The true story of a radical feminist group in India comes to the West Yorkshire Playhouse next week. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.
There are some people who are so famous that they only need a single name. Elvis. Madonna. Kylie. Sampat.
Okay, you might not have heard that last name, but trust me, if you were reading this in India, you’d know exactly who I mean. In fact, such is Sampat’s widening fame, you might just have heard of her here in Yorkshire. Sampat Pal, to give her her full moniker, is the leader of the Gulabi Gang, a somewhat notorious working class feminist movement in India. Her story, which is not without its controversies, comes to the stage of the West Yorkshire Playhouse next week. Told by highly regarded director Suba Das, Pink Sari Revolution is a stage version of the book of the same name by author and journalist Amana Fontanella-Khan.
“I’d not heard of the gang before I read the book,” says Das, who has directed at the Royal Opera House and is a Cambridge English graduate. “I was taken by the story immediately. I’m a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sampat made me think of that kind of strong female character.”
Das, whose father came to England from India in the 1970s, was determined to tell this story on stage. Fortunately, his discovering of The Gulabi Gang coincided with a stream of funding from the Arts Council called Reimagine India, a cultural exchange programme designed to develop creative partnerships between cultural organisations in England and India.
Having secured the funding, he travelled to India to meet Sampat Pal and learn about her life and her life’s work. “She is like a pop star in India and she is very aware of the power she has,” says Das. “She is totally comfortable with the fact that she is something of a symbol and she understands how important she is to this movement as its figurehead. She is also, in truth, quite a difficult woman, really quite ruthless in lots of ways. It was one of the things I found most attractive about putting her story on stage. The fact is, in Western theatre, the portrayal of characters, and particularly female characters, from Asian backgrounds, is almost like caricature. Here is a flawed hero who embodies all the things a flawed hero has. King Lear and Willy Loman are never going to win father of the year, but they are the heroes of their stories. In that same way, Sampat is deeply flawed, but she is the hero of the story.” So, what are those controversies that make Sampat such a flawed character? Born in Utter Pradesh, one of India’s poorest regions where the caste system still has a stranglehold on daily life, The Gulabi Gang consists of 400,000 women who are a self-described vigilante group. Women flee to them from domestic violence and forced marriages and the gang, trained in the use of a lathi, a traditional stick, issue beatings to the perpetrators. They have in the past thrashed a policeman who arrested a lower caste poor woman and have inflicted serious injuries on rapists and domestic abusers.
Gulabi means pink and describes the easy to spot uniform of the gang. “When they put on these pink saris, they are part of a symbolic movement across India,” says Das. “They become part of this group of kick-ass women, they are connected to this sisterhood.”
At West Yorkshire Playhouse, November 7-11.