Activist Theatre and Theatre Activism in India:
A Gendered Reading

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As in other oppositional movements, one of the problems confronted by cultural politics around gender issues is the question of “cultural activism or activist culture.” This is a continuing debate, and it is another manifestation of the form vs. content dialectic. On the one hand, the established culture did not accord aesthetic recognition to street theatre about women’s issues; on the other, the larger women’s movements treated the aspect of culture as merely a mobilization tactic.  What we define as the autonomous “politics of culture”—“art that is not viewed as an instrument, but as a form of knowledge, and a political practice”—is missing from the agendas of progressive movements and political organizations, as also from the activities of many individual theatre practitioners. This talk aims to have the two strands of gendered theatre practice “converse” with each other, on the basis of examples drawn from the theatre practice of some women directors in India today.

A. Mangai is the pseudonym of Dr. Padma Venkataraman, Professor of English at Stella Maris College (Chennai), and a leading Indian feminist activist, playwright, scholar, and educator. She was a founder-member of Chennai Kalai Kuzhu, one of India’s most important street theatre groups (1984- ), and one of her plays has become a classic of the street theatre genre: Pacha mannu (The New Born), a play about female infanticide. Her Pani thee (Frozen Fire), based on an ambivalent male/female figure in the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, is a re-reading of the ancient myth from the point of view of a marginal character.   Mangai has published a collection of essays on women in Tamil literature and theatre (2001), and is the translator Our Lives, Our Words (2011), a collection of first-person accounts by members of the transgender “Hijra” communities around the state of Tamil Nadu. She also translated Theri Gatha, a canonical Pali text of Elder Nuns’ Verses into Tamil (2007). Her recent monograph, Acting Up: Gender and Theatre in India (2015) is the first critical work of its kind to be published in English. This year she has co-edited, with Tapan Basu and Indranil Acharya, a collection of writings by Dalit authors titled Listen to the Flames: Texts and Readings From the Margins (2016). Mangai also translates fiction and nonfiction from Tamil into English, and vice versa.

Visit Leftword for an announcement of Mangai’s groundbreaking book, Acting Up, and read a recent interview, in The Hindu.