Unheard Voices - A call to wake-up 
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur 
e-mail: padmajayaraj@gmail.com 
February 27, 2007 

Mallika Sarabhai, the illustrious daughter of the celebrated Mrinalini Sarabhai needs no introduction to the lovers of Indian dance. Mallika has carved a niche in the field of contemporary dance and theatre as an activist for humanitarian causes. She shot into limelight enacting the role of Draupadi in Peter Brook's theatre epic Mahabharata, launching feministic stance in modern dance, way back in 1980. Sita's Daughters established her as the archetype of the modern Indian woman. As a dancer, stage and film actress, social activist, choreographer and writer, the many-faceted Mallika has pushed the frontiers of art. For her, art with a social purpose is the highest form of art. As co-director of Darpana Dance Academy founded by her mother, Mallika  Sarabhai has always been dedicated to her craft and the causes she espouses. Burning issues are highlighted in the exquisite nritya of the Sarabhai repertoire. 

Unsuni is a physical, musical theatre piece based on Harsh Mandar's book Unheard Voices. The piece is a collage that comes alive in visuals that shows India's marginalized segments. It gives voice to millions of voiceless people through a series of monologues. They are the unseen: the real lives of the faces and hands of people whom we ignore in our daily encounters. In a captivating performance, we meet people who have confronted life on their own terms but have never accepted fate lying down. These are stories of struggle and courage. And of victories!!
Eclipsing the glamorous icons of modern urban India, the characters that represent the real India are etched like thumbnail sketches. Truth is stranger than fiction is what we learn as the choreographer presents the untold stories from the unknown lives of the masses of our country. We realise that here is real India: her people who have inherited her spirit in their zest for life despite poverty; her mettle to fight despite all odds that official India thrust upon; her centuries old humanism. 

The stage is already set before you are seated. An urban slum on the backyard of a city is an eyesore for those who depend on the help that come from there. Lights fall to reveal a dawn. Prayer is integral to religious India: the sounds bring in Hindu prayers while we see a Muslim woman at prayer on the stage. The young, sleeping in the open, are just waking up. The day begins for them indicating scarcity of water in the land of the Ganga and the Yamuna. A multi-cultural humanscape is a pan India phenomenon that the choreographer uses to give a national dimension to her piece. We find their joy and vigour in the magic of their life-sustaining Bollywood, another misrepresentation of the real India.
From among the street children, a rag-picker stands out to tell his tale. And his story, like those in our epics goes on to narrate stories of other street children. They have come from loveless homes weighed down by riches or poverty to find happiness in companionship even as they are victimised. The stories take us from the urban streets to rural India, a reminder of the real problems that India faces.
The teller of the next tale represents the landless tribal and village farmer who move from pillar to post for justice. Forceful evacuation from land and livelihood is another government sponsored man-made tragedy today. The milk of human kindness, though a trickle, co-exists with corruption to vindicate human dignity, is an enduring slice of life.
The third scene is a riot-affected part of India. It is a grim reminder of the tragedy of the Partition of the Subcontinent, a still haunting ghost even after 50 years of freedom. How fear rules, how the good become weak and how intimidation makes the victims turn hostile is too real to question.

Gujarat might be an aberration. But, the poignant scene tells us to be on our guard.

Then comes the monologue of Narayanamma, a scavenger. Statistics, although negative, are heard in the background announcing the selfless work of countless NGOs. That legal landmarks fail in a feudalistic India is another exposure. The scavenging women in modern India, is a shameful disclosure of the inhuman violence that is part of our lives. The woman narrates her harrowing tale to tell of gender, domestic and caste oriented discrimination in our country.
Then the leper comes in the focus. After all, he is a human being. A social outcast also is human enough to fall in love, marry and bring up his son sacrificing much more than normal parenting demands. The struggle to rehabilitate lepers by a single person that snowballed shows what we can do for our country to bring the suffering masses to the mainstream. The play sends a hopeful and powerful message, as real stories are the source. It is a call to wake-up.

Music and dance enliven the drama of life. Powerful dramatic monologues with flashbacks and short scenes make the show livelier. The endearing spirit of innocent children with their irrepressible joy in life is communicated by energy packed dance that the youth love so much. The scenes are intersected by fast-paced rhythmic gestures reminiscent of Bollywood. The idiom of Bollywood music and dance acquire an ironic twist. This is an ingenuous technique in the production.
Every move and sound fall in place, deepening irony and meaning. Sound, and flickering moving lights in pitch darkness speak of the horror of murder and arson during riots. Costumes, simple and revealing, add shades of meaning. The 75- minute powerful production, without intermission kept the audience riveted. That the show presents both sides of the coin is remarkable. It sensitizes the audience tempering with hopes.
Darpana Academy of Performing Arts has a social cause in mind as they aim to start a volunteer movement with the performance of Unheard Voices. There is the Hindi version, UNSUNI. They are giving the script to local talents with the right to produce the piece so that the volunteer movement will gather momentum. "This is our 42nd presentation and we are targeting schools and colleges to sensitize the youth to the crying need of the hour," said a proud Mallika Sarabhai as she thanked institutions like the UTI Bank, Jet Airways and VSNL for sponsoring her shows.

The Unsuni project launches a movement in India: a movement of saying I care, a movement of showing we care, of knowing that everyday each of us can make a difference.

A new website www.unsuni.net has been set up to help bring people together and coordinate actions.

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance journalist. She covers fine arts and travel for The Hindu, and is a regular contributor to narthaki.com