‘The Warrior in a Pink Sari’, a ‘Woman of the Revolution’… just two of the terms used to describe the Indian social activist Sampat Pal, whose life is depicted in the groundbreaking play ‘Pink Sari Revolution’ – running this November at Northern Stage. Our reviewer Humera Mahzar caught up with director Suba Das ahead of the opening night and asked him what it means to bring the play to his native North East.
The story of Sampat Pal and the Gulabi Gang has been told in several different ways, from the book Pink Sari Revolution by Amana Fontanella-Khan to Kim Longinotto’s documentary Pink Saris, all of which accumulated into the research for the play Pink Sari Revolution. What was your reasoning behind keeping the name of the play the same as the book?
Although we drew on multiple sources and as we started making the play realised we would need to reach beyond the book to tell the fullest dramatic story about Sampat, Amana’s book was very much our foundation and starting point. The book explores Sampat’s story through the lens of the case of the rape of Sheelu Nishad, and our play very much follows that framework, and was developed with Amana’s support, so it felt like the right title to use! Artistically, I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of that word REVOLUTION with the image of the pink sari – it’s unexpected and I like my work to challenge stereotypes.
The play is of course a new way of telling Sampat Pal’s story. You travelled to India in December 2015 and met her alongside other Indian people that informed your research for the project. How do you reconcile the storytelling elements of a play starring a fictionalised representation of an incredible figure with Sampat Pal herself who you described to have ‘made her whole life a performance’?
I think simply by having Sampat’s personal permission to do this. If you look at the movement and what Sampat has achieved and how, in many ways her power is symbolic more than practical. It’s the image of thousands of women in neon pink saris that has captivated media attention and imaginations all over the world; and Sampat really knew she was doing that. Consequently I think she’s quite on board with the idea that whatever else people see in the show, what they undeniably leave with is the most palpable sense of not taking a woman for granted; not trivialising pink; confronting the violence against women that is entrenched into every society, not just India’s.
And the story has not just transitioned in form but journeyed from India’s rural Uttar Pradesh province to Newcastle! Premiering at Northern Stage, you’ve expressed your excitement to be back home again after East Is East, which had a fantastic response, and we look forward to seeing the same with Pink Sari Revolution. You also mentioned that we should expect to see similar vibrancy and colour in the set and costumes despite working with a heavier political theme. There is a great cultural push from the North to showcase diverse stories: how do you think Pink Sari Revolution will fit into these emerging cultural narratives?
What I’m most excited about is the fact that a story like Pink Sari Revolution really complicates cultural stereotypes. The oppression that Sampat and her gang fight is undoubtedly more extreme than some of the challenges women continue to face here in the UK; but there is something totally unexpected and magnificent about the way the Gulabi Gang DO fight back. They’re resisting and transforming their world in a way that I think we’re really struggling to over here despite calls for resistance and protest. I believe Indian bodies are often portrayed onstage as having limited agency or ability to transform their world, so I’m really proud to tell a story that shows people who have stringy and resilience where it might not be expected.
Still, the Gulabi Gang are very far from home. Sampat Pal’s story can be seen at face-value as only an Indian story but violence against women is obviously a problem everywhere. How do you go about bridging the gap between the “them and us” mentality to make a play on misogyny and women that resonates with a wider global audience, particularly one in the UK and the north?
I’m so proud that already on our UK tour, we’ve had a stunning response from a totally mixed audience in terms of cultural background; age; income. We’ve had over 1,000 people stay back for post-show discussions so far, which means we’re definitely pushing a button! Bridging that gap was actually one of my biggest considerations. As I say above, the story already does that in some way – the way Sampat operates makes it difficult for audiences to take the stereotypical stance; which is what makes her a truly great, complex theatrical character! We also worked really hard throughout the entire script development process to develop a kind of vocabulary, rhythm and style of talking that meant all of our characters are talking very specifically about the experience of the show; but the phrases they use really ping out across continents and cultures. Probably one of the best examples of that is the scene in the play where a female doctor who failed to examine Sheelu Nishad after her rape has to confront her guilt and defend her choices. The scene is totally about that incident, but it’s also a deeply political, larger conversation about the idea of privilege full stop and you can really feel the audience lean in at that point! It’s a bit of an old theatre cliché, but the father of modern theatre the director Peter Brook once said something like “Before something can be about everything; it has to be about one thing totally… You attain the universal through the specific”. I think we’ve achieved something of that with the show.
Pink Sari Revolution opens on Thursday at Northern Stage. Book your tickets here
Photos © Pamela Raith