Suba Das is working on a theatre piece inspired by the Gulabi Gang and the novel, Pink Sari Revolution. He tells Eleanor Turney about a life-changing trip to India.
A life-changing trip
My trip to India was life-changing. The first chunk of it was going out to Bundelkhand, which is where the Pink Sari Gang are based, between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Our trip there was to meet with the [Pink Sari] gang and the key characters from the novel. We were looked after so well – it could have been really dangerous but instead it was just the most joyful experience.
We drove past Sampat Pal Devi’s house and just sort of dropped in – I don’t think I was quite emotionally prepared for that. She’s such an extraordinary woman. She’s done so much good in the world. But she has her demons – she had her first sexual experience before she was sexually mature, and it left her bleeding for two weeks afterwards and unable to experience any sexual gratification since. So she’s such a force for good, but it comes from a place of darkness. The meeting with Sampat was electrifying. She is funny, charismatic, amazing.
She very casually introduced us to one of her district commanders – that’s how the gang works, there are different leaders in the various villages. So we met a new district commander, a young woman who’s a Muslim. For that to happen in a country that has so many challenges around its own multiculturalism, where four months ago a Muslim man was lynched in a village because he was suspected of slaughtering a cow… to see Sampat’s casual disregard for any of those divisions, takes you to the heart of who she is as a person. What she cares about is equality and justice. That was really powerfully present.
"The meeting with Sampat was electrifying. She is funny, charismatic, amazing."
When we explained what we wanted to achieve with this show, she gave us her blessing. We spoke about the idea of this show having a real physicality to it, and exploring contemporary kathak dance, working with Aakash Odedra. She just got it, immediately. It just feels like such permission, which is very important.
We also met some of the other key characters from the novel, which will really help with the storytelling of the show. The other really significant thing was meeting the men – there’s a support network of men who are male feminists, and who are very happy to call themselves feminists. I went in with the very westernised assumptions that men in rural India are kind of all going to be misogynists, and one of my questions to these men was, basically, how come you’re different to that? And their response was just, what do you mean? They didn’t understand the question because to them, what they do is just part of being a human being. It’s just like walking.
That was important for me to understand – there is such ordinariness to their heroism. And that was more profound than anything. It was one of those things that you come back from and ask yourself, what the hell am I doing? At Curve, we make extraordinary work, year-round, but this is one of the first truly political pieces of work that we’ve engaged with. You go, OK, that’s what this is about.
The next step of the trip was in Delhi, working on the show with the luminous Aditi Mangaldas. There’s a saying that Aditi is to kathak what Darcey Bussell is to ballet, and she is just incredible. We were in her rehearsal studio for a few days, and she talked to us at length about how we might think about this as part of a dramatic piece. She said something brilliant: the essence of kathak is very much like lightning – it manifests and then it dissipates. Obviously, that’s so close to the nature of the gang, who are like a flash mob.
"...there is such ordinariness to their heroism. And that was more profound than anything."
For the final chunk of the trip we went down to Mumbai, where we were hosted by Atul Kumar at the Company Theatre, who introduced us to around 50 actors and dancers. The energy in the room, the commitment to the show, was just amazing. I’ve done a lot of auditioning in my time, around emotive subject matter, and I’ve never cried in a workshop or audition before. What some of these women were able to devise and explore was just… amazing.
We don’t have an adaptation of the novel yet. We used a monologue from Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, because what Churchill does so fantastically is fuse the personal and political into one. We asked these actors to explore it. There was one actor, who we’re now going to bring over to work with us on the R&D, and she improvised on the piece and turned it into a song. It sounds like the most ghastly, GCSE-drama thing, but the pure energy… She let it take her into song, devised on the spot. It was gruelling, but amazing.
The arts anywhere tend to be for the higher class people than the women of this story. So to make something that inhabits these characters rather than caricaturing them or commenting on them, was a big challenge. We have a coterie of ten artists we’d like to bring over, to do a two-week workshop process at Curve at the end of February. I’ve reconnected with Purva Naresh, who wrote OK Tata Bye Bye, and we’re going to bring her over to be the writer in the room when we’re working with these artists. That continues an artistic partnership that the British Council can really take credit for.
"The arts anywhere tend to be for the higher class people than the women of this story."
I grew up on a council estate, and growing up on a council estate and being non-white in the UK arts scene, unless you’ve got a certain amount of chutzpah or a need to tell stories, it’s not the industry for you. Politic has always meant a lot to me, and to return from a community where the line between art and politic is paper-thin, is refreshing. It refreshes my belief in the need to seek out extraordinary, urgent stories.