Arangile Matsyagandhikal’, a compilation of plays written by Sajitha Madathil, one of the few woman playwrights in Malayalam theatre, is a captivating peek into the characters created by the veteran actor and director
Matsyagandhi, in the Mahabharatha, is the woman who exuded a fishy smell. For many, it was a foul smell but that was her fragrance, part of her self, her essence. And that was the only aspect of her that a great sage could not agree with. So, with a simple flourish of his hand, he got rid of that and replaced it with a fragrance he loved – a divine, musky fragrance. Perhaps she knew that with that was gone a part of her too. May be, she knew of the destiny that awaited her new self.
In Arangile Matsyagandhikal (Matsyagandhis of the Stage), a collection of plays she published recently, Sajitha Madathil, a well-known theatre and film personality, portrays the many Matsyagandhis of the present world, the women who are forced to carry the stench that has become a part of them, and the women who are forced to erase a part or even parts of their selves. They are the women on the margins; women pushed to the margins; women who are raw, who still smell of fish, mud, earth and blood.
The first collection of plays penned by Sajitha Madathil, Arangile Matsyagandhikal contains four powerful scripts – Matsyagandhikal, Chakkee – Chankaran: A Family Reality Show, Mother’s Day and Kaali Natakam.
Matsyagandhikal, the first play of the collection, was also the first play written by Sajitha in 2002. The play had materialised as part of ‘Theatre for Africa,’ an international collaborative theatre project in connection with the Earth Summit 2002 held in South Africa, focussing on sustainable development of fishing communities. Sajitha was one of the six actors from six continents who were invited to be a part of the project. “I had absolutely no experience in writing a play at that time and had tried hard to get someone to write it for me, but nothing worked out,” she recalls.
Finally, she decided to take up the pen herself. Sajitha had earlier done some extensive documentation on the lives of the fisherwomen for a programme for Kairali TV where she was working at that time. That came in handy. Sajitha had directed and performed the solo, one-act play by herself. Matsyagandhikal was first performed in coastal villages before she travelled to South Africa where the play was received enthusiastically.
Chakkee–Chankaran was written almost five years later, in 2007. “I had quit my job with Kairali TV and moved to Delhi,” Sajitha remembers. And surely this is a play inspired by her days in the electronic media. Set as the shooting of a family reality show for a television channel, Chakkee–Chankaran explores fresh, territory regarding the lives of women as well as the man-woman relationship.
Mother’s Day, originally written for Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishath in 2010, is also set in the same background, as the shooting of a Mother’s Day special programme for a TV channel, the central character being Shyamalamma, a veteran actor known for her ideal ‘mother’ roles. Both these plays have not yet been staged so far.
Kaali Natakam, her latest play, was written specifically for a theatre production. “Chandradasan (of Lokadharmi, Ernakulam) made me write it for a stage production,” says Sajitha. “It was a great experience, writing for a specific production, with a group and team who were ready to stage it.” She had also performed the lead character of Kaali. The play talks of the bizarre situation that arises when a Dalit woman, chosen to perform the role of Goddess Kaali in the ritual performance of Mudiyattam, murders Rama Kurup, who performed as Darika.
Being the performer and playmaker that she is, Sajitha’s scripts are accompanied by detailed stage instructions. They are, in fact, like production scripts.
And she draws many an unconventional portrayal of women in her characters. For example, the daughter in the mother-daughter duo in Chakkee-Chankaran chides the mother for not giving her a conventional upbringing that would have helped her lead a ‘normal’ family life. But the mother scoffs at her daughter’s complaints and makes it clear that she has a life of her own.
Aged women, often considered senior citizens, make their appearances in both Chakkee–Chankaran and Mother’s Day, voicing their need for having their own lives. “We hardly think about issues and emotional crises faced by women of that age group, especially those who are forced to stay at home after retirement, leaving behind an active social life just because they are aged or taken retirement from their professional lives,” she says. Indeed, much of the inspiration comes from the life of Sajitha’s mother, a social and political activist, who passed away last year.
Arangile Matsyagandhikal is the second volume of plays in Malayalam written by a woman, the other being a collection of plays by Sreeja Arangottukara. Although Kerala boasts about its status of women in society, the history of theatre in Kerala shows an appalling dearth of women playwrights, even though Kutti Kunju Thankachi, considered the first woman playwright of Malayalam, had written her play, Anjatha Vasam, in the late 19th century.
The latter history of theatre in Kerala shows that women in theatre were usually kept behind the curtain. Sajitha had tried to trace the history of women’s presence in Malayalam theatre through her book Malayala Nataka Sthree Charithram.
There are only a few women playwrights such as Thottakkattu Ikkavamma, another 19th century woman writer, or in later times, B Saraswathi Amma, Lalithambika Antharjjanam and Kamala Surayya.
The trend has continued in the present day and but for a few women such as Sreeja Arangottukara and E Rajarajeswari, there aren’t many women playwrights in Malayalam. This dearth makes Arangile Matsyagandhikal a significant tome of our times.