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Cry for justice

Posted on Feb 18, 10:36PM | IBNS

In an environment simmering in anger against violence against women, Rangakarmee's new play Hum Mukhtara spells hope instead of anger and demands justice instead of revenge. Shoma A. Chatterji reports.

"Is there a single woman anywhere in the world who hasn't been abused in some way, by someone, sometime?" This was a question Usha Ganguli, founder-director of the Kolkata-based theatre group Rangakarmee was asked by her Pakistani friend Madeeha Gauhar, a theatre person herself.

This was one trigger for her new play Hum Mukhtara. The second trigger was the brutal Delhi gang-rape of 16 December ending in death of the victim. The third was In the Name of Honour Killing written by Mukhtar Mai of Pakistan which Ganguli received as a present from her teacher Maitreyee Sengupta. "I was awestruck by the extraordinary courage and strength shown by an ordinary girl from a remote village in Pakistan. Sadly, last year I came to know that the accused had been acquitted," she says.

One can recall the infamous incident in the life of Mukhtaran of Meerwala village in southern Punjab of Pakistan who was gang-raped by members of the powerful Mastoi clan, in 2002, on order of a village council following a family dispute.

Social taboo took it for granted that she would commit suicide. But Mukhtaran spoke up, filed a case and pursued it and the story was picked up by domestic and the international media.

But justice has not come. On September 1, 2002, an anti-terrorism court sentenced six men (including the four rapists to death for rape. In 2005, the Lahore High Court cited "insufficient evidence" and acquitted five of the six convicted, and commuted the punishment for the sixth man to a life sentence. Mukhtar Mai and the government appealed this decision, and the Supreme Court suspended the acquittal and held appeal hearings. In 2011, the Supreme Court acquitted the accused.

Yet, Hum Mukhtara celebrates the universality of women who have the courage and determination to fight against violence and injustice but fail to get it in the patriarchal society spanning across the world. Mukhara Mai still lives in the same village and runs girls' school there.

The Hum added as a prefix to Mukhtara in the title of the play symbolises the inclusiveness of women in this melee using Mukhtara's story as a peg.

Mukhtar Mai maybe a woman - unlettered, rustic and ignorant of the ways of the world, but she fights against something many women across the world experience, be it dowry death, sexual harassment at work, economic subjugation, domestic violence, or forced trafficking.

The play emphasises that social and intimate violence by individual or group perpetrators are not the only oppressors of women. The legal and judicial systems dominated by patriarchy are equal perpetrators in the way injustice is meted out in most of these cases.

Ganguli has used challenging theatrical strategies taking it to a different plane altogether. It opens on a striking note with a group of young women wearing black burqas, their faces veiled in black, entering the stage. An older woman with a red odhni standing out in relief leads the group and works as both anchor and spokesperson using the Greek chorus technique.

Classical Greek plays used the chorus as a backdrop, prop or setting to support the central subject and interaction of characters. The chorus becomes a collective voice on the dramatic action or introduced for musical support. Ganguli uses the format as a collective 'voice' that turns Mukhtara into a unified group voicing their solidarity against patriarchy.

At times, one woman breaks away from the chorus to address the audience directly telling her own story. So there is a collective of Mukhar Mais representing Hum of the play's title and an individual Mukhtar Mai demanding justice.

Unlike the use of mask in theatre for reasons of impersonation, the use of the black mask in this play in the beginning and at the end is to emphasise the invisibility of women and to insist that they come out of the darkness of ignominy and talk about the violence they have experienced. In each case, both in the beginning and in the climax, the women remove their black veils to reveal their faces making a powerful statement in support of visibility and voice.

There are myriad other props too, such as puppets, lanterns, the odhni in the scene where the Mastoi girl tries to seduce Mukhtara's kid brother and then accuses him of trying to molest her. The puppets held by the members of the chorus in one scene symbolises women trapped in a no-exit situation by virtue of their motherhood. The lanterns the chorus girls hold in some scenes suggest that women must bring light into their own lives themselves unless they want to remain in the dark because no one else will do it for them.

The background score is handpicked with care by Ganguli from compositions of Tchaikovsky, the famous Russian composer. This gives the play a lyrical temper that theatre with a political agenda often shies away from. "Tchaikovsky is my favourite composer and I felt his compositions would add to the intensity of the drama and invest the play with the quality of poetry," she says.