In 2002, the gang rape of Mukhtaran Mai made international headlines. This January, for eight nights straight in New York City, an opera titled Thumbprint attempted to retell the same story.
The $150,000 production is the creation of playwright and librettist Susan Yankowitz, directed by Rachel Dickstein and composed by Kamala Sankaram, who also plays the lead role of Mukhtaran Mai.
The 90-minute showcase consisted of six musicians conducted by Steven Osgood and six actors who were visible to the audience at all times and played more than one role. The opera band was cloaked in black, while there was a plain white backdrop projecting images according to the changing scenes on stage. The main props were Pakistani charpoys, a broom made of wood and rice bags which were later cut open dramatically during the rape scene with muffled shrieks as Kamala stood against a charpoy.
The opening scene shows Mukhtaran Mai dressed in shalwar kameez sitting on a charpoy, embroidering away with her head bowed. As the lights dim, the opera band starts with a theatrical number and raises the tension in the room. The actors are now in full character as reporters sing “BBC, Islamabad Times, Hindustan Times, Mukhtaran Mai please answer the question. Where did you get your courage?” This question is reiterated throughout the opera. “In a dry season, someone must be the first drop of rain,” responds the rape survivor.
In dramatic flow, the opera then travels back into time to show a happy time in a Pakistani family when the women of the household were cooking some rotis. Their happiness soon turns to grief as their patriarch walks in to break the news of Mukhtaran Mai’s brother, Shakur being accused of rape. Faiz Mastoi (a member of the powerful rival clan) played by Manu Narayan delivers an outstanding performance in his antagonist’s role, as he comes into Mukhtaran’s household and demands an apology from a woman of their tribe and an equal transaction of Shakur’s crime as per tradition.
(Top & bottom) Cast and crew of Thumbprint.
The storyline of the opera follows the timeline of events but the explanation of the Pakistani customs in the libretto is at times, unclear. The American audience most likely couldn’t understand Urdu words in the libretto such as ‘zinnah’ (adultery) and ‘tauba’ (repent).
The title was given a creative twist but its significance was exaggerated. Thumbprint stands for the thumbprint which Mukhtaran Mai used to sign her papers at the police station. The libretto suggested however, that all Pakistani women are illiterate and therefore use their thumbprint.
Recalling her three meetings with Mukhtaran Mai in the opera’s program, Susan Yankowitz says, “Because she spoke no English and I had no Urdu, we communicated through interpreters. The tape transcribed her words and inflections, my pen noted mood, tension, changed expressions, whispers with her cousin — and with the addition of intuition, I wrote that first monologue.” The opera was successful in recreating the mood and tension of the tragedy but the selective emphasis on parts of the event ended up complicating Pakistan’s realities even further for an American audience.
The opera’s band of musicians was spectacular in intertwining a fusion of qawwali with their western instruments. Before the curtains fell back, the white backdrop turned an appealing blue and ‘Mukhtaran Bibi’ could be seen written in Urdu– from thumbprint to signature, Mai came full circle.
Despite a well-intentioned execution, the opera didn’t match Mukhtaran Mai’s powerful story. Perhaps, for a story this strong, it was this form of expression that wasn’t appropriate.
Marium Soomro is a freelance writer based out of New York. She tweets @Marium_Soomro
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 2nd, 2014.