International Women's Day: Everybody has an important story to share’, says Anurupa Roy

For creative people who also happen to be women, what role does gender, community, tradition have in shaping those hard-won rights and fiercely-cherished achievements?

International Women's Day: Everybody has an important story to share’, says Anurupa Roy

Sampurna Chattarji

Considerthefemalebodyyourmost Basictextanddontforgetitsslokas [...] Wehavewrungpoemsfromhouseholdtasks Carryingwaterchildsorrowcanyoudoasmuch? [...] MyworstfearissankarathathadIindeedbeenyou Imightnotafterallhaveconceivedanythingnew

‘Genderole’ by Rukmini Bhaya Nair

An observance that grew out of the American suffragette movement, International Women’s Day has, for little over a century now, been marked as a day that aims to celebrate women’s rights, and honour women’s achievements. For creative people who also happen to be women, what role does gender, community, tradition have in shaping those hard-won rights and fiercely-cherished achievements? As a young writer trying to elide/elude labels, I remember how struck I was by this poem by Rukmini Bhaya Nair, in which the run-on lines that mimicked the inscription of Sanskrit slokas insisted I find a new way of reading, inserting the spaces that my mind needed in order to make sense of what was written. This re-seeing of what feels simultaneously very old and very new provoked the questions I put to the practitioner featured here.

SAMPURNA CHATTARJI, poet, editor, author, most recently of Unmappable Moves

What is the ‘genderole’ you resist/redefine/reclaim through your work?

The ‘genderole’ that I resist is being viewed, and identified, as a woman, and what that entails. Not looking at my practice as an artist, but asking me what I am as a female artist, or looking at my work as a female director. That’s something I choose to, and hope to, redefine. Also, by asking questions of my own practice and the way I hold a space in a company, and the way my colleagues are represented with/as their gender or not. This is something I often ask myself. The way I’ve chosen to redefine it is to be a director, and claim that space as a director. Very often we women call ourselves many things— producers, enablers, facilitators—while we are directing on stage. I choose to be very clear and assertive when I say I’m a director, a designer of puppet theatre, and I say so very consciously. I also perform with puppets and build puppets but a director is primarily who I am. I feel that is a very clear assertion and I wish more women in the future would feel comfortable doing that. I think puppet theatre occupies a very unique space in India. It is either very, very traditional, or it is this very new form which is often very western. I’m trying to see what is the space in between. I would add that it’s also the space for mentoring. For many years, when I was mentoring people, I sometimes felt unacknowledged as a mentor, but now I feel more confident saying I am a mentor, helping to create a space where other puppeteers can make their journeys.

What role does the community play in the making/unmaking of your work?

Community is a very big aspect of the work that I do. This starts with the puppetry community, not just my company, but the larger puppetry community—puppeteers across the country, across the world. Keeping conversations going with this community exchanges, asking the question “what is a true collaboration”—this is one aspect of community. The other aspect is around location. [My company] Katkatha Puppet Arts is located in the village of Jaitpur, just outside Delhi, in a locality called Badarpur. It’s semi-village, semi-city, the usual phenomenon when cities expand and absorb the surrounding spaces. The community in Badarpur is very critical to what we do. We don’t just parachute into the community, rehearse and get out—we keep our doors and windows open to what is happening around us. This has meant that over the last eight years we’ve built a community theatre space where every Sunday for sure—and also sometimes other days of the week—the children watch plays, or borrow books, or do workshops. They make their own theatre productions, and that has been very critical to our work because, one, everything we create, unless it’s not appropriate for children, we perform for the community, and they give us feedback. Two, our work doesn’t feel exclusionary, being viewed by local audiences at several stages and levels. Three, there’s a constant dialogue with the mohalla we’re living in. We know what’s going on there, who’s thinking what. Four, we get invited very often to work in communities that are not in Delhi, or our immediate neighbourhood. This is something we have done over 20 years—to go to a set of people who could be identified as a community, say a school or a club, an association, an NGO, and we work with them. This relationship at various levels is very vital to what we do, and the only criteria is that the community stories are told through the puppets. The belief is that everybody has an important story to share with the world.

What tradition do you align yourself to even as you break/remake it?

In my case, tradition and the traditional puppet theatre itself has been very intriguing. I started out knowing very little about it, went on to discover it, became fascinated by it, began an engagement with it, kept collaborating with practitioners, and now what fascinates me is that I draw the very idea of ‘why I am a puppeteer’ from the tradition itself, even though I am not a practitioner of the traditional form. I think I am beginning to understand the role of the puppeteer in society.

From the perspective of an audience, we as contemporary puppeteers are secular puppeteers. We don’t perform ritual functions, we don’t perform in temples, but at the same time, the minute we start to perform with a puppet theatre, we create rituals of our own, even if they are not religious rituals. Because we enter a sort of contract with the audience that is watching ‘dead material’. As we bring movement to that dead material, it’s as if we are breathing life into the inanimate, for the duration of that performance. This is very special. And the more I look at it, and the environment it creates, I see so many things happening that are not just performative. This is true of the actor’s theatre as well. Traditionally, the two are enmeshed together—rituals are so performative, and performance is so ritualistic.

I increasingly feel that the two are very deeply connected. The contract between audience and performer is not about entertainment only, not about illusion, so many other things start to happen. I’m very interested in the psychological aspect of tradition, the atmospheric, the suspension of disbelief, the healing aspect of it.

ANURUPA ROY is a puppet theatre director, designer and performer. She is the founder and managing trustee of the Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust.

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