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“Still I Rise”: A powerful live opera piece by girls of Protsahan Girl Champions bringing gender and caste issues to the forefront at Alliance Francaise, New Delhi led by Kalaripayattu & Japanese Theater maestro, Meera George.

The title “Still I Rise” was taken from Maya Angelou’s poem, and the piece was a celebration of the “unsung heroines” from Kerala, who stood up against patriarchy and caste hierarchy. The play was about a 19th-century woman named Nangeli, who belonged to the Ezhava community in Kerala. This community required women to pay a “breast tax” in order to cover their breasts. Nangeli had cut off her breast to avoid paying the tax. The sacrifice of Nangeli, as well as that of the other two women protagonists of this piece, Thatri and Unniyarcha, was instrumental in bringing the progressive wave to Kerala. And it was their story that was enacted by Protsahan Girls on the stage. 

The musical performance further took a dig at such social ills by incorporating largely male-dominated art forms— such as Kathakali, Kalaripayattu and Chavittu Nadakam—into the performance. Everything from the costumes and makeup, too, were an attempt to challenge the patriarchal norms of Indian society. The musical used white and red on all performing girls’ and artists’ faces. These colours are primarily otherwise used by men to portray strong emotions on stage.

Girls from the Protsahan India Foundation were an integral part of the performance which comprised four acts which came together. It was interesting because the young girls had never worked with opera and such fine expression in theater before. Different art forms were used together, like Kathakali, Kabuki and Kalaripayattu, to make the opera come together really well. In the words of the Protsahan girls, “I will never forget this experience. Meera didi is such a wonderful mentor,” said Preeti. “I learnt how just my face and body language is enough to express my anger and my calmness. When the entire auditorium filled with people applauded our performance I couldn’t stop my tears. I was so happy. I don’t remember being so happy in last 5 years,” said Anju Das, a 16-year-old performer from Protsahan at the event.

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