For Du Saraswathi, writer, theatre person and Dalit activist, the community and the self are twin constituencies. Her theatre and poetry reveal the making of an individual through historical, political and cultural forces.
Closely associated with both the Women’s Movement and the Dalit Movement in Karnataka for more than five decades, Du Saraswathi is one of the significant voices in caste and gender justice, and has always highlighted how the two are intertwined.
Her recent Naavu Itihasa Kattidevu, a Kannada translation of Aamhihi Itihaas Ghadavlaa (We Also Made History, Zubaan) by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon, captures the participation of women in the Dalit Movement led by Ambedkar, as well as other significant struggles of Dalits in the early 20th century. “This is in continuation of my ongoing attempt to talk about caste with women’s groups and about gender with anti-caste groups,” says Du Saraswathi.
She was one of the core members and editors of Manasa, one of the early Kannada feminist magazines to voice concerns about the Women’s Movement in the 1980s. Manasa shaped many young sensibilities on feminism and gender justice.
But what Saraswathi is well known for is her plays. The Sannthimmi plays, written and performed by her, are one-act plays that she has staged all over Karnataka. She has recently taken them to many parts in and outside the country. Sannthimmi is the lead character, an unlettered rural woman who holds a conversation with the audience on a host of issues ranging from macroeconomics, gender, sexuality and a feminist take on the Ramayana. Speaking in a specific Kannada dialect, Sannthimmi represents the rural women of Karnataka and the wisdom, wit and humour that they inherently possess. Saraswathi says, “There is nothing Sannthimmi cannot talk about. From her location, she can lend perspective on economics, science, culture and society. She speaks in a local dialect, demonstrating to us that knowledge isn’t owned by a select few in society. The act also demonstrates the importance of lived experiences of women.”
In the Sannthimmi plays, Sita never dies. She often confronts Hindu fundamentalists about communalism in her village. She evaluates globalisation from the impact it has on her community.
Sannthimmi Purana, a collection of six plays, was published in 2018.
Saraswathi is also known for Rekke Kattuvira?, a play by B. Suresha, which portrays the loss and grief of a family impacted by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during the Second World War. Enacted by Du Saraswathi and Chitra, the play has, so far, seen more than 80 shows all over Karnataka.
Apart from plays, her other significant works are Henedare Jedananthe and Jeeva Sampige, collections of poems; Bachcheesu, an anthology of stories; Neera Daari, collected essays; Eegen Maadeeri, an autobiographical narrative; and Baduku Bayalu, a Kannada translation of A. Revathi’s The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life story.
I had the privilege to be in conversation with Du Saraswathi on her learning journey — from activism to theatre to writing — while educating herself and others on social justice, and how each nourished and informed the other. Specifically, we conversed about the centrality of body, language, the self and their interconnectedness in her work.
One can see that your involvement in activism, writing, and theatre — all vitalised one another. While writing is essentially something you do alone, and theatre and activism are done collectively, what has activism and creativity meant to you? As a theatre person, writer and activist, how has the body been a site of education for you?
DS: There are three aspects to this as far as I am concerned. In the ’70s and ’80s in India, the Women’s Movement had risen and it spoke of the politics of the body. Because someone has a woman’s body, they become the target of discrimination and violence. My first lesson on autonomy was to understand my own body. How did that happen? By looking at my own body first. So, whatever was termed as inferior or polluting in my body — for example, menstruation — I had to look at it closely. This was about understanding how a uterus, which is just the size of a fist, bear a child which is three kilograms? How does the vagina look?
I was honestly not aware of my own body. I felt a bit reluctant to look at it physically. Many doctors who were part of the Women’s Movement at that time — especially I remember Dr. Shama Narang — helped us with this. How does the vagina change its colour during menstruation? How does the temperature of the vagina change? How are other glands connected to the vagina and uterus … I learned all of this during this time. I learned that I should respect my own body; what happens in my body is not inferior, shameful and impure. This was important to me.
In 1984, I got a great opportunity. I met Badal Sircar who is known as the First Man of the Third Theatre. There was this theatre workshop I attended. Whatever I understood theoretically, Badal Sircar showed us how to use it practically in theatre. I was able to explore the great wonder this body is. He used very few theatrical props for his plays and he said that your body is the best prop. He always said we should use our body to the greatest extent possible, and any other things we use would only aid the main prop — the body.
