frida Kahlo and Shequila, a famous South Indian actress, silently comment on the exploitation of women artists. Scene after scene presents a rich pageant of costumes, props and scenic elements that become the primary language of the play.

Pondicherry-based director Veenapani Chawla added an articulate and eloquent earful, or more appropriately an eyeful, to the multilingual argument of contemporary theatre forms with "Brhannala." Written, choreographed and directed by Chawla and performed by Vinay Kumar, this was the most total work of theater I've yet to witness. I use total because I can't come up with a better word to describe the creators' perfect blend of spoken language, physical body, music and lights. This appears to be a deceptively simple task, with one barely clad body center stage and five musicians lined up stage right. In fact, it is a thoroughly sophisticated and superbly crafted crest on the wave of modern theater.

Chawla draws from traditional Keralan forms like Kalaripayattu and Koodiyattam while employing concepts from neo-physics to create a work that is simultaneously mythic and modern. Her use of an ancient martial form like Kalaripayattu feeds the physical language of the work that has Kumar shifting from human to dog to tiger to deity in rapid-fire succession. The work was a result of a year's exploration into the breathing techniques of Koodiyattam, Chawla says. Kumar employs this to transform so completely in posture, expression and voice from moment to moment that he seems an animated character, only capable of existing on celluloid.

"Brhannala" is incredibly dense. In an episode from the Mahabharata, Chawla defies divisions by drawing parallels between Ardhnarishwar, the half-female/half male aspect of Shiva, and Arjuna's guise as Brhannala. But, complex and layered as this may sound, Kumar's performance was so commanding, in a humbling display of technique and artistry, that it never occurred to me I might not be 'getting it.' Only later, when a regular viewer of Chawla's work commented on the many ideas that fed her, did I realize that I'd "missed out." For me this only the better reflected the true cumulative power of the work of director, performer, musicians and the exquisite lighting design by Jean. Without the burden of understanding even half of the references, I side-stepped the overwhelming intelligence of Chawla's work and responded viscerally to the powerful base line image of man and woman in the union of one entity. The power of image, the profundity of visual manipulations is deeper reaching than any spoken language. Oh, and this play was actually performed in English.

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro's "Othello" will be performed tomorrow and Thursday at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach, California, and Monday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.

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