"The body becomes currency to get water," says V Balakrishnan, the artistic director of Theatre Nisha, which will be staging the Chennai premiere of their play, Sordid, that explores the dynamics and sexual politics of being “water-wives” in a parched India. It tells the story of a Tukaram, a farmer, and his three wives, striving to survive in an arid village in an unnamed part of the country. Water and its scarcity are central to the narrative, altering the lives of every character in the play, "something most of us, who have water coming out of our bathroom and kitchen taps have no idea about," as Balakrishnan says.
The idea of the play goes back to 2017, recalls Balakrishnan, who was working on children's play on water conservation for Alliance Francaise's Bonjour India festival. "While I was researching, I found a lot on the UN website about all the problems with water," he says. One narrative that stayed with him was the sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated against women while walking long distances to fetch water. Another, he says, was about water wives or paani bhais.
"In many parts of Maharashtra where there is water scarcity, men are allowed to marry multiple times, just to have someone to fetch home water," Balakrishnan says. However, he adds that the water wives do not usually have conjugal rights; many are destitute women who agree to this deal in exchange for food and shelter. "Water dictates everything in these areas," he says. "That was the starting point for me,” adding that both these ideas came together in the play.
In 2019, Sordid won The Hindu Playwright Award, an annual award instituted by The Hindu group in 2008 that awards a cash prize of ₹ 2 lakh to the best new English theatre script. The play premiered in March 2020 at the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad. However, covid-19 broke out soon after and theatre performances all over the country came to a grinding halt. This is the first time the play is being performed since covid began, says Balakrishnan, adding that that Theatre Nisha will stage two shows of Sordid in Alliance Francaise on October 17.
The play will also travel to Bengaluru the following week, where four shows will be performed at Ranga Shankara on 23 and 24 October. Tickets can be booked online in advance on Paytm Insider as there will be no tickets at the venue.