I, to this day, think of that weeklong workshop. Not just for me, but for many of my friends also, it gave a sudden turn to our understanding of theatre. I could so beautifully connect it to the politics of the body that feminism spoke about. He told us that whether you are dark-skinned, thin, fat, deaf or blind, just express your body. We were so embarrassed with our bodies! What if the audience saw my breast if I lift my hand? What if I do not look good when I dance? We just laughed loudly; we just moved our limbs with no inhibition whatsoever. We were asked to enact a play with no dialogues. My turn arrived and I was asked to create a play without words. This was an important experience.
The third and most important one is Buddhism and what it has taught me. It’s been more than 20 years since I have been studying Buddhism and trying to follow it. In the ’90s, I completed my B. Ed. course and selected Buddhism as the topic for my resource unit and studied it closely. I slowly moved to Vipassana meditation. I had just learnt some Buddhist teachings and I actually tried to inculcate them in my daily life. Buddha never denied the body. The ultimate destination that you work for, whatever it is, the body is the vehicle that helps you reach [it].
Both are intertwined and they pulse together and cannot exist separately. The world is in your fist; fist is in the world. This gave a spiritual angle to my understanding of the body.
The Women’s Movement helped me to understand or identify my body; the theatre gave me a visceral understanding of it, and Buddhism gave me a spiritual understanding of it by teaching me that my body has the expanse of the universe itself.
I read a lot of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh’s teachings. He talks about Buddhism from a working people’s perspective. He gives us the life and teachings of Buddhism in his book, Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha. I was reading it recently and trying to translate it. When Buddha got enlightened, he understood that the universe was in him, and he was in it. Nothing has an exclusive existence. Everything is interrelated and interdependent. He rejects the concept of the Atma and says that interdependency and continuous change are the ultimate truth. The body itself teaches us this. The Saraswathi you are talking and listening to is not the same next minute. Millions of cells die and new ones are born and you are not the same person.
These three aspects — to use the body as an articulation of art, as a medium of expression, and also a way to realise yourself and the universe — for me that is what spirituality is all about. When I say I respect my body, it is not that I put it on a pedestal. The body is such a wonderful thing and nature is such a wonder! Because of my own ignorance, I do not know how I am so deeply connected to it. We, in fact, reject this connectedness though the body is always with us. This is the premise I work from.
When you perform Sannthimmi plays, or when you write for that matter, how do you connect everything you just said? The body is where it all happens — your work, creativity, and identity. Tell me about your process of creating.
Writing is never something I can do sitting in a corner. It’s directly connected to my experiences. Whatever I experience in this body — it could be personal work, my cooking, cleaning, and my day-to-day work — or on the other hand, the movements I have been part of, the body is at the centre of everything.
The Women’s Movement talks about the invisibilisation of women’s labour and how society has trivialised and devalued it. No matter how others look at it, it is my labour and therefore valuable, and thus I ask for what it deserves. On similar lines, be it the municipality workers whom I have worked with or garment factory workers or the Workers’ Movement as a whole, I have also been associated with the LGBT communities. Here, too, their labour has been devalued. The city’s health is protected by the pourakarmikas (municipality workers). We want them but do not value their effort. So, we stigmatise them and devalue their labour. This gets reflected in the low wages they receive and the pathetic working conditions. More important is the dignity of being a human being — that’s the core. I have been a witness to their lives and struggles; despite being treated as if they are nothing, the zeal for life they have within, the lack of bitterness, lack of hatred towards the world — this is the rich corpus of experiences I have been a witness to. This is what informs my work.
But if I am out there in the movement all the time, only protesting and rallying, I feel dry within. On the other hand, if I am just sitting and reading or writing literature, what will I write about? How much can you write sitting comfortably in your chair? Both enrich each other for me. If I am no longer associated with movements, I may stop writing. It gives me validity, a vision for my writing. My writing is also a way out of all the anxieties and struggles within. Many things are seething within.
The seething within gets churned and processed. Whatever arises within, I never spit it out immediately. I wait. It’s like making a good lime pickle. How bitter is the outer covering of a lemon! How this marinates in salt and chillies, and as the salt and spice enter every cell of the lemon, we relish the peel at the end! The inner process or the inner work is just like the shit that becomes manure, leading to beautiful flower blossoms. That is what writing is for me. It is my companion.
In this process, your body takes a lot, doesn’t it?
