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Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India © Pavel Laputskov / Shutterstock

Staging a Revolution: The Gulabi Gang Makes Its India Theater Debut

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to award-winning theater director Suba Das about his play, “Pink Sari Revolution.”

In 2006, Sampat Pal Devi, a woman from the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, started a vigilante group, the Gulabi Gang, to fight against domestic violence and other human rights abuses against women. The group is popularly known by the pink saris adorned by its members — gulabi means “pink” in Hindi. The Gulabi Gang, which grew into an army of over 400,000 female fighters for women’s rights, achieved national prominence in 2011 when it organized mass demonstrations in front of a police station for a 17-year-old Sheelu Nishad, who was raped by a local politician and falsely accused of theft in an attempt to silence her.

Sampat Pal’s vigilante group has fought numerous human rights abuses over the last decade and has become a symbol of women’s empowerment in north India. However, every movement has its share of problems, and the Gulabi Gang is no exception. The group has been fervently criticized for its use of violence to get justice, and Pal stepped down in 2014 following charges of corruption. She eventually followed a path in politics, while the Gulabi Gang continues its fight against human rights abuses without the effervescent leader.

In February 2019, the British Council, in partnership with UK’s Curve Theatre, India’s National Council of Performing Arts (NCPA) and the Arts Council of England organized a special one-off performance of Pink Sari Revolution — a play based on Sampat Pal’s life. Directed by award-winning dramaturg, Suba Das, the play was first premiered in Vritain as a part of the UK-India Year of Culture in 2017. Helen Silvester, the director of British Council West India, said: “We are delighted to support the powerful work Pink Sari Revolution by Curve Theatre, UK, in India for the first time in collaboration with the NCPA. We are committed to supporting women and social change through the arts, while connecting UK and Indian artists and creative industries.”

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Das about his journey in making the Pink Sari Revolution, his fascination with the character of Sampat Pal, and the challenges of telling the story of India’s famous vigilante group to a foreign audience.

The text has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ankita Mukhopadhyay: How did you become associated with the play and the British Council?

Suba Das: I decided to make the play after reading the book Pink Sari Revolution. I was captivated by the book and knew that there was an amazing show that could be made from that source material. This was a costly project as it required me and my collaborators to travel to India and work with artists in India, which is not normally possible for UK arts organizations. The Arts Council England’s Reimagine India fund, along with support from Curve Theatre and the British Council, enabled me to pursue the adaptation and commission Purva Naresh, a Mumbai-based playwright.

The fund enabled me to make the adaptation with authenticity, which is very important — otherwise you end up creating work that doesn’t engage fully with the nuance and political situation of another country. The fund enabled me, Purva, our designer and choreographer to travel to Uttar Pradesh to meet Sampat Pal, spend time with the gang and meet all of the characters whose stories we ended up telling in the play.

Mukhopadhyay: What themes did the play focus on? Did its impact change in the light of the #MeToo movement?

Das: We started making the show three years ago — it predates the #MeToo movement in that sense. I have seen many portrayals of Indians society in art and on stage, and in film here in the UK, but I have never encountered a palpable sense of strong female resistance. We are usually used to showing the Indian female body as the body of a victim. Sampat, on the other hand, fights, and what I found extraordinary was the current of resistance and strength of women who are defying their boundaries.

I found that deeply inspirational and that was what I wanted to highlight in the play. In fact, the #MeToo movement broke out the same week the Pink Sari Revolution premiered, which is not surprising, you know. We do live in a misogynistic, patriarchal society.

Mukhopadhyay: Can you tell me a bit more about the challenges you faced when staging the play?

Das: The challenges that emerged were mostly around the process of making the play. Our playwright, Purva, was concerned about telling an Indian story in the UK. All of us working on the play had to ensure that we were approaching the topic with sensitivity. There was also the challenge of synthesizing an interaction between two different dramaturgical and theater-making cultures. This is kind of why the British Council fund was created, to allow that creative exchange to take place.

Another challenge was language, since the piece is predominantly in English. We were concerned about how to bring that texture and authenticity in a foreign language. I didn’t want to feel that I had no authenticity, and the play wasn’t true to the language form and the literacy and mannerisms of the people we were talking about. This was an interesting technical challenge that we faced.

Mukhopadhyay: How did you explain the concept of the Gulabi Gang to foreign audiences? How did you tailor issues like caste?

Das: By making the play very good, of course! In any play, whether its Shakespeare or Ibsen, a part of the responsibility is in creating the world of the play. Creating the exposition, content, wider political narrative, weaving that into a text but still telling a human story is part of the playmaking skill. Great theater is always about mixing the personal and political. It’s also about telling a personal human story because that’s what people come to theater for. Through the mechanism of doing all this, you’re educating your audience.

I was there as an arbitrator of that, asking questions like, Okay, in a UK setting this scene may not make sense as the audience may not know this and this. We had to find a way to organically weave the content in that scene so that the audience can follow that. But these are many assumptions, as the audiences are very intelligent, to be honest.

One of the specific things we theatrically added into the piece is the focus on one case Sampat Pal fought, in which a young girl was raped by a politician. Amana Fontanella-Khan, the writer of Pink Sari Revolution, had framed the entire history of Sampat Pal, Bundelkhand and the issue through the lens of this specific case in her book. Amana gave that framework to begin with, which enabled us to widen our lens while making the play. In addition to that framework we also punctuated the play with chorus sections in which the ensemble of players simply shared stories on stage — a kind of a heightened, magical, “poor theater” way. We explained the mythology of the location in which the story was based through interruptions in the narrative as a kind of poetic thing.

Our playwright Purva highlighted that the location had a history that went back to the Mahabharata [ancient Hindu mythological text] — it was on the banks of the river Chambal that Draupadi [the leading character of the Mahabharata] was disrobed, it was in that part of India where Phoolan Devi [a bandit] rose up and staged her bloody rebellion. This enabled a larger mythological, historical and political context around the contents of the play.

