nonsecular subject in progress | ummahtographer | new words | decolonial hopenings
Review of Colours of Hope, another part of the Season of Bangla Drama
Last Friday was my second opportunity to taste some of Tower Hamlets Art's Season of Bangla Theatre. Behind Colours of Hope was an outfit called The Rokeyya Project, which I remember hearing from several years ago at a Brick Lane Circle conference.
The description of the play drew me for two reasons, I saw a documentary of Sylvia Pankhurst called Everything is Possible recently and love the struggle of Begum Rokeyya Sakhawat Hussain, the Bengali Muslim writer and educationalist of a hundred yesteryears, author of the inimitable Sultana's Dream, a mind-altering work of short ladycentric su-fi .
What the play does is run two parallel female struggles together. We hear of the story of Asha in British occupied Kolkata struggling to attend Begum Rokeyya's school, and a young domestic worker in pre war England making contact with a suffragette moved by Emily Pankhurst.
Asha's scenario it marked by resistance to a husband-centred life trajectory at odds with a formal education beyond reading and writing her name. Bored with endless marriage talk form her elder sister alterity comes in the shape of a newspaper advert for students for a new school for Muslim girls in her city. The Sakhawat Memorial High School for girls was established in Kolkata by Begum Rokeyya with funds left by her deceased husband who supported her own foray into education. Much of Rokeyya's life from this point is marked by institutional struggle, and the educated women of South Asia who know thier chops generally tend to revere her. There is even a class of Bengali Muslim lady that builds cultural capital through their connections to her, her school and her family. That us Londoni's are just beginning to wake up and smell the appropriated coffee while we dance around in our NGOs is a crying shame.
Lady gender justice intervenes in Freya's world as she hears of the death of Emily Davidson under the King George V's horse during the 1913 Epsom Derby. "Votes for women" before being trampled underfoot, much to the annoyance of the powered classes. Yet the tribute was enormous with six thousand women followed the coffin of this great Shadeeda-e-Millat.
Asha's scenario chafes badly today. Her education is seen as instrumental to a marriage trajectory, women who do not fit such a model are made to feel less of a commodity and aged out of a marriage market. As a last resort she hopes for an understanding husband as her family exploit the temporary closure of her school on grounds of 'safety'. Sound familiar?
The Asha storyline sometimes borders on unbelievable, even considering that the past is a different country. We are narrated a bone shaking account of a respectable Indian Muslim lady tripping up onto a railway track and being run over by a train. The headjar is that when men went to pull her up but it is said that her maid refused aid saying that 'she must remain pure'. It sounds a bit daily maily for me but I would like to chase it up.
There is a wonderful piece of dialogue lifted from Sultana's Dream that makes it into the script in the form of a classroom scene about the flipped gender positions in Rokeyya's Ladyland.
'It is not likely that they would surrender their free and open air life of their own accord and confine themselves within the four walls of the zenana! They must have been overpowered.'
'Yes, they have been!'
'By whom? By some lady-warriors, I suppose?'
'No, not by arms.'
'Yes, it cannot be so. Men's arms are stronger than women's. Then?'
'Even their brains are bigger and heavier than women's. Are they not?'
'Yes, but what of that? An elephant also has got a bigger and heavier brain than a man has. Yet man can enchain elephants and employ them, according to their own wishes.'
'Well said, but tell me please, how it all actually happened. I am dying to know it!'
'Women's brains are somewhat quicker than men's. Ten years ago, when the military officers called our scientific discoveries "a sentimental nightmare," some of the young ladies wanted to say something in reply to those remarks. But both the Lady Principals restrained them and said, they should reply not by word, but by deed, if ever they got the opportunity. And they had not long to wait for that opportunity.'
'How marvelous!' I heartily clapped my hands. 'And now the proud gentlemen are dreaming sentimental dreams themselves.'
Another treat was Dillemmas of our Daughter's Dance Off where broom was pitted against book and khathak ranged against capoiera. Must have been fun to make up.
Every group is on a journey through the materials and makes decisions about where the audience is likely to be with the issues handles. A few things jarred with me as the play tried to draw itself to a close and connect to the oppressive present, and I am challenged here to express why.
Our actresses narrate the events of our character's lives, giving us a picture of the the worldviews being voiced here. As we follow Emily Pankhurst, not the more interesting anti-war, anti-imperialist and socialist Sylvia, we learn that it was through their Loyal Service To The Nation in the waste of life that was the First War of European Folly, that women earned the right to vote and then the equal right to vote.
Asha's story closes off with an all too brief life sketch of Rokeyya, her Battle to keep the school going, establishment of an Islamic Women's Association and an underpinning of Quranic teachings. I say too brief unfairly because I am so thirsty to learn more about her. This was a valuable way to present such an Epistemic reference point, to a community so often run down and accused of passiveness in the face of patriarchy. (sorry)
The howler for me was in the subsequent heroines of the present day roll call and the presence of Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) in that list. I asked the crew whether the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar might see her in the same way and I'm quite sure that they didn't even know who the Rohingya were. Our actress picked an interesting ASSK quote that I guess must have caught up with her as she does her best to avoid addressing the most racist and inhumane face of Myanmarese society that cries out for states(wo)manship today.
“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
On a positive note, and there were many, the expansive musical score worked well and we were treated to a QnA featuring Shaheen Westcomb, one of the first female architects of Bangladesh, whose mother was a direct student of Rokeyya. It was at this point that i was made aware that I had missed all of the shadow puppetry going on on the left of the stage. I liked the play, it got the juices flowing and annoyed me. It drew a diverse crowd. Last week's Bonbibi made me more breathless, but the source material of Colours of Hope marked this evening's proceedings out. It was an insightful interweaving of two legendary struggles for gender justice that left us itching to know more.
To conclude, Sultana's Dream (1905) is a must read. You can read it on the way to work on your smartphone You can read it to your child before bedtime You can read it to your father after dinner You can read it to your primary school class You can read it in your degree. You can read it over the phone to your dearest.