Oh yes, a lot. My body and mind, both, a lot! As I write about my inner struggles, I literally cry as I write. I feel each nerve in my body as I finish writing. When the poems just come to me, the lightness is felt in my veins, too.
Isn’t this a two-way process — the body is the host and the medium?
Yes, where else is the existence of the mind and the feelings? How else can I reach out? At least, writing happens in privacy. But in theatre, your body is out there; you connect to others through your body. When I am performing, I derive my energy from the audience. When someone is watching me intensely, I tell myself, “Be careful, someone is watching you intensely. You should be committed to what you are doing in your performance.” My body takes the energy from theirs, and my intensity is received by them. This is why I feel what Buddha says is so right. There is really nothing that has an exclusive existence. Nothing at all! Everything is interconnected and interdependent. God is not some entity out there. There is no existence to me without you, you cannot exist without someone else, the interconnection is not visible to me, but it’s there.
When you put out your experiences, how have they challenged the dominant notions of society? Share the responses have you received.
I want to question the dominant notions, no doubt. But more importantly, I want an interaction, a dialogue with the dominant notions. I can’t exist separately: I am part of it. I need to challenge it, sometimes question it, and sometimes I need to dialogue with it. It’s always foregrounded in my work. I have also written in great wrath about the morbid. To one of the lines of my poem, “Life drifts forward in bones and flesh and there is a vulture awaiting right next to me,” someone responded, “Oh, that’s so morbid!”
Writing is done alone, in a personal space, but it reaches the public. It’s a very responsible act. You cannot throw around whatever comes to your mind carelessly. Many things come out of my mind, the rotten, the stinky and everything! I cannot just put it out without a sense of responsibility. It is this sense of responsibility that I bear that converts raw thoughts and processes into a healthy dialogue. That shows if I am just interested in attacking you or actually having a proper dialogue with you.
I wrote about my menstruation experiences in Eegen Maadeeri? (What Will You Do Now?). The fear I felt when I saw the blood coming out of me, and that — this process of blood coming out of me — would it make someone target me? Or the discovery that this body is a place of excitement and sensations but it can also be a target of violence unleashed by someone else on me … so many women have related to it. They told me that they could closely identify with what I had written. My friend who does workshops on gender, in fact, uses that part of the book to talk about the body with women.
One of my poems was prescribed in a textbook for schools. Odala Sankatakke Gadiyee Illa was written in the context of the Kargil war. “Those who died beyond the border became martyrs, but those with struggles of the body have no borders or no in and out.” I wrote this for a pamphlet, which was selected for the textbook. My play Rekke Kattuvira? (Will You Tie Wings to Me?), based on the [dropping] of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, is the story of a mother who loses her daughter; the son is a soldier and she is unable to trace him. When he finally returns from war, she rejects him as he has killed many people in the war. Later in the story, he dies. In the end, she is at an old age home all alone. When I performed this play in a school the children asked me, “Aren’t you a patriotic person? What is wrong with protecting your motherland?” I told them I worship my motherland and for me intense love is worship. I do love my country and its people. But to love my country, should I hate some other country? I am a woman. My children should flourish well, be healthy enough to work and make a living, and not lose their limbs or die. If someone uses bombs in the name of the country and the children born to me are disabled, whom should I blame, tell me? The children did listen seriously. This play also got a good response.
Recently, there was this discussion about the issue of reservation for the post of priests in temples. There was a lot of talk about how only some are eligible to become priests … that shlokas have to be pronounced in a particular way and that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea … that there has to be a certain quality. I wrote an article in Prajavani about how I do not need a middleman/mediator to reach my God. Some elderly man from somewhere called me after reading it and he said how it really changed his views. People who did not believe in God also liked it. I used to love doing God’s pooja, but now I do not feel the need for it. But there should be space for both to coexist; everyone has their way to empathise with this world. That space is important.
