People and Events
Rani Moorthy exposes Hindu customs
Her production/performance was excellent, no less a word would suffice, and forceful, and had the audience thinking and judging. This, I suppose, is just what Rani Moorthy targeted. She wanted her audience to realize the impact rites and rituals have on human beings enmeshed in them, and to decide whether cultural customs are good; not good; or have to be tolerated. Anyone of course would agree that cultural norms and customs must go on, a richness transferred to the tapestry that is ethnicity. Her theme was Hindu conservatism, Hindu rituals and beliefs like unlucky ones born at inauspicious times being doomed for life; the uncleanliness of menstruating women; and the be-all and end-all of a typical Tamil womans life - marriage, and with it subservience. Her question seemed to be: do all these cause trauma, and trauma in a girl child cramping and cribbing her as an adult woman?
Rani Moorthy on stage throughout
It was a powerful performance with an element of Brechts Theatre of the Absurd in that the audience was deliberately alienated so that if and when the audience became deeply engrossed in the action on stage, a cut-in was introduced to indicate to the viewer that this was only a play and s/he an observer who needs must judge the dialogue, the acting and the messages sent across from stage to audience. Moorthy changed her dress - a coat being worn or a saree thrown around herself and her hair done in different ways to suit the different characters; the girl - very young and then teenaged and then grown woman, and her uncle and grandmother. While she changed her costume on stage, in preparation for her next impersonation, a DVD or CD projection, mostly of the grandmother, again played by Moorthy, was cast on the stage screen.
Imagine my delight when Rani Moorthy consented to speak with me. So at 9.30 on Thursday morning Rani and I sat on a sofa in the front lounge of the Galadari and chatted - she spoke and I was lost in wonder. We shared easy friendliness. Rani Moorthy in person, sans stage make-up, (actually she wears very little or no makeup at all) seemed much younger than the woman play acting. She was completely charming and very happy, back in the land of her parents, having visited with them Jaffna and Batticaloa. She introduced her husband, Arthur Smith, who is expert at cinematography and thus a co-producer of her show. I had jotted down seven questions to ask her. She answered them all sequentially, in her easy flowing conversation with me asking none of them. Her conversation was a story related fascinatingly.
Rani Moorthy speaks of herself and...
Her life story is most interesting. It had best come across in her own words, as far as possible, so here goes:
"I was born in Kuala Lumpur to Tamil parents who were teachers and had migrated from Jaffna to Malaysia when they were children. I was one of three daughters, but one sister died in infancy. As is usual, the birth of girls called for the collecting of dowries. My father was different. His reply to the save for dowry injunction was to say hed educate his daughters - thats where the investment would go - and his daughters would impact on the world. In 1969 when I was 7 years old, race riots broke out in Malaysia. It was then that I got the first strong fearful feeling of belonging to a minority race. My parents were far left-wing democrats. The country changed overnight and we had to learn their national language etc. So we were moved to a school in Singapore. I became a world citizen then, owning a passport at age 10, having to carry it around with me as I crossed over to Singapore daily, and not loosing it, and with it, my destiny. It was on these daily journeys between Singapore and Malaysia that I started the game of observing others. Now as a writer I can step aside and observe as from the outside.
We were taught in English and had no time for private classes in Tamil. So I only have colloquial Tamil to get by with. I wish I could write creatively in Tamil. I was selected to follow a science course, being discovered intelligent, but this choice of study course came to a head when I was in the pre-medical. The extrovert part of me came to the forefront, my desire to impact on the world took hold of me and I realized I had a strong desire to be a writer. But at home I had to be the quiet docile Tamil daughter. I was out up front in school - prefect, editor etc. At home I did pooja This duality continues. We Asians adapt well to balancing different sides.
I went over to arts in university and obtained a degree in linguistics and later in education. University life was exciting and fulfilling because there were very dynamic theatre groups in university. I found my voice then. I felt free theatre allowed expressiveness and the exploration of ways of thinking. Usually the eastern plan for a girl is: OK, get a degree but just a basic one so you could become a good mother and educate your children. But this was not for me.
I became an extremely creative teacher and continued acting to explore and lead people to be intellectual. Art is not merely writing an essay; not taking a wishy-washy view. It is the ability and joy of expressing oneself as powerfully and effectively as possible.
At 18 I was totally busy with my job and rehearsals. I had no formal training in drama but I was very much in the Singapore theatre world, which was vibrant and experimental all through the 80s. Then came a change in the political complexion of the country. The arts were seen as an archaic block to progress, and plays were banned. The shift was from content oriented plays to those rich in style. It was at this juncture that I met Arthur, married him, and migrated to Britain. Of course my decision and marriage caused a stir in my tradition-bound family.
We arrived in Manchester in 1996, the day the IRA blew up parts of it. I could find no employment right then. I needed to showcase my talent so I wrote short stories, one of which was Pooja. I picked Pooja when I decided to go into theatre because a series of voices are in it and these of different characters. There were plenty of Asians domiciled in Manchester but not one Tamil. So to whom would I present my autobiographical piece? But I plunged right into it. The Arts Council gave me a grant and Arthur helped immensely. I preferred to present all the characters in the play as a one person show. It drew large crowds all three nights of its run, all tickets being sold out. This was in 1999. The set was much more elaborate than the one at the BC. We had a fibre glass banana tree to which I was married. I myself wondered whether I hated or loved the characters I role played - the uncle, the grandmother, mother and father. Did I hate them for their custom bound ways? Did I feel warmth towards them? The essence which was brought up by my performance was that these characters were flawed. From anger I moved to understanding.
A Jew in the audience who had experienced the Holocaust, told me he was amazed that I in Malaysia, thousands of miles away and years later, felt his fear and frustration as a person of a minority race. Apart from my theatre acting, I work for TV and am a broadcaster for BBC 2 on the programme Pause for Thought - reflections on life. I have got much help and encouragement from Britain and am greatly appreciative of this opportunity given me to visit my parents home country.
Being Asian is fashionable now - Bollywood and all that. I am moving to philosophy and believe in Dharma, Karma and that I have had many journeys in rebirth."
Coming to Sri Lanka
Rani was very sure and determined to return to Sri Lanka and for much longer periods of time. She loved it here and was particularly deeply touched at meeting with people from all walks of life, specially in the East and North. She performed and conducted workshops in Kandy, Jaffna and Batticaloa, and had a show in Matara.
"I felt I was coming back home when I came to Sri Lanka. Felt it a whirlwind yet most satisfying. This is my first visit to Sri Lanka and to me it was like coming to drink from a familiar well. People have accepted me as Sri Lankan. Presenting Pooja in Jaffna and to those who had undergone the trauma of displacement was intriguing and emotional, to say the least. The trauma was mine and theirs - a common thread running between us. I cried in Batticaloa when a girl gave words to her thoughts.
The very archaic customs and Hindu rites are not carried out in Jaffna any more; but in Malaysia the custom of marrying a girl off to a banana tree still holds ground. Caste apparently is said to be not so important, but it is present."
I was so happy listening to Rani that I completely forgot to request a photograph for publishing along with this article. The British Council had plenty of handbills with Rani Moorthys face on them.
We wish this courageous woman all luck and look forward positively to her future visits to Sri Lanka and more one woman theatre for us.
I need to mention the appreciation we feel and thanks we give the British Council for making it possible for us to see this bit of British Theatre.
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