Meera George (centre) and girls from the NGO rehearsing for the show.
Meera George (centre) and girls from the NGO rehearsing for the show.

A performance art that celebrates Kerala’s unsung heroines

  • 'Still I Rise', an operatic performance by artist Meera George, challenges the history of patriarchy in Kerala
  • It questions issues of gender and caste inequality through stories of women protagonists such as Unniyarcha and Nangeli

It is to the sound of drum beats that one enters a small rehearsal space, located deep within the office of the Protsahan India Foundation—a non-governmental organization empowering adolescent girls to fight child abuse through art—in west Delhi. One can find visual and performance artist Meera George, along with a group of young girls from the NGO, invoking the spirit of Unniyarcha, a warrior popular in Kerala’s folklore, known for her prowess in Kalaripayattu.

It is stories of unsung heroines such as these from across Kerala, that are being celebrated in the piece Still I Rise. This operatic performance is being presented by the Shalini Passi Art Foundation, which supports experimental artistic practices.

In this piece, the artist has referenced art forms from Kerala such as Kalaripayattu, Kathakali and Chavittu Nadakam—disciplines which have been dominated by men over centuries—to question issues of gender and caste inequality. “I am not a dancer or a performing artist. I am a performance artist, working within the gamut of contemporary arts. So, instead of focusing heavily on the techniques, I have incorporated subtle nuances from these three forms to enhance the narrative," says George.

For instance, instead of including the heavy foot-stomping techniques of Chavittu Nadakam—a lesser-known Latin Christian music-drama form introduced in Kerala in the 16th century with the advent of the Portuguese—she has chosen to focus on its operatic style. “In fact, we suggested that she push the operatic. Meera is possibly now one of the few visual artists to do so," says Arshiya Lokhandwala, curator at the Shalini Passi Art Foundation.

In some ways, Still I Rise is a sequel to the Onnagata that George created at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan, as part of a grant. The video-performance piece was a comment on gender bias, with the central character based on Draupadi at the time of the vastraharan (disrobing). “In Kabuki theatre, the female actor isn’t allowed to express anger or rage. Here, I create an androgynous character who portrays her feelings through facial make-up, usually given to male actors to express emotions," says George on her website. This Kabuki make-up acts as a thread between Still I Rise and Onnagata.

The current performance is divided into four acts and challenges the history of patriarchy in Kerala. The first act, for instance, focuses on the dress code as being a caste marker in Travancore. “The Ezhava women, who were from the lower caste, weren’t allowed to cover their upper body or don jewellery. A tax was levied on them in case they wanted to cover their upper body," says George. She has recreated the story of Nangeli, a woman who was so poor that she chopped off her breast with a sickle when asked for tax. “At the end of this act, I pass around a golden breast on a banana leaf in the audience," she says. The entire piece ends with a monologue, in which George recites Still I Rise by Mary Angelou.

Lokhandwala believes this piece is extremely relevant to the times we live in, especially given the context of the #MeToo movement. “A stronger feminist narrative is gaining currency and Meera’s piece adds to that," she says.

Still I Rise will be performed on 13 May, 6.30-7.30pm, at the Alliance Française, Delhi.