The demon sits on his sacred throne, feeding on hate and distributing people into varnas or castes. After the four varnas are full, he looks at the leftover humans and casts them away as filth. “These rejected people, who are physical and social outsiders of our world, are called Chandala. The demon is a symbol of the evil of caste. In any language in India, Chandala is an insult,” says Valavane Koumarane. The Puducherry-based theatre director had learned about caste early, when as a child he was forbidden to play with or touch certain people. “I didn’t understand, but I played with them anyway,” he says. Anxieties of human conditions motivate his plays, from Karuppu — meaning dark energy in Tamil — which was created in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gang rape, to Karna Kunti, about a mighty warrior who is also an abandoned child. Karuppu won two trophies at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) last year. Koumarane, who has a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Marseilles, is contending at META 2019 with his new play, Chandala, Impure. Excerpts from a telephone interview:
How much has your understanding of caste been influenced by your going away to France to study when you were
In France, I realised the huge and complicated relationship between Blacks and Whites. After returning to India, I began to compare both systems and realised that, while the Black oppression was very clear, the caste system is more complex. It is not about one group oppressing another. In India, A oppresses B, B oppresses C, C oppresses D… and so on. There is a complex circulation of violence and oppression. The Black people, at points in history, revolted and there were civil rights movements.
Why did you pick Romeo and Juliet to tell your story on caste?
There was an incident of honour killing in Tamil Nadu in 2016 that made national news, about Shankar, a Dalit boy, and Kaushalya, a girl from a middle caste. She survived, but he died. This was shocking and I wanted to tell this story. I chose Romeo and Juliet for its narrative structure and not the text. What interests me is that all characters are strongly built, especially the father, the mother, the friend of Romeo and the nurse. They fascinated me more than the text.
Tell us something about your Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare took a story from an Italian book, brought about some changes and it became his play. I did exactly the same thing. I took his Romeo and Juliet, introduced some elements, changed the story to make it relevant for today. My story is of two lovers, Jack and Janini. The boy is from the Dalit community and the girl is from a middle caste. Youngsters in our country are waking up and some characters, like Romeo and Juliet, want more. When these powerful characters meet, there is a spark, which becomes a fire. The play shows how, today, youngsters think about realising their dreams and how the old system, the monster of caste, reacts to this. The only antidote to the poison of the caste system is love. Caste system hates romances.
Why does cinema play a critical role in the play?
The common culture for all communities is cinema, so our set is a cinema theatre. The play is critical of Bollywood, because films portray that everything is possible. In Bollywood, Romeo will beat all goondas and the upper caste father will say, ‘I regret what I have done. You can marry my daughter’. It’s not true. It happens only sometimes when a person is a great soul. Otherwise, it is communities who decide the liberties of allowing a marriage of youngsters.
You call this your most optimistic play, though it is a tragedy.
The play shows how the energy of the youth is changing the country. Despite threats of murder and violence, the youth are slowly changing the energy of the country. This is my dreamed vision of India, where we define the idea of freedom, and choose what place we want in society.
The play will be staged on March 11 at Shri Ram Centre, Mandi House