Preview: When The Crows Visit at Kiln Theatre
- Credit: Photo by Mark Douet
Indian playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar examines sexual violence and her country’s deep patriarchal roots through the prism of Ibsen’s Ghosts
Ibsen's enduring ability to cross time and space has been proved with recent contemporary riffs on A Doll's House and a production transposed to British India.
Now playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar uses the central mother son bond in Ibsen's Ghosts to explore embedded patriarchy in modern India.
Like the original, When The Crows Visit at Kiln Theatre imagines the sins of the father embedded in a son's body, only rather than Oswald Alving inheriting syphilis from his philandering father, it's a cycle of violence against women that may have been handed down through the generations. Like Mrs Alving, Hema has to confont the secrets and ghosts of the past, but also make the decision of whether to protect a son who may have committed a heinous crime.
"As a playwright who writes on social issues I find Ibsen very inspiring and Ghosts resonated with me because the mother son bond is very sacred in Indian culture," says Chandrasekhar.
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"In traditional families a male child is often brought up very differently to a female child and the mother son relationship is vital to the patriarchal family stucture. Like Mrs Alving she tries to shield her son, but she grows during the play and what she learns about herself provokes the primary dilemma for every woman; do we show our loyalty to our tribe or to our sisterhood?"
Married young, Hema endured domestic violence and is now living with her mother-in-law and expected to unqestioningly back her son when he returns home accused of a violent crime. But should she be bound by a duty to men who set the rules in their favour? Chandrasekhar wrote the play at a time when "Indian society was reeling from many incidents of gender violence,"
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The 2012 case of a Delhi student attacked and murdered on a bus by a gang of men was in her mind.
"The dynamic of modern India is it can be terribly Victorian and terribly progressive at the same time," she says.
"It's that tension between the traditional and the modern. The grandmother holds the old traditions and is a repository of stories, but so much patriarchy is passed down from generation to generation in those stories - about how women should behave and who is the ideal woman? The person we end up being is tied up with who our grandparents were, their values and responses that were ingrained into them."
She adds: "The system is stacked against women. The son may or may not have committed a crime, his mother tries to navigate a patriarchal system that has been there for aeons, but how do you get rid of something that's so embedded in our family, culture, and traditions?"
While India is also having a #Metoo movement, it's not half as successful as in the West she says.
"The support structure for women who have been victimised is really poor and those who have voiced their experiences have been revictimised. I find that very disturbing. All those elements have fed into my play."
Based in Chennai, she has previously written in the UK for Trestle, the Traverse and Royal Court and seen work staged in Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.
But tugging at the deeply embedded roots of patriarchy isn't necessarily a great career move she says ruefully.
"It's still a struggle back home.The theatre is very much a boy's club, staging plays by men so you only get the male perspective. It's difficult for women to break into that club. I am the most successful female playwright in India and most of my plays are staged in other countries. If I depended on having them staged back home I don't think I would have survived as playwright. For the past 15 years I have given myself ultimatums about giving up if I don't make it, clearly I don't know how to stop." In a country where "escapist" film is the dominant cultural force, theatre, and particularly plays that air social issues, have been squeezed out.
"Theatre is practically dead in my city. Social theatre, plays that disturb people, are not something that people look forward to. We don't have that dedicated space or theatre-going audience, and my female colleagues have moved to stand-up comedy to draw an audience. It's sad to watch them drop out because there is nobody doing their plays, theirs are important voices but so often female voices are subdued and silenced."
When the Crows Visit opens at Kiln Theatre on October 23 and runs until November 30.