A tableau of women greets the audience with distant stares. Fluttering notes on the cello segue into a furious melody as a container with the actors rolls towards the audience. As the performance unfolds, visual impressions and vignettes from everyday life present womens experiences of violence in a play that embraces text, choreography and opera as intellectual inquiries.
A first of its kind, the premire of the inter-cultural Australian and Indian opera project, Daughters Opera at Black Box Okhla, Delhi, brought together multiple genres to a music score by David Chisholm. Theatre director Anuradha Kapur and producer and librettist Tammy Brennan describe the contemporary inter-genre work as a project in progress rather than a finished art product.
A dialogue began brewing between the theatre makers when Brennan was visiting India for a performance in 2012-13, at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav curated by Kapur. There were big protests against violence against women during that time in Delhi and it was quite shocking that such brutal acts of violence were still happening, not just here but throughout the world. Travelling with her four-year old daughter, Brennan recounts responding differently to the protests following the Nirbhaya rape, I reacted as a mother. From that standpoint I felt what kind of world is my daughter growing up in? Researching more deeply into what sorts of gender violence and why is it still happening in the 21st century, became the common denominator for the two artists.
Skipping back to the initial conversations, Kapur says, The conceptual stitch for us was, how do you find the language to talk about gender violence from the extreme to everyday? We didnt want to do a show just around Nirbhaya because that becomes restricted to what happened to one woman. Apart from the extreme violence of certain events, I was interested in relating the everyday violence which we so often forget to talk about.
Violence is never shown explicitly or directly in the play. It is tangentially indicated, subtly evoked through text, movement and visuals. Raging contemporary issues like migration, living and dying in a container, lower wages, labouring bodies and oppressed voices are presented as montages rather than a singular narrative, often accompanied by text extracts, for instance from Kumkum Sangaris Solid Liquid. The choreography by Victoria Hunt and scenography by Deepan Sivaraman deepen the visual impact. The flow evades emotional intensity, anchoring instead on formalistic experiment and pointed political statement.
Brennan is an activist-artist and her works have explored the opera, challenging the classical structure with contemporary human rights issues. Opera is known for being a cross-art form that has everything from music to movement, yet it is also a form that needs to broaden up with more experimentation. I feel, the libretto, the narratives of opera, have been very passive and subjugate women in a way that reinforce a certain cultural conditioning. I am interested in changing those narratives and presenting them on the stage so that the voices of women have agency.
Sharing their collective journey of collaborating, the artists mention that the dramatic stitch takes off from an ancient Greek drama by Aeschylus, The Suppliant Women about fifty women escaping forced marriage. While discussing this play, they came across the two prime thematic strands for Daughters Opera. The play is about violence and migration. We havent got back to that play, but it stitched the two narratives together that are the foundation for our production, says Kapur.
She describes the directorial vision as, A process that was a layering of several imaginations the libretto, choreography, scenography. The performers spent a month working with Victoria Hunt, the choreographer. She has a very specific language and systems, points out Brennan. The way the actors move defines the relationship between the music, space and bodies. The postures, movements, gestures glue together disconnected images. Depictions from everyday life flow into unanticipated interruptions. Accompanying the varied settings, these moments range from delight as a labourer woman breaks into a dance to the libretto rhythm, to horror at a sudden guttural scream, or quiet discomfort as the actors perform a slow crawl across the stage. The work is not structured to be emotionally immersive. It is intellectually engaging and evocative.
The performance reveals the process of a work in progress and evades being a finished product. Kapur clarifies, It is more about bringing the process inside out, it is a proposition. After much discussion, the team decided not to have a curtain call at the end of the play to mark this position. If you have a curtain call it means you have produced something as a product, but maybe you havent. Similarly, there was much debate about where to stage the play, finally choosing an experimental studio space (Black Box Okhla) over a grand theatre. We did not want to be in a formal auditorium that produces a certain kind of visual that is too comfortable and difficult to break. Different spaces make different relationships.
Both Kapur and Brennan, as theatre makers and critical thinkers, have strong political voices. This work is positioned pointedly within their individual oeuvres. Daughters Opera for me sits within an ongoing series of works, that respond to how women experience gender violence and trauma, remarks Brennan. For Kapur, the production takes forward her quest, my point of concern is to find the language to talk about everyday and extreme violence, to explore propositions of articulation through theatre.
Emphasising that Daughters Opera is an ongoing project, the artists agree that the dialogue must expand. Positioned as a live action work, it would tour, bringing in new voices and contexts, going ahead with a core ensemble and including womens voices and narratives from the people and places that it travels to.