The group’s new play tells the story of four women and attempts to examine how history and religion have defined women.

Meet Sudhi and Rajarajeswari pioneers who run a womens theatre group in Kerala
news Human Interest Saturday, July 07, 2018 - 10:21

Sudhi Devayani and Rajarajeswari had planned their first play, nearly two decades ago, in a small room in their friend’s house because they couldn’t afford to rent a place.

But the two friends went on to redefine the concept of theatre by exploring unknown possibilities through a theatre group they founded and sustained. Sudhi and Raji, as Rajarajeswari is fondly called, are pioneers in their own right. They set up Nireeksha Women’s Theatre in 1999 fighting against all the odds.

Sudhi is the only woman in the state who has won the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi award for Best Director. She has directed all the seven plays produced by Nireeksha while Raji has penned them. The group has a performance space at Pamamcode in Thiruvananthapuram, and Sudhi and Raji live in an eco-friendly house in the same compound.

Ask them how people, society tried to discourage them back when they initiated the steps to establish Nireeksha and Raji chuckles, “Even we were not sure that we could keep it going for so long.”

The new play

A couple of days ago, Nireeksha presented its latest play, which is yet to be titled, for a select audience at its theatre space.

The play is one of the most exhaustive creations by the duo and hence the task was more challenging, they say.

Raji has penned the story of four women who represent four distinct sections of society for the play. One is Sahira, a Bengali Muslim, who is pregnant. Why a Bengali in a play set in Kerala? “Because of the othering.”

Raji uses the word ‘othering’ quite often when she speaks. Because a woman, she says, is herself an ‘other’ in our society.

“How many eyes stare at a woman if she bends to pick something up from the floor? When people talk about CCTV cameras, I tend to laugh thinking that every move made by women is always under the surveillance of society. Society views a woman as an ‘other’, not as one among them,” Raji asserts.

By choosing a Bengali woman, the play portrays the life of people who don’t belong when migrating to and living in another place.

Sahira, despite being pregnant for 13 months, does not deliver. “Yes, the 13-month pregnancy was deliberate, to show that she didn’t deliver out of determination,” Raji says.

Raji at Nireeksha

Kavitha is a Dalit professor who researches on the loss of land for the sake of so-called development; on how downtrodden people are offered another land in lieu of their land and how they are finally forced to live on the edge and hence become marginalised.

Another character in the play is Jessy, a nurse, who in the first phase shows rigidity. She scolds the women in the labour rooms on why they can’t suffer the pain of delivering a baby which is the will of God. But as the play progresses Jessy can be seen questioning God for creating men who sexually abuse women.

Yet another woman in the play is a sweeper who sees stains everywhere. She doesn’t have a name – because different people call her by different names. She feeds even the mannequins in the shop she works in, saying that they also feel hungry like us, for they were human beings once too who had in due course metamorphosed into non-living things.

For Sudhi, the director, the play has given immense opportunities to explore distinct expressions and levels of acting. She also enacts the role of Kavitha in the play.

“The women in the play have realised all the apprehensions, worries… of the times they live in. The plays tries to find how religions are imposing restrictions on women to the extent of making it impossible for them to come out of that. Women need to bear the mark of beliefs and rituals entwined in religions. The women in the play interpret the rituals and the beliefs. It also enables an investigation into how history and religion have defined women. The women finally decide that they won’t sustain any more as a tool to reproduce for the sake of religion,” she says.

In the end, the four women decide to live without a uterus as a protest against the system. The play has eight actors, including the four women.

Struggles

The toughest task is raising funds, Raji says. The theatre group is getting central government salary fund, yet producing plays is overall risky.

“Things are changing, no? Now to get the Cultural ministry’s fund the procedures are complicated. It’s high risk, one has to assure the artists. If we don’t pay them they would quit, we can’t blame them,” Raji says.

Nireeksha does small projects for the government and Kudumbashree Mission, and the remuneration they receive is used for funding the plays.

Nireeksha also trains children in the neighbourhood in music, dance, martial arts and theatre free of cost. The training is given during weekends, with teachers coming from other places. The idea is to help children develop a taste for art, Raji says.

How it all began

Sudhi, an alumnus of the School of Drama in Thrissur, and Raji, an M Phil holder in Mathematics, met during a protest seeking justice for a sexual abuse survivor in the 1990s. They became friends. Raji was working as a teacher in a temporary post in a college at that time. She believes that the fascination she always had for art might have transformed her into a playwright.

When they were planning their first play they had only a room.

“We group of women used to sit in the late director Indira Zen’s room to discuss the play. But even that couldn’t continue for long as the house owner became suspicious about what all the women were gathering and doing,” Sudhi recollects.

“We can’t even imagine how we reached here. We both sold our properties to buy the plot,” she says.

Raji and Sudhi built the house and later the building for Nireeksha brick by brick.

“Still Nireeksha has the energy, that spark… and the freedom that actors and technicians have to leave the group after a play has made it a space for artists over the years,” Raji says.

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