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Poile Sengupta and the Theatre of Protest

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3232 words Published: 28th Sep 2017

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Drama is a reflection of life as we know it. Hence it becomes a very effective tool to gauge the changes in social perspectives. In India, the later decades of the twentieth century have seen comparatively more women producing some very intense work. Most plays written by women during these decades are honest, reflexive, often violent and at times extremely disturbing. They try to seek an answer to the question of power imbalance that is prevalent in our society. In this paper I have tried to analyse current trends in Contemporary Indian Drama in English especially with regard to Women’s Drama i.e. plays written by women playwrights, about women and their experiences. I’ve chosen Poile Sengupta as a representative playwright and analysed her plays for my study.


Protest, Society, Theatre, Women.

Poile Sengupta and the Theatre of Protest.

A few years back, I was watching a movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding wherein a mother advises a grown up daughter saying,

“….You must always remember, a Man is the head of the family and the woman is the neck. It is the neck that turns the head in the direction it wants to see, whatever it wants seen..”

It was at this precise moment that this journey of mine began. A journey to find out the truth behind the words as well as to see if they held true in our world /culture as it is so similar to that of the Greeks.


I chose to study Drama as it is the closest art form to life as we know it. And I chose contemporary women playwrights for study so as to be able to gauge the relevance of the words in a world that I am a part of.

The objective of this paper is to analyse a new trend in theatre – the Theatre of Protest and showcase its relevance in the plays of Poile Sengupta, one of the foremost contemporary Indian playwrights.

Traditionally women have never had, nor were allowed a voice of their own.

“Because a woman has patience, She is not allowed to speak; And she never learns the words.” Narrator in Mangalam

Women, as per social construct and social device, were considered inferiors and had to play domestic roles in the family and familial role in the society.

Cultural restrictions, traditional barriers, religious norms, poverty, illiteracy, subjugation and suppression have been the blocks on the way for women to pen down and articulate their points of views

History is proof that male writers have often written about women. In many of their works, the central character is a woman. However, in these works, the women characters are almost always seen primarily in relation to men, and they are usually of interest largely in terms of their romantic and sexual relationships. Women writers, likewise, often deal with the topics of Love, sexuality and marriage, but they deal with other aspects of a woman’s life as well. The women playwrights in India have focused on their appearance on stage and breaking all the myths and barriers they have boldly taken steps to represent themselves. They do not have to be dependent on the male playwrights to be represented and act according to their choice anymore.

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Women have found drama as a means of expression of their innermost feelings, and exposition of personality. They have been able to reach common people through staging and characterizing themselves in the plays from their own point of view. These women writers consciously or unconsciously establish themselves through a cultural identity and the outcome of their literary art is to journey towards self identity. They long and focus for an ultimate change in the society.

Theatre of Protest

The new trend that leads Indian English drama is undoubtedly plays of women, by women for everyone. Women’s theatre has emerged as a distinct dramatic force which stages the various issues of contemporary Indian society.

Women dramatists have courageously written serious and social plays portraying day to day life of women in the family, profession, community, and the society at large.It is in these texts that one feels the pulse of the people of the country, their daily struggles, their problems and difficulties as tangible realities. The issues raised in these plays are amazing in their variety and range, especially with regard to the women’s experiences. Such plays are a source of empowerment; they enable women to speak out. It is at the intersection of art, activism, and social relevance. Such theatre acts as an instrument of real change in women’s lives. It is an exploration of women’s own unique idiom – their own form, their language, and ways of communication. It is a challenge to the established notions of theatre. It can thus be attributed as a ‘Theatre Of Protest’ because women writers expressed their resentment against the politics of exploitation on the basis of gender discrimination.

These plays do not confine themselves only to the domestic sphere or love and romance. They touch upon every domain of life and offer a range of analyses of the position of women and different strategies that need to be adopted to negotiate social change. In fact, through their examination of the material circumstances of human life, the work of these dramatists demands a reconsideration and reformulation of the comfortably established paradigms of society.

As Tutun Mukherjee, eminent Critic and professor at Hyderabad Central University says about these Women Playwrights,

“Their plays have no author-defined conclusions, no resolutions, and no happy/sad endings. They do not aim at mental or emotional peace but close in irresolution, just as life’s experiences often do. The plays disturb and roil the equilibrium; they provoke and demand response. They try to forge a new kind of audience that will not expect to be entertained but will participate in the dialectics since the issues concerning women and children are of the kind that have invariably been and continue to be side-stepped and neglected by the society.”

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Thus, in some form, each of these plays deal with some form of resistance, sometimes trying to analyze women’s sexual exploitation in the domestic and public sphere, sometimes accepting women’s own complicity in such exploitation. In either way, they try to define women’s theatre against male-dominated ideologies and try to represent the under-represented aspect of sexual abuse in women’s lives.


