“Directly toh ghar mein kabhi baat nahi hoti. Jo kehna hai art ke medium se keh do, phir logon ko pata chalta hai, log sunte hain. (No one ever speaks directly at home. No one listens. If one wants people to listen, say it through art.),” says Mumal, a 29-year-old theatre practitioner based out of Jaipur. Her work revolves around stories of women—within and beyond her household. The many towns of Rajasthan—the social setting of her work—are oozing with stories and issues that remain shrouded in silence. It is these unheard voices that Mumal seeks to transpose to the stage. “Mujhe kuch khaas likhna nahi aata, theatre aata hai. Toh jo kehna chahti hoon, vo theatre mein dikhati hoon (I’m not that great with writing. I know theatre, so whatever I want to say, I express it through theatre).”
Mumal began her work with NGOs such as Action Aid where she directed plays such as ‘Day of a Girl’. After doing a series of plays in her undergraduate years, she began doing theatre professionally when she was selected for the ‘Aspiring Women Directors Workshop’ by the National School of Drama. As a part of the workshop, she wrote and directed ‘2.27 am’. Her other work includes Plain Pages of Housewives, Holding Amorphous, Ardhnareshwar, Palimpsest, and others. Apart from creating theatre productions, she also keeps working with children from rural spaces of Rajasthan and NGOs on gender-oriented issues.
The people who are the subjects in Mumal’s stories are also their audience. Her play ‘The Day of a Girl’, for instance, faithfully documented conversations from her household and translated them onto stage. The play urged her family members to lend an ear to her story and listen to what she had to say, changing the dynamics of her family forever. In another instance, her play ‘Plain Pages of Housewives’ involved collecting personal stories, going door-to-door, listening to the dreams and aspirations of once young girls, and how they changed in the aftermath of their marriages. The play was performed on the terraces of Rajasthan, where the eyes and ears of the appropriate audience could engage in it.
In ‘Plain Pages of Housewives’, the life of a housewife unfolds on a terrace. The weight of lost dreams lingers quietly amid the noise of the everyday. On stage, a woman sweeps the floor, folds a shirt, all the while tinged with the reminiscence of a former life. A woman on another terrace, watches, and sheds a tear.
This audience-performer interaction is what Mumal seeks to achieve. In her own words, “Natak logon tak pohochna chahiye. (The play should reach the audience.)” The success of a play doesn’t lie in resounding applause or standing ovations, but in the conversations that persist long after the show is over. “Baat kahan ho rahi hai? (Is the conversation even happening?)” Mumal wants to ask. At a post-performance discussion, a daughter arrives with her mother and grandmother. The play, which also spoke about the dynamics among three women across generations in a household, brought to light the different perspectives the women had on their own lives, their problems and what caused them.
Mumal believes that before conversations can transcend the stage and reach the audience, it must create an impact in the process. To sensitise her team about gender, Mumal makes her male actors perform the female body. To her, gender lies in the smallest of things. “Jab aap apne boxers aur t-shirt se nikal ke petticoat-saree daalte ho toh aapko kayi chhoti-chhoti cheezein pata chalti hain, jaise ki kitna difficult hai isme kaam karna, aur wo bhi din bhar (When you get out of the comfort of your boxers and t-shirt and wear petticoat-sarees, you begin to notice the small things, like how difficult it is to work in it all day).” There have been many times when her intentions have borne fruit. Many of her actors spark conversations around gender in their households, while many report understanding things that they didn’t before. “Humein apni maa aur behen ka kaam dikhne laga (Now, we could recognise the work of our mothers and sisters)”, an actor once told Mumal. According to her, even if the play reaches one or two households in this way, her work is done.
Part of Mumal’s ambition is also to establish an inclusive space where everyone can freely express themselves. Instead of forming a theatre group that follows a set framework, Mumal’s approach to her workspace is one of collaboration. As the plays speak to and of the members of the community, they also seem to be willing to lend their spaces to rehearse and perform. Mumal seeks to ensure that she is only a medium for the voices on the stage, not the voice itself.
For the same reason, she finds the process to be as important as the performance. Theatre must inspire thought, provide answers, and allow us to find better versions of ourselves in a better world. “Agar natak banane ki process ek mahine ki hai, but koi emotion trigger ho gaya toh we can even take two months, kyunki humein shayad emotion address karne ki zaroorat hai. Natak toh banta rahega. Actually, yahi hai natak. (If the play making process is set at a month, but someone’s emotions get triggered during rehearsals, it’s okay to extend it to two months, because it is imperative to address what came up in the room. In essence, this itself is theatre).”
At this point, Mumal takes out a picture of a child, with wind blowing the hair and a big smile on their face. The picture is brimming with openness and an unapologetic welcoming of the world. Children practice this openness until it is curbed by society. Mumal seeks to keep it alive through her work, against all odds. “Ye sab aur kahan milega? (Where else will we find this?)”
For Mumal, theatre is an intimate engagement with people and their stories. It is a mode of self-expression, but not alienated from the audience. This Brechtian air of her work seeks to fill the gap between the artist and the audience, culminating in a theatrical meeting point of bodies, cultures, and memories, and in the process, something new emerges. This new being, in whichever form, is always underlined with empathy.