Mukhopadhyay: How did you go about conducting the research for the play?

Das: We understood the context primarily through Amana’s research. Amana lived with Sampat and conducted a range of interviews with Sampat and all the women and figures involved in the gang over a two-and-a-half-year period. We arrived in India with a massive bank of journalistically rigorous data because of Amana’s work. The research was very important to me, and I was very clear with Purva and the team from the beginning and throughout the process that we were not inventing our own story — we were adapting Amana’s content for the stage, as Amana’s content was rigorous.

To expand our own understanding, we went to meet Sampat. We also met the survivor, Sheelu Nishad, who was raped by the politician. (We couldn’t meet the rapist and his family as it was not possible.) After meeting them, we realized how diligent Amana had been at her fact-checking.

Mukhopadhyay: Why did you choose to tell Sampat Pal’s story?

Das: Because she’s amazing. Show me anyone else like her. She’s a great character. She’s flawed. Just read her biography or life story. In addition to reading Amana’s book, I read all of the other stuff out there about Sampat. I also spent time with a documentary filmmaker, Kim Longinotto, who had made a documentary, Pink Saris, about Sampat and was out in the field with her for about six months to get a perspective on this woman.

The reality is, Sampat is a tragic hero. She’s done amazing things, but there is also complexity around her movement. Her movement does contain violence, and there have been accusations of corruption thrown against her. I was interested in all of that because the reality is that you tend to put women on stage in lead roles, and they need to be perfect. That’s boring and not theatrical. Macbeth is not perfect, King Lear is not perfect, none of Arthur Miller’s heroes are perfect. Artistically, I was really interested in asking myself, Could we put a flawed woman on stage and allow her to be a hero with her flaws — in spite of them, because of them, and with them. Sampat Pal provided the raw material to do that.

Mukhopadhyay: How was the play received? Did you notice any difference in the reception between India and the UK?

Das: I was terrified to bring the show to India! I was always worried about what people will make of it. I mean, I am a British man telling this story about Indian women. I was absolutely terrified — I should be terrified. If I am making this work, I should be terrified, as every artist should be held accountable for their performance. The great relief was that the response was extraordinary — probably one of the most moving experiences I have had in my career.

The response was overwhelming, and we received a standing ovation. Another thing that stood out for me was that six girls who had been saved from sex trafficking by a charity came to see the show and loved it. It’s an amazing feeling to think that you read a book a few years ago and now there’s a show that’s reaching these people — that’s time well spent, you know.

When we staged the show in the UK, we had over a 1,000 people [backstage.] A lot of people who had stayed behind were women who, in some way, had survived sexual or domestic violence, and they wanted to stay with us afterward, stay in that space. What was exhilarating about presenting in the UK was seeing multicultural audiences feel like they had something to learn about her from this show.

After the show, white mums came up to me with their white daughters and told me that this issue is so important to my relationship with my daughters. To be able to successfully do that through a brown woman’s story is rare. There’s a tendency for people to say that this art doesn’t cross over to our culture when you present something that’s culturally specific. I believe that art should aspire to a conditional universality. Of course we live in a universe that is white, and black is the niche, and some people believe that white stories have a lot to teach non-white people, but non-white stories have nothing to teach to white audiences. It was quite heartening to know that we made something that challenged that status quo successfully.

Mukhopadhyay: How do you think the representation of women in theater has changed over the last decade?

Das: I think the conversation of female representation in theater is becoming more complex in the UK, and that’s great. This is partly happening because there are more women leading institutions and organizations. I think we have to really take stock of this issue because it’s easy to imagine that in the liberal arts space there aren’t abuses of power, or there aren’t prejudices. The #MeToo movement, which revealed shocking abuses of power, made us all confront the fact that actually it’s not everyone in the arts is the “good guy” who is liberal, accepting, tolerant and diverse. #MeToo made people in the arts actually think that maybe we are not as good as we think we are.

Mukhopadhyay: How did you build your sensitivity about female issues when you were making the play?

Das: I surrounded myself with an amazing female team and greatly empowered my playwright Purva to correct me when necessary. I had told her that she was allowed to shoot me if need be. But yes, it was hard. I mean, “What right do I have and this?” was the question I was asking myself frequently. A lot of men step into making this work and don’t ask themselves that question. I worked with community groups and went around asking them if this was right to make this show. They said, No one else went off and raised £200 million to make a show about Sampat Pal. I realized that maybe I did care and that partly helped me to let myself off the hook and not be so harsh on myself.

Mukhopadhyay: Is there message that you would like to give to someone from a non-traditional background who wants to make a career in the arts?

Das: I grew up on a council estate, which is a poor social housing in the northeast of England. My father came to England in the 1970’s from India from a very rural, poor background. He worked in a restaurant and tried his best to look after his family. He took me and my twin brother to the library twice a week, and we managed to get scholarships to a very good school. Then we both worked very hard, and then we both went to Cambridge. I became the youngest-ever director of the National Theatre and the first British Asian director for the Royal Opera House. In reality, I have worked really hard and I have found that my hard work has been rewarded. Not everyone has been that lucky.

I appreciate that hint of luck. The reality is that if you’re talking about the whitewashing of the arts. It’s only when you know the rules that you know how you can bend, break [them] or be subversive. The danger is waiting for permission. If you sit around waiting for an opportunity, nothing will happen. I didn’t sit around waiting to see if someone will ask me if I want to make the Pink Sari Revolution. I went out and found the money, worked with amazing organizations and won their confidence to tell this story. One should have a grip on the tools of production — you need to know what the system is in order to step into it and tell the stories you want to tell.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.