Friday 6 October 2017

Pink Sari Revolution

5th October, 2017

We need plays like Pink Sari Revolution. Telling hard truths, Purva Naresh’s stage adaptation of Amana Fontanella-Khan’s best-selling book scratches the wounds of generations of women, and the result is an outpouring of pain and the fire-fuelled voices of those long-repressed crying out for justice and equality. It is a play that unflinchingly deals with the raw and grotesque realities of domestic and sexual abuse and the shocking flippancy with which it is greeted by the authorities imposing it and, often, the women who suffer from it. Following years of research, director Suba Das’ labour of love blazes triumphantly on Curve’s stage.

The play follows the real-life fight for women’s rights in Uttar Pradesh, India, by a vigilante group of women, the Gulabi Gang. Outfitted in the titular neon pink saris, the army of female warriors is led by the inimitable Sampat Pal. Sampat was married at twelve, before, she says, ‘she had even started her periods’, forbidden to attend school, she was illiterate and bullied a boy into teaching her to write her name (a mere taste of her formidable powers of persuasion!) – her life has been rough and dictated by the laws of patriarchy and the caste system. But Sampat turns her pain into a fury which empowers her and her followers to fight for change.

We are introduced to the world of the Gulabi Gang when Sampat Pal takes it upon herself to fight the case of seventeen year old Sheelu who has been imprisoned, accused of stealing a rifle and some jewellery from a powerful politician. Yet Sheelu, a Dalit, is the innocent victim of the caste system and patriarchal authority which strips her of her independence and free will, where men of a higher caste are given free rein to use and abuse women. Sheelu has been raped. A female police warden dispassionately pours bucketfuls of blood down the drain, doctors lie about her condition out of social custom and fear and cause her even more suffering with the bluntly-named ‘finger test’, a brutal way of proving (or misconstruing) the sexual conduct of women and thus claiming that a ‘loose woman’ cannot be raped. This is a shocking set up, and Naresh is mercifully uncompromising in her language and descriptions of abuse.

If all this sounds a little ‘right on’, don’t fear, Naresh doesn’t shy away from human complexities and conflicts. Sampat is fierce and funny, yet cantankerous and negligent of her own family, including her daughter who watches and admires from afar but is forbidden from joining the Gulabi Gang herself. We are also privy to the reactions of the family at the centre of the rape claim, the women realise that they rely on the men to keep them, and the dangers of ripping apart the familial fabric of society. The women are brought up to be submissive; a local tradition dictates that girls carefully and lovingly sew cloth dolls which are then handed to their brothers to beat and tear apart – and in one hard-hitting piece of dialogue, a mother chastises her uncooperative daughter-in-law, spitting that ‘it is women like you that turn men to rape’.

Furthermore, while Sampat’s endeavour is admirable, we see the strain it takes on her personal life, and the challenges she faces not only from those who oppose her, but those she tries to help. Sheelu is ultimately released, not due to Sampat’s exposition of the corruption at the heart of the caste system, but through a traditional custom in which petty criminals are pardoned each year. Sheelu is not acquitted or absolved, her rape remains uninvestigated, but she refuses to take Sampat’s advice to refuse the pardon and plead innocence because she sees no other way of obtaining freedom. A bittersweet ending sees Sampat continue with her work despite her failings, and while hardened by realism, the final message is one of hope.

Das’ direction is punchy, with moments of light and shade that sharpen the more harrowing elements of the story while revelling in episodes of human warmth – an early scene with Sampat urging her women to ‘embrace their silly’ in order to abandon the shame (an integral tool for patriarchal oppression) and fight back is a lovely exercise in communal spirit and the power of humour to bring people together. Muriel Rukeyser is quoted in the programme notes, ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open’ – and this concept is brilliantly realised in Isla Shaw’s set. A large branched tree bursts through its concrete surroundings – an imposition of new life, a new movement silhouetted against the striking coloured sky – and with great theatricality we see the ground begin to shake and crack, blazing with light with each step the Gulabi Gang take. As they repeatedly say, ‘Pink is not just the colour of a sari, but the colour of the sky before the breaking storm’.

Ulrika Krishnamurti is impressive in a range of roles, from Sampat’s diligent daughter, Champa, to the tortured Sheelu. Her portrayal of the hollowness of despair is profound and heartbreaking. Elsewhere, Sharan Phull (so charistmatic in Curve’s The Importance of Being Earnest last year) goes from strength to strength as Sampat’s loyal follower, Geeta, who becomes conflicted between the life of a revolutionary and that of her family. However, the play really belongs to Sampat, and Syreeta Kumar is a force to be reckoned with. Giving an all-encompassing performance, she imbues the character with all the vibrancy, petulance, determination and grit of a true radical. This is one of the best written and performed female roles in theatre I’ve seen of late, as Sampat is so intensely human, in all her strengths and all her flaws.

As I said at the top of this review, Pink Sari Revolution is just the type of new writing the world needs right now. Human rights issues and campaigns are a potent matter of interest, not just in India, but internationally, as seen in the global ‘Women’s March’ in January, and Naresh’s play is incendiary in its impact. I came out of the theatre feeling empowered, angry, but hopeful that one day the world will change.

Pink Sari Revolution plays at Curve until 7th October, before touring the UK.
The cast of Pink Sari Revolution.
Credit: Pamela Raith

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