Another instance was that of a girl who was raped in a temple in Kashmir. It disturbed me immensely. I just felt so helpless and frustrated that I felt one should simply shoot these guys down as there is no hope for any change. But I could hear the voice within, the wisdom of my mother, Gandhi and Buddha. Many newspaper reporters and TV reporters asked me to give a statement. I just didn’t talk to anyone. It kept burning inside me. One fine day, the Pakshi Purana poem came out, and I wrote an article, Elle hoodhavu edheya goodina hakkigalu (Where did the birds of my heart go?). In the world of birds, the male birds are very beautiful. They are creative and artistic. They do so many things to attract females. Some of them can make nice noises, and some build beautiful nests. I took the example of these birds in the context of violence and masculinity. Men have forgotten that such birds live in their hearts, and have lost them. In fact, when I am in some meeting or with my friends, many have requested me to tell the story of the birds I have written. I simply adorn a dupatta and enact those lines for them. Many men have cried listening to it and held my hands and thanked me for it. “How well you have slapped me with such nice words,” they say.
They can revoke that, recognise that, and if they do so we all can live peacefully. The real challenge is to make the wrongdoers really look within. Will the guy who kills or rapes admit that he is stupid or ignorant? I should have such deep faith in love and have enough love in me, not just anger, to dialogue about these things. When Jesus was being nailed [to the cross] he said, “Forgive them as they do not know what they are doing.” That is the compassion he had in him. He was the epitome of compassion. So was Buddha.
We have to model our anger; it is energy. We have to channel it. Pair compassion with anger. This element should be present, not just in my writing and plays, but also in my day-to-day life. What is the use of writing about anything that is not a part of my everyday life?
What have been the big moments of learning when you look back? What would you like to reflect upon when you look at your journey?
Some learning gives you power and qualifications, but other learnings teach you how to understand something.
In fact, it makes you realise that you are a small speck in the larger order of things and you are connected with everything around you. It humbles you and ripens you. That’s the learning I have received from my experiences so far. You learn from experiences of your personal life too. You observe and absorb different things from different people. I cannot claim that this learning is mine. Learning in a collective process is like that. It’s fully interlinked with others. How can I claim anything as my own? That’s the uniqueness of this kind of journey. Someone’s energy or suffering triggers something in me. Or my input in a workshop helps someone to act on the stage with fewer inhibitions, and that in turn energises me. So there is a lot of give and take. Nothing is mine exclusively. Something is cyclical, that’s what I have learned. Nothing is small or big as far as I am concerned.
A lot of things are changing today. Everything is digitalised these days. Do you think it’s a threat to the kind of experience of learning you are talking about? Especially an embodied experience of things is so crucial. Are we losing that?
The middle path of Buddha is so relevant. We should be able to use digitalisation as complementary to what we do. For example, in the recent protests of the pourakarmikas, we had to go there in front of the government department and protest. Not everything can be done online.
But with all my reservations, I accept the value it brings. There are many ways to use digital technology. In our recent play, Love Purana, Deepak, my associate in the play, projects video clippings on the screen while I perform. In the play, I talk about physical love. The images he projects during the play look unconnected outwardly. But if you see closely, it talks about something that has no permanent shape — a universe that is constantly dismantling and forming. On the one hand, the Sannthimmi play is happening in a dialect, and on the other, intermingled images. When we used this at Patna recently, we got excellent response. We did not use digital images alone. Nor was it just me talking. It was a mix of both. I also got influenced by the images and used my body to match them. Digitalisation is fine when we are mindful, and working together helps.
Many people have told me to post the Sannthimmi plays on YouTube. I have been resisting it and for all you know I might do it one day. Let’s say I act one of my Sannthimmi plays properly, they record it, and we do it perfectly and we post it. Everyone will see it. What they will see is only one Sannthimmi. But, when I act Sannthimmi, it’s different at Patna from the one performed in a village. I can never emote the same way everywhere. I had to translate the Kannada dialect to a Hindi dialect when I played Sannthimmi in Patna. It was received with so much love! If you ask me to perform it now, I won’t have the same energy that I had in Patna.
I feel I am doing nothing new really. There is art on every street — people sing, paint, and draw. There is so much culture all around us. Daroji Eramma used to sing for six days straight a poem of 6,000 lines with no mistakes whatsoever. She couldn’t read or write. If there is one virus in your computer everything is a copout! But no virus could attack her like that. This is there in our soil, I am doing nothing new.
What has changed for you in these decades of working in theatre and writing?
I have evolved as a person. Buddha says if you really want to love, there has to be a real understanding. Without understanding, there cannot be any love. I should really thank the women with whom I have worked for that: sex workers, garment factory workers and the pourakarmikas. The wisdom of the working people has really changed me. It has given me fulfilment. I feel I can die peacefully as I have spent time with them.