In 411 BC, the Greek writer Aristophanes wrote a play, and perhaps for the first time used theatre as a medium to draw attention to the miserable treatment women got in the society. Written as a comedy — Lysistrata — centers around the Peloponnesian War that robs the land, and the women of all their able men. The women are bereft and feel that drastic action needs to be taken to wean men off war. Lysistrata, the female protagonist of the play, comes up with a unique plan which involves uniting all the women of the land and withholding sex, so that the men are driven to frenzy and accede to their demand for cessation of the unnecessary war. This was, perhaps the first time, when theatre was used to bring attention, to the treatment of women as chattels and vessels for man’s lust.
Many centuries later, in 1879 in Europe, Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’, created a similar electric shift in focus towards women’s problems and their place in society. In the play, the heroine Nora fed up of being a doll, first for her father and then for her husband, an object for their pleasure — to be played with and discarded at their will — decides to end the game by walking out of her marriage.
For a woman, to call a spade a spade and say “Enough” to a man and a marriage, was considered sacrilegious and lead to the first major rethink and debate on women’s empowerment.
In the matriarchal society of Kerala, a group of women needed change and that too desperately.
Women of the elite and high Namboodri community were invisible. They lived behind high walls, unseen and unheard by the world. Even when they ventured out, they had to hide their faces with an umbrella. Their husbands would slip in unseen after dark, have sex and leave. They had no life beyond this, and their lives were proscribed by their birth, marriage, birth of their first son and their death.
They were married off early and brought huge dowries with them. By the 1940s, emotions were stirring amongst these women, and bolstered by the communist movement in Kerala, bold young women began clamouring for change. By 1944, women were demanding training to stand on their own feet. In 1947, EMS Namboodripad inaugurated a women’s collective with 16 members, called Thozhil Kendram. Here, the women, many of them young girls running away from early marriage, learned how to read and write, and were trained to be financially independent. Soon, they thought about writing stories of their own lives and creating plays, with only women as actors. The play Thozhil Kendrathilekku became one of Malayalam’s earliest feminist plays, to be performed and, here too, created mini revolutions with many backlashes from conservative men in the Namboodri community.
Two days ago in Thrissur, I had the privilege of viewing a revival of the play and meet the last two women remaining of the original cast. It was for me, a torchbearer of this tradition of using theatre for change, a deeply moving moment, hearing them speak of the early struggle. Along with the play, I also saw an effectively made documentary on the movement and its revival by filmmaker MP Sasi, with interviews of the new, young cast along with the veterans, juxtaposed, so that one loses track of who is playing which character and who the characters are.
Plays like these, can once again create the right platform for initiating debates and introspection, about the deteriorating safety and rights of women in the society, leading to change in misogynist attitudes and the sense of dignity and self-worth in women.
The play Thozhil Kendrathilekku became one of Malayalam’s earliest feminist plays to be performed, and created mini revolutions with many backlashes from conservative men in the Namboodri community
The writer is a noted danseuse and a social activist.