TODAY -

Irom Sharmila's struggle inspiring theatre productions all over
Source: Hueiyen News Service / Dipanita Nath

Imphal, November 13 2012: In languages as diverse as Manipuri and mime, several theatre directors are recreating the protest of Irom Sharmila Chanu for audiences across India Actor Ojas SV stands alone on a dark stage, her silhouette lit only by the flames of the torch that she holds aloft.

A Manipuri would recognise her as a Meira Paibi, the fearless women torch bearers of Manipuri myth.

To most of her audience in mainland India, she is just an actor about to begin a play, Le Mashale.

"Let us go on a trip to a faraway land, to Manipur, which is located in a region not mentioned even in the Indian national anthem," she says.

To Manipur, the story winds, a land where a woman had once conquered eight sun gods, and where a modern Meira Paibi called Irom Sharmila Chanu is locked in an equally fierce battle.

Earlier this month, Sharmila's hunger strike, demanding that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 (AFSPA) be repealed, entered its 13th year.

The Indian Army, bolstered by the AFSPA, has been accused of widespread brutality that includes shooting innocent people, detentions, rapes, abductions and custodial deaths.

"Sharmila comes from a place that had no history of Satyagraha, yet she is teaching Satyagraha to the Indian State, (ironically where the ideology emerged) .

Our generation would be unfortunate if we blindfold her or the questions that she raises," says Ojas about the play, in Hindi and English, that has been staged in 16 states.

Sharmila's story has found reflection in several theatre productions as theatre directors take her struggle to the people across India.

While the 2009 award-winning Manipuri play Mirel Masinghka by Yumnam Sadananda Singh uses mime and vigorous physical gestures to provide an overview of Sharmila's struggle - with a character called IIB representing the State - Thagippu, a year-old Tamil play based on Le Mashale, places Sharmila in a universal context of self assertion.

"Thagippu, a solo act by Jeny Dolly, means an unquenchable thirst or dry heat as if you are stuck in a sauna.

Broadly, the play talks about the State and its repression and how, in a democracy, art should be the conscience of the people," says A Mangai, an academician and a theatre veteran from Chennai, who has staged Thagippu in colleges, seminars and women's conferences in Tamil Nadu.

Thagippu incorporates verses of several women poets of Sri Lanka into Sharmila's story as well as adds references to Anna Hazare's fast and the movements surrounding the Koodankulam nuclear plant.

All plays strive to project Sharmila as an ordinary young woman - she was in her twenties when she began to fast - who staked her most prized asset, her life, for the sake of peace.

"In Manipur, cynics say that Sharmila's fast is a publicity stunt," says S Thaninleima, a Manipuri theatre person.

In 2007, she visited Sharmila in hospital and came away stunned.

"She has a one-point agenda - repeal AFSPA," says Thaninleima.

That year, she staged Final Countdown, with an old sculptor, his students and a photograph of Sharmila as the protagonists.

The visually powerful, dialogue-heavy play talks about art, freedom and peace.

"After I presented the play at Manipur University, I was asked, 'what is the meaning of peace'? Peace, I answered, is when you can think and speak freely.

We cannot do that in Manipur because we don't know if we can trust the other person," she says.

"The plays are an effort to ensure that Sharmila's fast stays in the minds of the people.

Many a Gandhian struggle goes unnoticed, only a few get highlighted," adds Mangai.

She could draw heart from a YouTube comment on Le Mashale: "You've opened several eyes that aren't going to get closed again" .


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