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Pratha Nagpal’s 'Aurat Raj': Unravelling our perceptions of ‘movement’ in theatre

An in-depth discussion of the movement-based performance, the cultural themes explored, and the societal pressures depicted through the choreography of عورت راج औरत राज Aurat Raj.


Written by Andrea Bunjamin


Through determined breaths, motions, and beats, four women move in complete synchrony around an alluring knotted installation of colourful fabric. All connected to one another by their own repetitive and arduous labours. But when the youngest among them begins to rebel and disrupt their established practices, we watch the consequences of that change.


Aurat Raj, The Rule of Women is an interpretive work that lets us examine the upholding of womens’ culture at work and its toll. A play named after a 1979 Pakistani satirical film about the formation of a feminist movement, this story provides an intimate take on the way women are the centre of survival and the unwritten rules that are inhabited. A work that serves as a movement-based performance, both in its themes and the gallery of thoughtful choreography. It was chosen as a part of Belvoir Street Theatre’s 25A independent theatre initiative in the 2024 season and will be playing until the 19th May.


Aurat Raj, Belvoir's 25A - Image by Phil Erbacher
Aurat Raj, Belvoir's 25A - Image by Phil Erbacher

The idea started almost two years ago when creator and director, Pratha Nagpal, had her first experience returning back to India as a grown-up. A trip that enabled her to reflect on the copious amounts of hard work that the women in her family do, particularly from the relationship between her Nani (grandma) and her aunt. She looked at the way invisibility functions within these shared spaces and the complicated way we view one another. “We’re all trying to do the same thing but we can’t see each other for that, and what that does to us and our culture,” she explained.


Nagpal is no stranger to the nerve-wrecking experience of taking inspiration from her family and translating it into her works – with fascinating results. The NIDA graduate’s first written play, Maa Ki Rasoi (My Mother’s Kitchen), was a text-heavy story that centres on the stereotypical settings of women’s work and the passing down of culture. “I was really scared to write a work about a Brown woman in a kitchen, because that’s all we’ve ever seen. But I felt like it was important to take that and then reclaim it.” In Kali, she took a different approach by using a dance-focused Bharatanatyam work to explore female rage. From both shows, she was able to establish Aurat Raj as a performance that’s placed outside the Western understanding of how physical theatre can be consumed. With minimal dialogue to fall back on, we are asked to take agency over the tale being told. Taking direct inspiration from a conversation she had about how the women in our culture are sometimes the biggest people who bring us down, through no fault of their own,  we are asked to enter the theatre with a care for culture.


Aurat Raj, Belvoir's 25A - Image by Phil Erbacher
Aurat Raj, Belvoir's 25A - Image by Phil Erbacher

To emulate the visceral feeling of exhaustion, a great deal of improvisation was undertaken during the production’s rehearsal process.”We needed to crack how we would tell the story first before we can fully tell what the story was.” Drawing from various mundane scenarios and prompts, the collaborative cast (Nikki Sekar, Vinaya Elijala, Anusha Thomas, and Kirthihaa Veluppillai) had choreographed the distinct cyclical actions that each character performs to capture the labour that we so often take for granted. Making motions such as pulling, threading, or stamping seem never-ending and further adding to invisibility that Nagpal sought.


“I want to feel like it can be anywhere...so it was important for the movement to be spaceless and timeless.”

The show holds an atmosphere of intergenerational and societal pressures represented by the knotted fabrics that threaten to unravel everything – the lineage of sacrifices made by those that came before us. The dynamics showcased between the youngest and eldest women in the group drive this fragility, and when asked why she chose to exclude explicit references to patriarchy in the show, the answer seems obvious in retrospect. It would have been too easy. The reality being that not every imposition of women’s labour happens with the physical presence of a man. It just runs that deeply.


Whether it be a factory, a kitchen, a laundromat, or a farm, Nagpal had also expressed the significance of making the story’s setting ambiguous. An environment that opens us up to speculate and holds our attention to the slightest changes in the room. “I want to feel like it can be anywhere...so it was important for the movement to be spaceless and timeless.”


Aurat Raj, Belvoir's 25A - Image by Phil Erbacher
Aurat Raj, Belvoir's 25A - Image by Phil Erbacher

Even as dialogue takes a quieter role, this multi-lingual performance uses speech as an intentional creative barrier to let their performers enter their own hidden worlds in their native tongues. In Aurat Raj, the use of languages such as Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu are softly conversed between the women, bringing in a sense of privacy on stage. “I knew that I wanted some use of language..and that it couldn’t exist in the traditional understanding of how dialogue operates.” Women are often silenced when expressing their pain, and what greater act of reclamation it is to do it in a manner that’s most personal to you. Especially when theatre makers in our community commonly face some hesitations over producing non-English multicultural works due to concerns of making it too inaccessible for an Australian audience. Aurat Raj’s refreshing courage in firmly planting its voice to the cultural perspectives of these women prompts us to look closer at their movements and expand the types of works we can have on stage.


Before the start of every performance, Nagpal recites a poem by Refaat Alareer, a Palestinian writer and professor who was killed in an airstrike by the Israeli military in December 2023.


‘If I must die, you must live, to tell my story.’


Verses that set a strong impression on the themes of resilience and survival in Aurat Raj, while calling attention to the need for letting out narratives live.


‘If I must die, let it bring hope, let it be a tale.’


With her current bodies of work, Nagpal’s non-stop dedication to telling stories about women of colour feels nothing short of impressive. Her broadening interest in the history of her community leaves much excitement to what she does next.

 

Tickets to عورت راج औरत राज Aurat Raj can be booked via the link below. Tickets to 25A are $25. Tickets are available online and at the door.



CAST

NIKKI SEKAR. MOVEMENT CHOREOGRAPHER AND ENSEMBLE

VINAYA ELIJALA. ENSEMBLE

ANUSHA THOMAS. ENSEMBLE

KIRTHIHAA VELUPPILLAI. ENSEMBLE


CREATIVES

PRATHA NAGPAL. WRITER, DIRECTOR AND PRODUCER

EZARA NORTON. ASSISTANT DIRECTOR AND PRODUCER

HAILLEY HUNT. PRODUCTION DESIGNER

CHRISTINE PAN. SOUND COMPOSER AND DESIGNER

TYLER FITZPATRICK. LIGHTING DESIGNER

GEORGIA TYRRIL. STAGE MANAGER

NATASHA PONTOH-SUPIT. PRODUCTION ASSISTANT

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