The year is 1857. The city of Kanpur is reeling under the violence brought on by the Mutiny of the sepoys of British East India Company's army. Stella, the daughter of an English General, has escaped a terrible fate thanks to Ali, an Indian soldier of the mutiny. She is drawn to this brave soldier and the two fall in love. Soon, however, in a society broken down by chaos, Stella finds herself torn between her community and nationality, and her love for a person from across enemy lines.
Stella's struggle may be set in history, but in the face of conflict, even today, women are denied the right to direct the course of their own lives.
Noted theatre director and playwright Tripurari Sharma's latest production, 'Traitors' deals with that issue, while taking a closer look at pain and violence prevalent in society through the eyes of a woman.
Recently staged in the Capital to commemorate the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the play has been produced by the Hungry Hearts Theatre Festival and supported by SANGAT, the South Asian Network of Gender Activists and Trainers.
Presented in English, the script of the play is based on a rumored true story that Sharma came upon during her one-and-a-half-year long research on the subject. According to legend, Stella, a British General's daughter, and Ali, an Indian soldier, lived together for well over 15 years after 1857. Of course, 'Traitors' takes the story further, showing how Stella tries to reach out to Ali's family by reconciling with his daughter - after the soldier's death.
Besides being socially relevant, the play is a theatrical treat - it breaks the one-dimensional linear narration trend to let the past co-exist with the present. There are flashbacks, where the characters live out events during the First War of Independence, and then there is their present, which is shown to be seventeen years later.
Stella and Ali have been brought together by a sense of humanity. But they remain 'traitors' to their respective families, communities and their countries. Sharma has sensitively portrayed the feelings of loss that stretch beyond the lines of color and destroy both alike. The play delves into the reasons of these 'traitors', exploring their marginalized lives.
Theatre-based activism is not new to Sharma. She has been at the forefront of this genre for almost three decades now. A student of National School of Drama, where she is now a professor, Sharma has produced some landmark plays such as 'Bahu', 'Banjh Ghati' and 'Daiyre'. Along with the plays, she has also been associated with the parallel Hindi cinema. Movies such as 'Hazaar Chaurasia ki Maa', based on a book by Mahashweta Devi, and 'Sanshodhan', depicting the role of women in the Panchayati Raj, are just some examples.
She has presented many poignant clashes between people - similar to 'Traitors' - who have lost their loved ones to violence and can often only counter their loss with anger. "Pain festers anger, this anger is often builds into political movements," says Sharma.
She looks for her stories in "the stories that people remember to tell" - extraordinary tales of ordinary people, grappling with fierce and violent forces of society. Her works examine the prescribed roles and relations between the powerful and the powerless. And, of course, she is committed to portraying the position of the woman in society through her work - as in her latest play. "For centuries, the woman has been only a symbol and extension of her society, her family and her men. Her story of loss and belonging needs to be put out there for people to hear," she says.
As a playwright and activist, Sharma uses her craft to delve beyond the realm of buried pain and anger that people living in conflict experience. In 'Traitors', she presents a society broken down by chaos, where Stella finds herself at a crossroads - to choose between community and nationality or the person who saves her and shares her fate.
Countering the popular accusation that activist theatre is not aesthetically and theatrically creative, the cast, crew and director of 'Traitors' presents a team that is as dedicated to their craft as to their belief in peace and independent identities for women. For Sharma, feminist activism and theatre are inseparable, as the first is a conviction that she lives by and works to educate other people in, and the second, a creative mode of communication that presents the perfect outlet to allow oneself to be heard.
Her cast, too, reflects this sentiment. Ayesha Mago, who plays the lead role of Stella, reveals that the play has been a strenuous journey of introspection and questioning, of watching the past play out again. For her, 'Traitors' represents the right to live - which is equal for everyone. According to her, the struggles of her character have existed since time immemorial. "Just look around, women become the biggest victims not just of war and chaos but of their own families as well," she says. Mago says that Stella's role also gave her an opportunity to understand that in war, pain and loss afflicts both sides of the conflict.
In modern times, where the memories of pain fade quickly from the popular imagination, 'Traitors' presents the need to understand and explore the reasons for war, violence and loss. It attempts to look into the lives of those marginalized by the forces of political power; and women who aren't given the chance to belong but are instead sacrificed for the sake of family honor.
Delhi audiences will be able to catch up with Sharma's play during the Hungry Hearts Theatre Festival scheduled for later this year.