The real life stories of Partition, chronicled in Urvashi Butalia's book, `The Other Side of Silence', came alive in the dark backdrop of a black stage in the Sri Ram Centre auditorium on the foggy evening of January 7. These scenes were poignantly enacted in 'Aur Kitne Tukade', a play directed by Kirti Jain. The tickets were sold out well in advance and yet people queued up, hoping to get a seat if someone did not turn up. Similar enthusiasm greeted the staging of Anuradha Kapoor's 'Antigone' and the unfolding of 'Kitchen Katha' by director Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry as late as half-past eight of a cold winter's night.
Such was the overwhelming response to nearly all the plays staged in the week-long Purva Asian Women Directors Festival held in Delhi from January 3 to 10, which is to be followed up with a conference on theatre and women. The event - organized by the National School of Drama and Natrang Pratishthan, with support from the Women and Child Department of the Government of India, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and others - marked the coming of age of the woman director in the country.
Asked to assess the festival, Amal Allana, an accomplished director with over 40 productions to her credit, says: "The festival, with its vast variety of plays, shows that women have arrived and they have the versatility to see themselves, the world and various issues from different perspectives." Her own play in the festival was 'Sonata', written by Mahesh Elkunchwar. It told the story of brave single women who were a fall-out of the women's movement of the 1970s, with their moments of despair and elation 30 years later.
But for a few classics and satirical interventions, the 20 plays that went into the making of this festival centered around the issues facing the contemporary woman as she steps more confidently to tell her stories. A unique thrust of the festival was that it focused on Asian perspectives rather than the global perspective that tends to overlook the realities of developing countries.
A remarkable play looking at Asian reality in the global context was 'Panaw' (Journey) from the Philippines. Directed by Cecilia G Ariola, the play uses the talents of several traditional artistes and arts, in telling the story of a Filipino maid who works overseas and is battered by a husband who does not allow her to return home to meet her family for nine years. When she finally returns, she finds out that her kin have either died or have gone away - nobody knows where - and then she starts on her own spiritual journey in her own homeland.
When the perspective is Asian, tradition plays a significant role in the creative arts; for these are countries in which tradition is still grappling with modernity. Thus, the theme of tradition in transit became the thrust in many of the plays, giving a complex delineation of the theme and a richness of texture. Devendra Raj Ankur, Director of the National School of Drama, says: "Tradition in transit is a recurring theme in the arts and we have seen the woman writer and artist working on it. But this festival brought into focus the woman director taking up this theme and creating anew."
Two directors took up the two Hindu epic dramas of 'Ramayana' and 'Mahabharata' for re-interpretation. The special focus was on the women in these myths. Tripurari Sharma in 'Mahabharat Se' worked out an experiment of both form and content. She took Shanti, a traditional Pandavani (narration of the Mahabharata through music, acting and story-telling) artiste and Sapna, a contemporary artiste, to weave together the traditional and modern. Says Sharma: "The story of Draupadi is retold by the two artistes and as the drama unfolds leading to war and destruction, the cause and consequence, the right and wrong, grow hazy for Draupadi and Kunti."
B Jayashree from Bangalore chose to redeem two much-maligned women characters from the 'Ramayana' - Manthara and Kaikeyi - in her play, 'Manthara', which juxtaposes the folk against the classical. Jayshree says, "Kaikeyi's love and Manthara's uncontrolled desire reveal the extraordinary feminine powers rampant in the world. The denouement of the play questions the nihilistic and narcissitic tendencies in the male of the species."
The Malaysian play, 'Maksu', directed by Faridah Marican, took up the story of an ancient traditional dance theatre in the face of the western commercialization. A play from Japan told a woman's story and touched upon the reproductive rights of a woman. The Cambodian play, 'Night Please Go Faster', directed by Nou Sandab, re-visits the history of turbulent politics and the story of women there who, the director says, "are protected and honored by ancient traditions and at the same time victimized by these very traditions".
A woman's viewpoint was visible also in Anamika Haksar's 'Baawla', a play based on Dostoevsky's 'The Idiot': a challenge is thrown to the world of power and the play spells hope even in despair. The play takes up the issue of the State versus the individual. Anuradha Kapoor's delineation of the Greek classic, 'Antigone', once again questions tyranny by telling the story of the unyielding Antigone. The contemporary situation can also be addressed with all too well known examples from the past and this is what Haksar and Kapoor have sought to do.
Two remarkable plays were Usha Ganguly's 'Rudali' and Nadira Babbar's 'Begum Jaan', which were elevated by fine performances from Ganguly and Babbar. Maya Rao gave a brilliant performance in her 'A Deeper Fried Jam'. Mita Vashisht from Mumbai chose to laugh away all blues in 'Neeti Manakikjaran' and young Shailja from Trivandrum chose theme of the realization of the self in 'Thathri', a play about woman and society.
"Seven of the women directors are alumni of the NSD and they have done the school proud. But others too have shown their mettle in this festival," says Kirti Jain of Natrang Pratishthan and adds that the tremendous response to the festival may lead to this being an annual or bi-annual event.
The festival opened with the honoring of pioneering women directors like Shanta Gandhi, Sheila Bhatia, Vijaya Mehta, Rekha Jain, Joy Michael and Prema Karanth. These veterans, who had the courage to give the shots in times that were completely male-dominated as far as direction went, would indeed be happy to see that isolated efforts have now grown into a full tide.