Cast of Irom
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In languages as diverse as Manipuri and mime, several theatre directors are recreating the protest of Irom Sharmila Chanu for audiences across India
Actor Ojas SV stands alone on a dark stage, her silhouette lit only by the flames of the torch that she holds aloft. A Manipuri would recognise her as a Meira Paibi, the fearless women torch bearers of Manipuri myth. To most of her audience in mainland India, she is just an actor about to begin a play, Le Mashale. "Let us go on a trip to a faraway land, to Manipur, which is located in a region not mentioned even in the Indian national anthem," she says. To Manipur, the story winds, a land where a woman had once conquered eight sun gods, and where a modern Meira Paibi called Irom Sharmila Chanu is locked in an equally fierce battle.
Earlier this month, Sharmila's hunger strike, demanding that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 (AFSPA) be repealed, entered its 13th year. The Indian Army, bolstered by the AFSPA, has been accused of widespread brutality that includes shooting innocent people, detentions, rapes, abductions and custodial deaths. "Sharmila comes from a place that had no history of Satyagraha, yet she is teaching Satyagraha to the Indian State, (ironically where the ideology emerged). Our generation would be unfortunate if we blindfold her or the questions that she raises," says Ojas about the play, in Hindi and English, that has been staged in 16 states.
Sharmila's story has found reflection in several theatre productions as theatre directors take her struggle to the people across India. While the 2009 award-winning Manipuri play Mirel Masinghka by Yumnam Sadananda Singh uses mime and vigorous physical gestures to provide an overview of Sharmila's struggle — with a character called IIB representing the State — Thagippu, a year-old Tamil play based on Le Mashale, places Sharmila in a universal context of self assertion.
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