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A very special woman

Wednesday, June 27, 2018
By Deepa Ghalot

Ismat Chughtai was a feminist before the word was even in common usage, straining against the shackles of a conservative society that decided what women could or could not do. Ismat rebelled and built her own life. She managed to avoid marrying the man chosen for her, got a good education and elected to work for a living. When she did marry Shahid Latif, it was a partnership of equals. Her acerbic wit and contempt for the conventional made its way into her writing, that remains brave and inspiring till today, when so many things have changed for women, but so many remain the same.

It is easy to see why Naseeruddin Shah keeps returning to her work for his productions, calling her an “obsession” in his interviews. His new production 'Aurat Aurat Aurat' returns for the third time to Chughtai's life and work, and with a fine ensemble of actresses, led by the redoubtable Seema Pahwa, he directs a very enjoyable play. Trishla Patel, Bhavna Pani, Shruti Vyas, Prerna Chawla and Jaya Virlley portray Ismat at various ages as well as characters from her writings (a few men do appear but remain in the background).

The pieces he uses are from her autobiography, 'Kaghzi Hai Pairahan' and the pieces 'Ek Shauhar ki Khaatir', 'Aadhi Aurat Aadha Khwab' and 'Soney ka Anda', punctuated by the poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Kaifi Azmi.

The funniest piece is undoubtedly the one in which she is travelling alone in a train, and other women in the compartment, accompanied by husbands and families, are curious about her single state. As women tend to do, with a marked neglect for rules of privacy, they subject her to a grilling. (Even today, if a woman says she is unmarried, she would probably go through the same inquisition.)

To balance the humour, there is a dark – and again particularly meaningful story – Soney Ka Anda, about a pregnant woman who has given birth to too many girls, so it has been decided that if this baby is also female, she would be discreetly got rid of. The audience almost holds its breath as the woman produces one more daughter... but sanity prevails.

It is the power of Ismat Chughtai's words that is the binding force of the production, and Shah has got his cast to perform with the earnestness and verve the stories require.

'Aurat Aurat Aurat' would drive at least some in the audience to go rediscover Ismat's stories, many of them are available in English translation, and many narrated on Youtube. More than half a century later, her writings can challenge and empower.

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