Once again Ayna arts have done it! The writer, co-director and one of the actors of the drama ‘Orna’ (gauze scarf), Jesmin Chowdhury, has lived up to her reputation as a brave feminist writer.
ওড়না, the Cover was performed as part of the freedom festival in London organised by a Season of Bangla Dreama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh. The whole drama was based on a short story called ‘একটি ওড়নার আত্মকাহিনী- An autobiography of an Orna’ that Jesmin had written a few years ago. Just from this title I think one can begin to imagine what the storyline might be.
A blue and white Tangail orna has been found in the drain and when other ornas come forward to help her out of there, she refuses to come out saying that the drain was a better place than living the life of an orna, and starts telling the story of her life.
Later in the play this Tangail Orna is given to a young girl as a gift by her shopkeeper father who believes that women can avoid being raped simply by covering themselves properly. This orna is worn by the young girl all the time because she simply loves it. One day the orna gets caught in the spinning wheel of a rickshaw, but the girl still doesn’t let go of it because it’s ‘shameful’ not to wear an orna and as a result, she has a serious accident. Yet, the comments made by the bystanders are typical ones we hear all the time in reality; victim blaming comments such as, ‘Why did she have the rickshaw’s hood down? Why did she not wear her orna properly? Look at the shameless girl on her own, she’s not dead so why isn’t she covering her chest with the orna?’ It doesn’t end there; the young girl wearing that same orna goes to the park to meet her boyfriend; very modestly dressed but still she is attacked and gang raped by a bunch of goons.
The bulk of the play takes place in two orna shops where women come and go as customers and the shopkeepers make suggestive comments about their clothes and physicality. The fact that how a girl dresses is not why they are targeted was one of the main messages of the play. It is a fact that misogynistic jokes are hurled out by men all the time and that was played very clearly. It was an extreme brave step to have used the exact language that is usually used by men when cracking misogynistic jokes and the shop keeper characters delivered it in its most accurate form. These dialogues were what stunned the audience most. Exactly what the aim of the play was I’m guessing.
When the writer and director are being complemented on their outstanding work then it has to be acknowledged that the actors were equally competent in the execution of their parts, otherwise the end result would not be as effective. This was very evident in this theatre piece, where most of the actors had zero to none acting or any sort of theatre experience and yet their teamwork, dedication and compatibility with the director were definitely applaudable.
The writer used her extreme intelligence in the way she blew life into the ‘Oranas’ as walking talking characters, hence the simplicity of the costumes being very effective. It helped to keep the audience’s grip on the main topic.
Director Apu Choudhury and the writer/co-director Jesmin Chowdhury, along with their entire team, have pulled out another tooth from victim-blaming misogynists leaving them open-mouthed and bleeding; not knowing how they should react to a subject they find extremely uncomfortable to talk about.
How the society blames a woman for the way she walks, talks and dresses; how misogynistic jokes are made in the open providing a huge majority of the male population, as well as some unthinking women, with entertainment was played out very clearly in this play. However, more than the drama itself, what shocked me was the reaction of the audience. A good number of them was finding those very misogynistic jokes funny and hooted out laughter! So the point that the drama was trying to make was proved right away!
Thought provoking and moving are some of the terms that my sisters, friends and I could come up with in the after-show dinner conversations. As always, Jesmin’s writings and dramas tend to generate discussion and debate on taboo subjects and that’s what attracts a lot of her audience. She tackles these subjects very clearly and cleverly and leaves the audience in a state of self-examination.
Every piece of work or any production deserves an honest and constructive criticism, without which it can never develop or evolve into an enhanced version of its past self. Keeping this in mind, I would say use of the props and the transitions between the different scenes could have been smoother. Having said that, when it is a very low budget production where you have to rehearse in your living rooms and pay out of your own pockets due to lack of resources and zero funding it is bound to have some limitations.
Yet, it was obvious that the strong teamwork made it possible for them to overcome all these obstacles. Each and every individual did more than their fair share by playing multiple characters. Portraying and representing most of the communities in our society- from a very practising religious group to the modern outgoing youngsters and even the transgender community- the play was something more than many of the viewers had expected and it turned into a wow factor.
A powerful subject played out in the simplest yet most effective manner. Even the background music was so appropriate that at times I thought I was watching some dramatic series on TV in my living room, and any theatre person would know that, this is not an easy thing to achieve. But they did it! Ayna Arts have done it once again!