There are many issues that bar women from writing plays as gender differences, religious barriers, cultural restrictions, lack of economic support, prevailing prejudices against women (women cannot produce good plays), family responsibilities and above all lack of standard education. In spite of these restraints, a few women playwrights have succeeded in their endeavours to write and produce plays in India and have been acclaimed internationally as well. Dina Mehta, Manjula Padmanabhan, Poile Sengupta and Tripurari Sharma are some of the names to mention who have been working tirelessly in the field of drama and have published many plays. These plays are linked by a commonality of themes and their intention bound by a common vision. A recurrent theme is that of psychosexual abuse and how women cope with sexism in everyday life. The spotlight is on women marking out their anguish, the pain, and often the inferiority that they suffer.

Raju Parghi in his article ‘Indian Drama and the Emergence of Indian Women Playwrights: A Brief Survey’ claims that plays written by women can be broadly categorized into four broad categories. He says,

“The themes of the plays written by women mostly deal with the issues related to women, at the same time they also depict children’s world and the issues related to men. The women playwrights are conscious of contemporary issues blended with troubling past memories, expectation of better and blissful future attempt to present balanced views on both society and family. Their multifarious themes can be compressed under four broad categories of plays. The Plays of Relationships include themes like motherhood, intricate baffling relationship of men and women, incest and adultery. The Plays of Violence focus on various types of violence as physical, emotional, psychological, and the exploitation of women at home and in profession. The Plays of Resistance present the themes of , voicing against rape, injustice and inequality, poverty illiteracy and gender discrimination. The Plays of Revolution suggests the themes of voice of the voiceless, political issues, religious and superstitious practices conservative values and traditional restrictions.”

Poile Sengupta

Poile (Ambika) Sengupta is one of India’s foremost playwrights in English. She has written many plays and all her plays have been performed every now and then in Banglore. Mangalam, was written in 1993 and produced the next year. Her other plays include Inner Laws,(1994), A Pretty Business (1995), Keats was a Tuber (1996), Collages (1998), Alipha and Thus Spake Shoorpanakha, So Said Shakuni (2001) and Samara’s Song(2007). Mangalam was published by Seagull in Body Blows (2000).

In the Preface to an anthology of her plays, Poile Sengupta says,

“…when I write, I do so with the consciousness, the sensibility that is mine. However I’ve always been troubled about the status of women, and children, who seem to be the worst sufferers in any conflict, whether familial, social or political.” She also claims to enjoy the challenge of fashioning the grammar of an English sentence into what is essentially an ‘Indian’ syntax.

Her first play Mangalam won The Hindu – Madras Players Play-scripts Competition in 1993. It is a remarkable play that revolves around a dead person. The interaction among the characters probes the past that hides many skeletons. Each character is nuanced and individualised and each memory adds flesh and blood to the absent Mangalam. The invisible is made visible through memories.

Mangalam is the female character in the play within the play, whose death becomes, in a way, the basis for much of the action. Throughout the first Act, we can feel her ‘absent presence’, through references to the time of her life when she was alive. At first, we are told that she probably committed suicide by swallowing pills, but we are not given any reason for her having done so. It is only the narrator’s choric commentary that provides insights like “Women die many kinds of deaths; men do not know this.”(102). Gradually we learn that she was carrying someone else’s child when she got married to Dorai. Her sister Thangam’s response to this accusation is, “Did you ever think that it could have been forced upon her?”(122). Not willing to relent on this, Dorai is keen on presenting himself as the victim, until Thangam retorts, “What about that married woman who used to come to the temple everyday and take prasaadam from your father? She took prasaadam from you also, didn’t she?”(121). While any hints of a woman’s unchaste conduct can malign her reputation for life, a similar act on a man’s part, is forgivable and can be easily ignored. Dorai, however, still has the audacity to justify himself, “It’s different for a man”(121). The shamelessness with which such private aspects of a woman’s life are openly discussed, slandering her reputation even after her death, is nothing more than a war of ideologies between the characters, none of whom are really sensitive to the loss of Mangalam. The female voice offstage comments: “Because a woman is strong, she is not to be protected; others violate her, and she must pay for their trespass.”(123). It is at the end of the first Act, that we get to know that Mangalam was molested by her own sister Thangam’s husband, alongside which news, Dorai’s daughter Usha too arrives, having left her husband’s house, because the oppression there, had got the better of her. Domestic space, which is the marker that tradition sets for the preservation of women’s chastity (Sita was abducted when she crossed the boundary marked by Lakshman), has now become a space of sexual violence and has led to an impasse for women.

Act Two is, in a way, a comment upon Act One, because one realizes that the first Act was a play within the play one is reading. However, the same themes recur here, too. In fact, Sengupta uses the same actors in this Act as in the previous one, to depict the ruthless repetition of exploitation, even though in the second Act, ‘modernity’ has set in. Suresh is a modern-day ‘rake’ who values only conquest over women. This is why his sister Sumati is led to remark, “…the moment a woman doesn’t fit into the category of being a mother or a sister, she’s baggage…sexual baggage.”(129). Very soon, Thangam learns that her husband Sreeni has been having a clandestine extra-marital affair with another woman, which leaves a sense of hopeless reconciliation in the reader’s mind. It gets further aggravated when Radha tells Vikram: “[Sumati] had gone out with [a] man and I think he was violent with her. She didn’t realize…he suddenly…”(146). Towards the end, just when Thangam has gained courage enough to leave her husband, a sudden terrified scream is heard, which one soon learns, is Sumati’s, trying to escape from the advances of her uncle.

