The word Birangona literally means Brave Woman. How ironic then, that the term has now become a byword for dishonour, disgrace and shame. The Birangonas are the many thousands of women and girls who were raped and tortured by the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh liberation war, many of them kept as sex slaves in camps. Some died as a result of their brutal treatment; those that survived were rejected by their families, ostracised by society. Their suffering and their bravery counted for nothing; they had lost their honour and without that they were worthless. Worse; they were an embarrassment. Some committed suicide, others fled to live in India. Some chose to remain in their communities, hoping the shame would finally fade, little thinking that more than forty years later their grandchildren would still be suffering from the stigma upon their family.
For this reason their story is rarely told; when you hear about the brave Bengali freedom fighters, no mention is made of the army of women who gave everything. In this play, The Komola Collective seek to redress the balance a little by telling the story of one woman, Moryom, who speaks for the silent thousands. Combining theatre, animation and documentary footage of the interviews that the collective conducted with five Birangona, the performance is harrowing to say the least.
Moryom, played by Leesa Gazi, takes us on a disturbing emotional journey through her life. She recollects her childhood, her mother, the smell of tamarind, the day she met her husband, how she felt when she was expecting her child. Lighting, music and incense are cleverly deployed to immerse us in the safety and beauty of her world. Her sweet recollections are interspersed however with others; brutal, dark and of a violence it is almost impossible to comprehend. How they caught her and raped her in front of her family, who were then killed. How they murdered her little daughter by stamping on her stomach. How she was stripped naked and taken, with so many other women, to the camp.
The narrative jumps bewilderingly back and forward in time, resulting in an occasional breaking of the tension which has been building; however nothing can lessen the shock of hearing, both from Moryom herself and from the Birangona interviewees, the stark truth of what happened to them. No punches are pulled; the Komola collective want their audience to have the facts. Maybe in an effort to palliate the horror, the play is somewhat over stylised – there is an awful lot of activity involving knotted, cumbersome sheets, some long moments where nothing much happens apart from some twirling, and a protracted hair-pulling dance sequence, all of which detract to some extent from the reality of what they are showing us. Nevertheless, the intensity of Gazi’s performance is undeniable. The men never appear, except in shadow-play; she is alone on the stage the entire time, and she is mesmerising. Her lightning flashes from giddy happiness to raw, howling, desperate horror seem utterly genuine, and strop the nerves raw.
Birangona: Women of War cannot be said to be an enjoyable play. However it is an important play, which not only gives a voice to people who have been silenced for so long, but also delivers a deep and lasting emotional impact. At one point we were asked; “Who could tolerate this?” There is no answer to give.
Review by Genni Trickett
About Komola Collective
Komola Collective was formed in 2012 by Leesa Gazi, Filiz Ozcan, Sohini Alam, and Caitlin Abbott. We are writer, director, actor, musician, illustrator, facilitator, composer, designer. Komola Collective is a London-based arts company dedicated to telling the stories that often go untold – stories from women’s perspectives. We want to revisit history. Challenge social taboos. Unearth myths. Retell known stories. Question accepted beliefs.
Birangona: Women of War – Creative Team
Produced by Komola Collective , Research Concept & Performance: Leesa Gazi , Script: Samina Luthfa, Director: Filiz Ozcan, Lighting Designer: Nasirul Haque, Designer: Caitlin Abbott, Design Assistant: Umit Ozcan, Sound Designer: Ahsan Reza, Videographer: Fahmida Islam, Vocals: Sohini Alam, Performer: Amith Rahman, Stage Manager: Matthew Lambart
Artwork: Caitlin Abbott from original photo by Naib Uddin Ahmed
Date: Wednesday 4th and Thursday 5th December 2013
Venue: Tara Arts
Address: 356 Garratt Lane, London SW18 4ES
Saturday 7th December 2013