Once upon a time especially in the East, notions about gender and sexuality were more fluid than they are today and a new play explores what happens when these traditional communities are confronted by modernity…
‘UMA’ IS A FIERCE matriarch trying defend her ‘family’ against the onslaught of modernity and preserve an almost unique way of being.
Uma is a no ordinary woman – ‘she’ is a Hijra (sometimes described in South Asia as the Third Sex). Often Hijras have the outward appearance of being female but are anatomically, men or of mixed or indeterminate gender.
Once upon a time all over the subcontinent Hijras had an exalted status; in the 17th century Mughal India they were feted and celebrated and part of a court hierarchy which afforded them status and respect.
But modern day India and much of the subcontinent has not treated them well and it is this raging dichotomy that lies at the heart of a new play, “The House of in Between” by Sevan K. Greene (pictured right)
In its final week now at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (TRSE), writer Greene and director Pooja Ghai took time out of their busy schedules to talk to www.asianculturevulture.com about what many see as a pioneering and ground-breaking work that also packs an emotional punch.
The play, which ends its near month-long run this Saturday (April 30), is set in modern-day Patna in India and revolves around the household Uma (Esh Alladi) has created. Into this fray comes Dev (Lucie Shorthouse) who upsets the precarious balance Uma has worked hard to create.
“This is not a flashy Bollywood musical play with dancing,” Greene explained to www.asianculturevulture.com. “I didn’t want this to be National Geographic experience of India’s Hijras.
“It was about me contextualising it as a family from the off – and you’re coming to watch a play about a family who either destroy themselves or survive.”
For Greene, who is of mixed Arab-Pakistani descent and grew up in Kuwait, before moving to the US for his higher education, the play is about modernity and its discontents, about the onset of globalisation and the seeming march of modern capitalism into the farthest reaches of traditional societies.
“I wanted it to be set in a major city but not one that people would necessarily have heard of and I was trying to find a part of India that is being globalised,” said the actor-writer who is based between New York and London these days.
“Part of the play is about a struggle – how willing are we to change our lives to fit in – or do we want to be stubborn and stay true to traditions.”
Uma represents the old world in some ways (at least we imagine her to, without having seen the “House of In Between”) and is the link to a culture that has withered and been reshaped in modern times.
Many Hijras on the subcontinent today occupy a netherworld between dancing, entertainment and singing – and prostitution – and their general status is ambiguous at best, and downright disreputable at its worst. They can still confer blessings and curses on new-borns and newlyweds but the high status they once enjoyed has long vanished and modern day societies do not really know how to accommodate them.
“These are traditional communities and they are being forced out into offices to stay alive. They can no longer practise this way – they must put a suit on and go to work,” Greene argued.
He notes how in pre-British colonial times, such communities of Hijras flourished but all that changed with the onset of the British and a much less accepting moral code.
“This is not a queer play – things like homosexuality, transgender, hermaphrodite, intersex these were never issues from the history, they were written about (but not as a problem) and they’ve been around forever. It was never an issue before we became more ‘civilised’ or Eurocentric.”
His original inspiration came from seeing a colleague in New York don a sari at a post show party and play with the gender role. It activated a latent interest in such roles and led to extensive research, reading and Youtube viewing.
For Ghai, who selected the play to stage as a resident director at TRSE, it’s been a tremendous learning experience, as it has been for all involved.
“It’s been an incredibly fascinating process working as a director and I’ve been very fortunate I am working with an incredible script.
“It’s so beautifully character based that what Sevan has done very well is to allow us into these people’s lives without hitting us over the head with a history lesson and giving us the drama in such a poignant way.”
She said the seven actors and everyone did a lot of research and really looked into the lives of these existing communities of people.
What struck her is how their standing has been transformed – trashed really, and that it is only very recently some changes have swung back in their favour. They have begun to gain legal acceptance since an Indian Supreme Court ruling in 2014 and a Hijra has been elected a Mayor in a northern Indian town.
“They are lonely because they are not accepted – because they’re not seen as part of our global community and yet they access and resonate with the divine and there is something deeply sad in our ability to shut people out because we don’t understand them,” lamented Ghai.
In a sense, you feel the play has a certain redemptive quality – one that restores dignity and compassion to a community much misunderstood but in way that is natural and unobtrusive.
Ghai added: “There’s a lot of humour in it. Essentially, it’s a family story and ultimately about a family who love each other but also lie to each other, betray each other and play with each other. It is something that is very relatable, that’s the brilliance of it.”
‘The House of In Between’ by Sevan K Greene until Saturday, April 30 (7.30pm & 3pm matinees) at Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Squar, London E15 1BN.