Another play titled Keats was a tuber was short-listed for the British Council International New Playwriting Prize in 1997. Very realistic and humorous, it presents a group of English teachers in a provincial college and brings into play our ambivalent attitude to English and the way it is generally taught. The mindless memorizing of facts, often not the essential ones, is what gives the play its title. The students memorize the line ‘Keats was a tuberculosis patient’ by breaking it into two meaningless portions: “Keats was a tuber, Keats was a tuber” and “culosis patient, culosis patient….” The memorized line does little to explain Keats’ poetic genius and illustrates the mechanical and spiritless teaching that drains a language and a literature of their beauty and appeal, and in no way aids learning. As the human relationships unfold in the play, Sengupta makes brilliant use of the English language – with each character demonstrating an individualizing inflection — as a bridge between those who teach and those who are taught.

Some of her other very well known works are Inner Laws (1994), a satirical sit-com about five mothers-in-law and their five daughters-in-law whose names are drawn from the epics; and a woman-centred play called A Pretty Business (1995). Her play Dream – makers of Calcutta with its backdrop of football was published in Telegraph in 1998. Sengupta explains that she wrote Collages in 1998 after she met a dear old lady at the British Council Library who talked to her for hours as though she was desperate for someone to talk to. She seemed a sad and lonely woman. The play too is grim and reflective in its tone and style. A 1999 play, Samara’s Song , deriving its name from an Iraqi city, is a mournful socio-political reflection on the violence that wipes out all traces of culture and civilization. In its wake comes the sense of irreparable human loss. The play Alifa (2001) recalling the first word in the alphabet in Hindusthani, dramatizes the obstacles in the way of women’s empowerment. There are just two characters, a woman and a man, totally unrelated and unknown to each other and extremely different in temperament and character yet at certain points their narratives intersect. The stage lights up one and the other alternately as they tell their stories. The play is both appealing and relevant.

Sengupta’s Thus Spake Shoorpanakha , So Said Shakuni (2001) is an ambitious play which takes its characters from two different epics. They meet as two travelers at an airport. Gradually they start talking and reveal their innermost thoughts about the way they have been ill-treated by history. Sengupta explains that she was fascinated by a folktale about Shakuni’s brothers being imprisoned and killed by the Kauravas when Hastinapur kingdom was extended to Qandahar in the northwest. Only Shakuni had survived and he swore revenge upon the Kauravas. His dice were made of his brothers’ bones. Shoorpanakha, on the other hand, represents all those women who are bold enough to remain single and declare their desire for male companionship without taking recourse to false modesty. Such women threaten the male world so they are described as “dangerous rakshasis” (un-Aryan demonesses) who must be controlled/contained/ punished before they can upset the patriarchal set-up. When these two characters meet in a contemporary situation, another crisis begins to threaten the world. Finally it is Shoorpanakha who dissuades Shakuni from provoking another bloodbath.


The Indian women playwrights consider drama a more serious tool of expression and representation. They have dealt with certain issues which the men playwrights have failed to do. They have adopted the genre as a more practical means to present serious familial, social cultural and political issues, the heinous crimes and practices of the society in satirical way. Their aim is to bring awareness of certain harsh realities, to protect every individual’s basic rights, to live freely, and to respect every individual irrespective of different gender caste or creed. The above mentioned four types of plays can be again compressed into one umbrella term as ‘The Plays of Change’ a new trend that perhaps goes hand in hand with the theatre of women.

As Poile herself says through the narrator in Mangalam

“As for the women, the gods said Let them be strong, rooted like trees For it is they who shall hold The ends of the world together, And there will be storms And the winds will blow very strong But the women will stay like trees, They will hold the world together .”


  1. Kaushik, Minakshi (2012), Struggle and Expression: Selected Plays by Manjula Padmanabhan, Poile Sengupta and Dina Mehta, Galaxy: International Multidisciplinary Research Journal, 1(1).
  2. Mukherjee, Tutun (2005), Ed. Staging Resistance: Plays by Women in Translation, OUP, New Delhi.
  3. Mukherjee, Tutun (2007), Finding a Voice: Forging an Audience: Women Playwrights in English, Muse India (Web-Zine,), Issue 14.
  4. Parghi, Raju(2010), Indian Drama and the Emergence of Indian Women Playwrights: A Brief Survey, Impressions : An e-journal of English Studies, 1(1)
  5. Sengupta, Poile(2010), Women Centerstage : The Dramatist and the Play, Routledge, New Delhi.
  6. Singh, Anita(2009), Feminist Interventions: A Reading of Light’s Out, Getting Away with Murder and Mangalam, Muse India, Issue 26.


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