Saturday, August 27, 2011


In Kashmir. “Four million people live under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA),’’ points out Ojas Suniti Vijay, the 25-year-old who plays Sharmila in the play Le Mashale (bearing torches). “If you want the world to acknowledge you as the world’s largest democracy, this law has to be repealed.’’

In the solo performance, Ojas/ Sharmila spells out the army’s point-of-view of Manipuri women: “Just a piece of flesh with two round breasts and a vagina.’’ She repeats this sentence as she depicts the rape and mutilation of Manorama Devi, who was dragged from her home by soldiers of the Assam Rifles in 2004. She was later found dead, shot through her vagina.

The act provoked a protest unique in India - Manipuri mothers stood naked in front of the gate of the Assam Rifles Battalion in Imphal, with a banner stating, ‘Indian army rape us.’ This picture is shown through the enactment of Le Mashale. “The nakedness of the women showed the army as being completely naked,’’ says Ojas.

There are other visuals - grabs from the Internet - that flash across the screen towards the end of this dance-drama: soldiers forcing Manipuri boys to beat each other with lathis and turn cartwheels on the road.

But these would remain fleeting images were they not matched by the intensity of Ojas/Sharmila’s frustration, anger, and sense of nostalgia for a Manipur where grandmothers related stories of how Manipur’s seven suns were vanquished so that the people could finally get darkness and sleep and love. But the night so longed-for has turned out to be endless after the AFSPA was imposed on Manipur in 1958.

Ojas, a Maharashtrian, says, “It’s important that someone from mainland India is doing this play (written by Malayalam writer Civic Chandran).” A Pune girl born to activist parents (members of the National Alliance of People’s Movements), who named her as they named themselves - with the mother’s and father’s name substituting for the surname, told her to take a year off after her graduation to find out what she wanted to do.

Ojas travelled to Uttarakhand and Scotland, and came back to her base to do a post-graduation in bio-diversity, a course in which you spend more time outside the classroom than inside. She taught it for one semester, but found she missed theatre too much.

The subject never left her though, through the many journeys across the country. “On every street, ever journey, you meet  people with different body languages.

There are so many stories waiting to be told, and hardly a fraction have been depicted. That’s why I don’t agree with those who say theatre is dead. It’s the last thing to die. It’s been there since the Mahabharat, when Krishna organised a show for the victorious Pandavas.

The play narrated the events of the war they had just won, and showed them the massacre that had brought them their crown. That’s the impact theatre has - it becomes a mirror. Can the role of a mirror ever end?”

Le Mashale holds up a mirror to many things we hold dear. The national anthem, for instance, which has no mention of Manipur, or indeed, of the Northeast. “I grew up like any middle class child, imbibing ideas of the national anthem and rashtrabhasha. But I want my theatre to create a debate, to make people think about nationalism, not merely observe it as a ritual.”

Ojas met Sharmila last month when the tenth anniversary of the latter’s fast was being observed. That fleeting, silent meeting in which Ojas handed her a candle across a barricade, now lights up her performances.