New play at the G5A Warehouse invokes the stories of proud Tamil trans women who have fed several generations of people
A Revathi, who plays the titular Nooramma, says the challenge of her role is cooking live on stage, through costume changes and monologues
Most theatrical performances end with standing ovations and the assigning of credit to the cast and crew. It is a generous thespian who ends the play with an act of community care—by serving a delicious meal to members of the audience, building a more intimate connection. For Srijith Sundaram, the director of Nooramma: Biriyani Durbar, this narrative choice was inspired by the work of trans women in his home state Tamil Nadu, particularly the Trans Community Kitchen, which provided sustenance to thousands during the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant lockdown, a time of severe food insecurity.
Nooramma is played by community leader and actor A Revathi in what is essentially a solo performance, but she is an embodiment of many different life stories. “There is no one, singular Nooramma,” says Sundaram, whose play will be staged at the G5A Warehouse in Mahalaxmi. “We have presented an amalgamation of all those trans women who have stood tall and made a name for themselves in different parts of Tamil Nadu.” The director has wanted to tell these stories for a while now, particularly after he and his team collected oral histories in the areas around Coimbatore and Namakkal—histories of trans legacy and joy.
Revathi’s role is moving and challenging in equal parts, as her character reminisces about the past and cooks while on stage. “I wondered if I could pull off such a detailed, elaborate script all by myself, but Srijith reassured me,” she says. “He gave me great freedom while I imbibed what the role needed. I drew from my own experience of cooking biriyani for dozens of people; the challenge with playing Nooramma is cooking on stage while also acting and going through costume changes.” Revathi takes great delight in the audience’s appreciation of her food.
Aruvi, who has shaped the research and script Nooramma is based on, says that the play honours trans entrepreneur M Sangeetha by speaking of her legacy. Sangeetha was found murdered in October 2020, and the police went on to arrest P Rajesh, a former employee at her restaurant. Rajesh allegedly killed her after Sangeetha threatened to report him for sexual harassment.
For Sangeetha and trans cooks like her, their occupation was a way to express their gender identity, something they could not do in their homes or in larger society. “We wanted to talk about where she came from, how she came to be a cook. During our research, we unearthed that the legacy of cooking by trans women has been ongoing for generations—Sangeetha did it, so did her guru, and her guru’s guru,”
Nooramma’s own religious identity, as well as the star dish of the performance—biriyani—are both significant and purposeful. The minds behind the play observed the worsening political situation during the COVID 19 pandemic, particularly the way in which the Muslim community was being targeted. “Biriyani isn’t just celebratory, it has an element of resistance,” Sundaram explains. Serving biriyani prepared on stage to those seated in the audience, is an invitation to interrogate their own biases.
WHAT: Nooramma: Biriyani Durbar by Kattiyakkari Theatre Group
WHERE: G5A Warehouse, Laxmi Mills Estate, Mahalaxmi West
WHEN: Dec 8, 7 PM
PRICE: Rs 250