Making its world stage premiere this autumn Pink Sari Revolution is the brand new play by Purva Naresh, adapted from the book by Amana Fontanella Khan and based on the true story of Sampat Pal and her fight against female oppression in rural India. Returning to the Belgrade Theatre to take on the lead role in this production, is actress Syreeta Kumar who audiences will recognise from her recent role in the Belgrade’s award-winning production of Made in India. She is also known for her frequent work with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) as well as roles in television such as Apple Tree Yard and films including Notes on a Scandal. In this interview, Syreeta reveals more about bringing the complex character of Sampat Pal to the stage.
Tell us a bit about this story, in particular Sampat Pal’s role in Pink Sari Revolution?
Sampat Pal is the fearsome leader of the 400,000 strong Gulabi Gang in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, made of women who fight for their rights wearing a uniform of pink saris. This play is based on the book written by Amana Fontanella-Khan that tells Sampat’s story and the experiences she faces as a woman in rural India. It’s a remarkable story, relevant to tales of abuse of women across the globe.
We are talking about a woman who is very low caste and living in a place where females are treated as second class. The things that go on in India are horrendous to someone who lives in the West and isn’t living with the caste system. In India, there’s a lack of education for women and a dowry system, honour killings still happen and women are being abused. Sampat lives in very deep poverty and stands up for the injustices by speaking out in an area where these things need to be challenged. In doing so, she has allowed many women to follow her and fight against this injustice.
Sampat Pal is a complex person. What’s it been like taking on the role of this fearless leader?
I am British Asian so I was born in England, but whenever I went over to India I knew that women were second class citizens there. I think that if I was living in India I wouldn’t be the person that I am now – I wouldn’t do the things that I do now. Playing the role of Sampat touches my heart a lot.
Horrendous things happen to women in India but people aren’t being charged so they can get away with their horrific behaviour. The whole system needs to be shook up – which is what Sampat is doing. She’s not making these women victims but instead allowing them to stand up for themselves.
I think Sampat’s story is totally compelling. It’s really hard for her and it makes for a gripping character to explore. I’m completely in awe of this woman, but in a strange way I feel I’m growing into her.
How would you like the female audience to feel after seeing this show?
I want women to feel empowered. The Gulabi Gang empower women in a place where they have very little power in their living situation.
Someone will be sitting watching in an abusive relationship. Hopefully we can give them the courage to say ‘this is wrong’. If one person talks about it and speaks up, we’ve made a difference.
It’s important that we have role models from all over the world. I think we have very few stories like this where there is an Indian female activist who comes from a low caste and has challenged the system. These are vital stories to tell, and Sampat is a vital role model.
What have you taken away from being in this production and acting out the struggles and dilemmas women in India face?
What’s remarkable for me, having limited contact with India, is that Sampat isn’t just going around speaking out and doing the right thing as far as women are concerned. She was born into a society which doesn’t allow women to be like this.
There’s massive poverty in India, where girls are seen as a burden on the family. Women are burned to death to leave their husbands free to marry again and claim more dowries. People believe they will be cursed if they accept a cup of tea from a member of the lowest caste. This is happening right now. What we have to do as actors is take these events to the stage and get across a story which will make people think, learn and talk about it.
Pink Sari Revolution runs at the Belgrade Theatre from Weds 11 to Sat 21 October. Tickets are available now priced from £13 by calling the Belgrade Box Office team on 024 7655 3055 or visit www.belgrade.co.uk.