In the aftermath of media coverage on the violence against women in India, comes a play about women rising up. Pink Sari Revolution, adapted for the stage by Purva Naresh and directed by Suba Das is a play that not only speaks to Indian women, but women internationally. The story follows Gulabi Gang leader, Sampat Pal Devi and how she helps Sheelu Nishad – a young girl who finds herself thrown in prison after sexual assault. The Gulabi Gang is a movement of over 400,000 women who fight for women’s rights wearing bright pink saris. Living in Uttar Pradesh, these women support other women especially women from low-castes.
We caught up with director Suba Das to talk about the creative process and drive behind the play. Das talks about Sampat Pal Devi and her life ‘there should be 100 plays made about her, there could be 100 plays made about her.’ Das was funded by the Re:Imagine India project fund to go to India and research the play. In Uttar Pradesh, Das lived with Sampat Pal Devi and the Gulabi Gang and, came to understand the complexity of her character. Das used his trip to India to find artists and devised the play alongside choreographer Aakash Odedra and Mumbai-based playwright Purva Naresh. They used internationally renowned journalist, Amana Fontanella-Khan’s book to give us a small snapshot into the world of the Gulabi Gang.
Das has made an effort with this play to not just tell a story but to also create an ethical piece of art. He ensured that the playwright was a woman, and that it was as much her story as it was Sampat Pal Devi’s. The character of Sampat explicitly implicates everyone in the room in this story, at some point during the play.
Das wanted to make sure that the shocking images that are portrayed aren’t just gratuitous. He was very clear about not wanting to stage a rape scene and specified that there would be ‘no female nudity because to be honest this kind of horrendous exploitation happens far too much. It happens across our most prominent theatre houses. Often the nudity or violence is needless to bring about the emotional impact.’ There is a moment in the play where one of the male characters smashes a doll to bits, instead of assaulting a woman. This is an interesting and theatrical way to present violence rather than actually show it.
Das is sensitive to the ways that media portrayal has slowly conditioned us to normalise certain behaviour. This piece stages a dramatic story with a complex woman but manages to remain ethical in the way it has approached the narrative and the creative direction. He chose purposely not to have the character of Puroshottam Nath Dwivedi (the rapist) on stage as he would have to make him three dimensional and find a way to make him be in the right ‘It felt better to not put him on stage and look at the world ripping around the rape’.
The politics of this play and how it may be received are fully understood by Das. He talks about the double-edged sword faced by many artists of colour who write about political things or people, that doesn’t always show them in the best light. ‘if you’re writing about forced marriages for example, then you’re likely to receive venom from people saying why are you writing about our communities like this.’ But by also writing ‘the truth’, Das is aware that it can act as fuel for other communities to use.
Suba Das has created a play that challenges attitudes and actions towards women across the world. Campaigns like the recently revived #MeToo campaign show that stories like Sheelu’s and Sampat Pal Devi’s aren’t unique. Women across the world face sexism and abuse too often, but they are beginning to rise up. Das shows this uprising on the stage, but then also creates a piece of work that doesn’t exoticise or gratuitously show violence.
Hopefully other theatremakers will take something away from this production and acknowledge that there are ways to show revolutions without resorting to violence.
Pink Sari Revolution is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 7 – 11th November. For more information and to book tickets, visit https://www.wyp.org.uk/events/pink-sari-revolution/