Even at the bottom of the pecking order there are opportunities to see the funny side of life

When Amit Ohdedar and his family emigrated from Calcutta (population 14 million) to Auckland in 1994, they had an unsettling experience on their first night in their new home on Mt Albert Rd.

"It was eerie," he laughs. "It was so quiet."

Quiet is not a word you could apply to the play Ohdedar is bringing to the stage next week during the Diwali Festival.

Rudali - The Mourner has a band, dancing, singing, a village carnival, raucous prostitutes ... and a dialogue-packed script.


The story of untouchable widow Sanichari, who takes up public mourning as a profession, was first staged at Tapac last year and has since been refined by Ohdedar and his co-director Ahi Karunaharan.

Set in a poor rural village in north-easte India, Rudali created "an element of shock" last year because it featured prostitutes.

"We took a survey," says Ohdedar, who is president of Prayas, a theatre group set up in 2005 by Indians living in Auckland; previous productions include Charandas Chor (Charandas The Thief) and Khoj (The Search).

"Indians who came here from places like Mumbai or Delhi or Calcutta would have very little idea that prostitution goes on. You drive through the cities and you see those women standing on the streets so you would have some understanding. But they would not know what goes on in the rural areas where 50 to 60 per cent of people in India live. It's good to shine the light on things like that. There is no point in sanitising it."

Sanichari, reprised by Cook Island actor Patricia Vichmann, is a proud, hard-worker who has suffered losing her husband, then her son, leaving her to care for her grandson when her daughter-in-law runs off to become a prostitute.

Sanichari makes an honest pittance grinding grain for bread but when her son dies, she has to sell the grinder to get money to pay for the funeral.

"That's the class system," explains Ohdedar. "Because you are an untouchable you are outside, living on the fringe so, for your son's funeral you have to call in the Brahmin priest but you have to pay so she sells off her grinding wheel. Then she has to earn money by growing vegetables.

"We pick up the story in the play where she has raised the grandchild and he has become a young man. He is sent to work for the landlord but he doesn't like it so he runs away and she loses him as well."


It seems Sanichari is surrounded by lazy losers who constantly let her down but she finds happiness when she reunites with her childhood friend Bikhni and the two women make a life together as mourners, or "rudali", which means "grieving women".

Again, the profession is a product of India's class system.

"Upper-class people don't show emotion at a funeral publicly. It is not done," says Ohdedar. "In the Hindu belief it is only the body that ceases. The soul survives and takes another space and gets reborn over and over again until you find liberation close to nirvana. In the concept of mourning, when the body dies, if more people weep for you that can help cut the number of rebirths but it has got corrupted. Rich women cannot come out and publicly mourn so they pay lower-caste women to do it. That is what actually happens."

Poor Sanichari. Because she has lost - one way or another - her husband, son, daughter-in-law and grandson - she is viewed as a witch, a "daain".

"There is very common abuse, especially when a woman loses her husband. She gets the blame. It is always the woman and it is often women bitching about the woman."

But when Sanichari, who weeps and wails for a living without sincerity, also loses Bikhni, the audience will see her grappling with real grief, an emotion she never expressed when she lost her family.

"She needs her old friend and when she dies, she can actually cry. She was never able to cry for her husband or the son. The irony is that she chose to earn her living by crying for others, acting."

Rudali is based on a short story by Mahasweta Devi, a socialist writer who ended the story with Sanichari emancipating the prostitutes and taking over the landlord's property. The Prayas' approach is more realistic and uses humour to leaven the bitterness.

"The audience [last year] liked it because it's a very serious subject but we tell the story in a humorous way. While the subject is quite stark, the women do not complain just because they are poor. They live day to day but that does not mean they do not enjoy life or see the funny side."

What: Rudali - The Mourner

Where and when: Herald Theatre, October 17-26