While essaying the role of 39-year-old Rubina Begum in the hour-long Indo-Australian theatre production Daughters Opera, staged in Delhi on Friday, Melodi Dorcas from Chennai speaks in Tamil about her plight, while shuffling through a plastic bag full of documents. With floods and cyclones paying a visit to her state every year, washing away many houses and forcing many to reconstruct their houses, Begum struggles to prove her identity every year. Having no school education, most of her documents have been washed away in the natural calamity. All that she has is her marriage certificate and the land that her husband owns in the village. Another character, essayed by Shilpika Bordoloi from Assam, speaks of how her father’s name, Moinul Islam, has been misprinted as Mohtab in the voter identity card, much like many others in the country.
With its all-female cast, when Daughters Opera’s director Anuradha Kapur was asked if the opera hints at the proposed National Register of Citizens, Australian librettist Tammy Brennan points out, “Documents of people is an issue the world over. Even in Australia, for instance, in our indigenous culture, many people are born in settings such as the deserts where there are no birth certificates. So it is very difficult for them to have identity documents; it was a common thread of the current climate.” While Kapur, former Director of the National School of Drama, agrees that one is hearing more about documents today, she adds, “The common thread is that it was said on TV some months ago that people who are completely dispossessed of documents are mostly women. Whatever documents she has is with the family, be it her husband or father. If something happens, she is left without anything, and that is true across the world.”
Scenographer Deepan Sivaraman has done a brilliant job of turning the stage into a box moving back and forth towards the audience, atop which most scenes unravel. A group of women appear to be in a train compartment, cutting vegetables on the go, after a hard day’s work. The aim is to depict the 24-hour work cycle that women have to keep up with. A factory scene precedes this, where women rush to finish their food in the canteen. It’s interspersed with some moments of joy, as they sing Madhuri Dixit’s classic song Ek do teen.
Kapur says, “What has been on our minds a lot is that a woman in India and abroad works 24 hours. She does her job, chops vegetables in the train, and later goes and cooks them. It’s economy, it’s invisible labour, but they are constantly working.” Dressed in saris, the actors soon switch into the role of women labourers from rural backgrounds, laying down bricks at a construction site.
The background voice echoes issues of infanticide, forced labour and the violence and traumas women and girls are subjected to. Brennan reveals how the writing of Daughters Opera’s libretto found its roots in the aftermath of Delhi gangrape case in 2012. She says, “It was the beginning of the research, it was the provocation. Why was this story so powerful in terms of its reach? It went global. And these acts happen to women every day around the world, but they do not get the attention to enable them to go and find those men.”
The musical score is by award-winning composer David Chisholm, who has utilised the Portuguese guitar to bring out Fado, aiming to look at another kind of violence apart from gender violence. “It was about looking at colonial violence. Portugal had administrative control over swathes of India for around 500 years, in Goa and other regions, and I wanted to use that allegory,” he says. Sound artist Marco Cher-Gibard from Melbourne provides live music, with his extensive use of axes and saws on the guitar. He says, “I see the guitar as a body, and this was my way of inflicting violence upon it.”
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