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Preview: Goddesses of Words – Sarojini Naidu by Grace Kalaiselvi

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You were the last one at the office. You were coming back home from a party. You were only 10 years old when it happened. He stared at you throughout your commute and followed you after. He was the friend taking you home. He was your uncle. He. You. You. The stories are many but no two are the same.

Inspired by true narratives and poems of Sarojini Naidu, theatremaker Grace Kalaiselvi presents Goddesses Of Words #1, the first of a brand new six part series in association with the Arts House. Written and directed by Grace herself, each edition of Goddesses Of Words is set to explore the poems of Indian female poets who write in English. Besides Sarojini Naidu, other poets set to have their poetry featured include Kamala Surayya, Zeb-Un-Nisa, Torru Dutt and home-grown gems Pooja Nansi and Deborah Emmanuel. On the concept behind the production, Grace says: “We wanted to celebrate female, Indian writers who write in English, and celebrate these ‘goddesses of words’.”

In this first edition, the poems of Sarojini Naidu, known as the Nightingale of India, will be brought to life in a vignette-style performance as it explores the nuances of the struggles women face when dealing with sexual assault or sexual harassment. Partially conceived to explore the relationship between poetry and theatre, a total of 10 of Sarojini Naidu’s poems were chosen and used as inspiration for the devising of a brand new theatrical work that utilizes the poems alongside text recitation, voice play, soundscape design and physical theatre creation.

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A total of three local Indian actresses will be starring in this edition of the show, namely Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, Pramila Krishnasamy and Mumtaz Maricar, who all play characters who have all suffered forms of sexual abuse or assault, from a teacher to a JC student, to a teenager still suffering from the trauma inflicted on her as a child. Says performer Mumtaz Maricar: “I don”t know if there’s a proper ‘answer’ to addressing these issues, but in the play, we do touch on how we can support people, speaking to someone and strength in shared kin, letting them know that they are not going through this alone, lifting each other up.”

She continues: “People can often feel isolated, and there’s always this layer that prevents people from being fully accepted, or even outright rejected. That’s why support is so important, to make sure people know they’re not alone, and coming together gives you this small step. At the end of the play, we’ll be doing a form of communal cleansing, and encourage a little self-help and for survivors to seek help.”

On the conception of the piece, Grace explains: “It’s been a pretty smooth journey with all of us working together. They give so generously, and each of them come with their own strengths and suggestions. We never expected to go into sexual assault, and originally it really was adapting poetry into plays. We chose 10 favourite pieces, did a poetry read, and decided what resonated or not. It ended up being issues of trauma, and somehow, it’s led to this. The poems don’t necessarily relate directly to the play, but because of the way they sit within the context, the tone completely changes, and it all fits somehow.” 

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All three women believe that part of the problem lies in deeply rooted societal stereotypes and problems, particularly with how men are taught to treat women from a young age, leading to just about any or every woman having faced sexual abuse in some way. Says Pramila Krishnasamy: “There’s a ripple effect from all this, allowing boys to feel entitled about behaving a certain way and it’s so present in Asian culture. I say this confidently because in my own home, I can see how my brother was treated so differently from me. It’s very ingrained, and even if you tell my mother that, she won’t tell you it’s wrong in any way. For my brother and other boys, this will carry on into his adulthood, and in the way they treat their girlfriends, wives and the women around them. While we can’t stop it entirely, we need to spread awareness of such a phenomena and curb it at its root.”

While the content does seem daunting to the average audience members, the team has made sure there will be steps taken to care for them after the show, knowing the sheer number of trigger warnings attached to the show, with two counselors present at every show should audience members need them, as well as a post show dialogue to tie up loose ends. Says performer Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai: “It’s likely that there will be people affected, and people should never feel compelled to stay if it ever gets too much for them. There is no obligation to relive the trauma. You can’t deny memory after all, and even within our cast, when we shared stories with each other, we decided to perform each other’s stories, and not our own so we don’t have to face that each night.”

Pramila adds: “This show is not about triggering these traumas, but it’s certainly still very real and organic. Sometimes, it feels more like a sharing session rather than a scripted play, and audiences should always be aware that we’re there to hold each other’s hands when they need it.”

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Regarding their involvement with the show, Grace explains the pressing need to showcase more bilingual Indian women, all three of them (and Grace herself) having been formally trained in the arts, be it Lasalle, NAFA or ITI. Says Pramila: “Grace alwyas tells us how there is a severe lack of Tamil theatre actresses in English theatre. Most people are relegated to doing Tamil plays from Tamil groups, but some people, like me, are just very bad at Tamil. Having this opportunity is a godsend, and I’ve been waiting so long to do something like this – full of real issues, heart to heart words, and not just creating characters for the sake of it. I know how Grace works, and I’ve always wanted to be a part of her productions.”

Says Mumtaz, who hails from the film and art industry: “It’s been maybe 20 years since I last performed onstage. Grace approached me, and I was a little hesitant at first, especially with the learning curve, but I’ve been very happy to be on board as I push myself and my boundaries. It’s so important for representation, and I’m very privileged to be working with such talented actors and a brilliant director.”

Says Rebekah: “All of us were actually involved in a playwriting workshop that Grace spearheaded with Alfian (Sa’at). We realized that amidst all the narratives, there simply were too few that dealt with Indian lives. There’s this lack of exposure to the Indian culture and the lives we lead, and we saw a need to highlight certain attitudes. Our job is not to cauterize the wound – it’s to rip off the bandaid and tell people yes, it hurts but there’s hope. We’re not care professionals, but we bring out these issues in a safe space, and want to reassure women that you are not any less whether or not you receive help. Let’s talk about this, and have some continuity and increased awareness of these issues.”

Taking audiences into a journey into their past, present and future, Grace believes that as much as society has progressed, according to the UN – 35% of females around the world have experienced sexual violence to varying degrees. Says Grace: “Thats the beauty of theatre, it’s not on the news, it doesn’t feel like a distant statistic. It’s right there in front of you and you have to deal with it. You have to question your choices and decisions. You will have to empathise.”

Photos from Goddesses of Words Facebook

Goddesses of Words #1 plays at the Play Den@The Arts House from 21st to 24th March 2019. Tickets available from Peatix

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