I am not an Ahomiya, means Assamese, so I may not be so authentic in my interpretations. I am talking about a stage play/performance designed and directed by the young performance artist and theatre person, Samudra Kajal Saikia. Staged as a part of the ongoing Kala Ghoda Festival 2015, Mumbai, at the MC Ghia Hall, this play deals with, as the subtitle of the play says, ‘mythology, history and folklore’ in Assam. The play progresses through the lives of three women from Assam’s collective cultural memory as interpreted by three women actresses and the pitch is on how these three women protagonists are pushed to the fringes in mythology, history and folklore. Largely the themes could be categorized as unrequited love of a woman (Chitralekha), audacity of an actress to address a man ‘husband’ in an enacted scene (Aideu Handique/Joymoti) and a woman who had been subjected to cruelty but would not go silent on it.
One of the characters in the play says, “She is a modern construct.” It could be read as the image of the women who are dealt with in this play titled ‘Disposable Womaen’ is a ‘modern construct’. The question immediately comes to mind is whether the women who are pushed aside by history and their raising of voice from the fringes are ‘a modern construct’ or the ones who are represented in the play are ‘a modern construct’. The actresses further recite in echoing tones, “She is a sign,” and then, “She is a signifier.” From these pointers which are uttered in English in a predominantly Assamese play which claims to be multilingual and gibberish at the same time, one understands that the women characters who had been subjected to negligence and cruelty by history are capable of displacing and dislocating the attributed meanings upon them and evolve into newer personalities, and are also capable of claiming their rightful space in the mainstream history of the nation in general and Assam in particular.
Watching an Assamese play could be tedious in the beginning and the self evacuation of many from amongst the audience during the initial minutes of its staging proves that we, the mainlanders have once again reiterated the fringe status not only of the women characters in the play but also the language that they speak. If we see the walking out of people from the play in a larger context, from within the cultural context of tolerance, we could say that we are still relegating the North Eastern state into a sort of otherness that we ourselves contest for when it comes to the national mainstream discourse of inclusion and exclusion of race, complexion and language. Interestingly, the characters depicted in the play repeat that their histories are oral and are transported into the layers of progressing time only through oral renditions. Something which is not given status within the scriptural history or something which is denied the right to be scripted find its ways through oral transmission, exactly the way, Tejimola, the young girl killed by her stepmother, comes back to life in various organic forms, mainly plants and flowers.
(Poster of Disposable Womaen)
Chitralekah’s pangs arises from the very fact that she was expected to be a mediator for her mistress by making a portrait of her lover whom Chitralekha actually adores in her mind. But duty surpasses emotion and passion. Though Usha and Chitralekha are women therefore both of them have a secondary status in the historical/mythological discourse, Usha being the princess, has more ‘voice’ and means to express her love than Chitralekha, who by virtue of being the maid/friend is devoid of voice. Here the paradox is that Chitralekah has the tool for encryption yet she is not the author or even if she has authored the portrait of Aniruddha, she does not have any right over what she has created. The right on the image rightfully falls into the hands of Usha, who here represents the patriarchal forces. The dilemma of Chitralekha, in resolving it also might not end in final union. That is what exactly happens to Joymoti who was portrayed by Adeiu Handique in an Assamese movie. Here the first female protagonist of Assam’s screen, for addressing someone ‘husband’ is ostracised. She dies in destitution and poverty because she had found her tool, voice and expression and had used it. Instead of ending it in an imagined conjugal union, Joymoti is outlasted; she becomes a shame to/in the society. But forced rustication from the mainstream discourse be a reason for one to be silent? No, says Tejimola, the folklore character. She comes back to life in mute but beautiful forms and asks for justice for the blood that she has spilled.
It is interesting to notice the difference between the positioning of the female protagonists in the literary narratives from which Samudra Kajal Saikia takes his inspiration and those from the neighbouring West Bengal. In the Bengali literature women protagonist gain some sense of autonomy while most of the female characters are woven around the myth of an avenging goddess, Durga. But in Assam, it seems that a blood shedding goddess is replaced with a bleeding woman, who in her suffering demands justice. If it is not provided by her own contemporaries, and if the historical constructs have done injustice to her, she asks it from the future generations. Here in the play, Samudra Kajal Saikia turns the oral into textual. There is a predominance of text in the whole set design and also characters/actresses tend to pull out sheets of paper and read out from them. In the opening sequence, the artist/director/sutradhar himself comes up and asks for a pen from the audience so that he could make some amendments to the historical texts. Such an amendment is also done in the very title where ‘woman or women’ is spelt as ‘womaen’. It is a fusing of identities, a sort of going out from the individual suffering and find refuge in the collective agony of womenfolk elsewhere.
Samudra Kajal Saikia uses the possibilities of the proscenium theatre as well as Brechtian theatre to maximum effect. The play that begins without any ‘warning’ makes the audience to lose its cool and composure as they start wondering whether it is a preparation for an ill-rehearsed act or the actual theatre performance. Right under an overhanging installation done by Shilpa Joglekar that resembles a bug, a fish and a space ship at once, completely sanitized inside a polythene envelope, the sutradhar attempts a re-writing of history and gets entangled within it in the process. Then, frustrated he vanishes from there and the protagonists mock his attempt. Then they move to the stage, giving some sort of comfort to an expectant audience. Chitralekha episode takes place there on the stage and Joymoti’s act takes place in an installation created by Mohan mainly with paper and threads. Once again the action comes back to the stage when the story of Tejimola is narrated. The final solution is achieved when all the female protagonists are laid to rest in the middle of the auditorium under Shilpa’s installations. As in an act of sorcery or a modern ritual of fixing, Shilpa tapes them down as the audience showers the lying bodies of the women with lotus petals given to them by the stage helpers.
I am not a theatre critic. But if you ask me, I would say that story narrated in the brochure and the acts designed by Samudra are not too far away from the expected experimental theatre modes that have now become almost a convention and tradition. However, the efforts to push the limits of such expected lines of criticism are palpable at every moment. The most important thing that I found in the play is the sound modulation done by the actresses as a line delivered by one of them is repeated in measured intervals by the others so that it sounds like an echo or dialogues delivered in a hollow space or even from under water. These voices haunt the spectator and they come like voices that refuse to die. Effective in design and rendering, this play by Samudra Kajal Saikia is a commendable effort towards pushing the feminine/feminist ideology in our strained context of cultural discourse. Assam with a strong grounding in film and theatre should be proud of producing a new generation artist like Samudra Kajal Saikia who constantly tries to collapse the boundary walls between performance art and experimental theatre. The actresses who portrayed the protagonists, the woman drummer and all the other behind the stage players deserve a word of praise.
(No production pictures regretted)