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An Interview with Rani Moorthy

5 March 2018 | Sian Brett

The Second in the Sari trilogy, Rani Moorthy’s new play Handlooms examines how family relationships and traditions come into play in the context of business. In this site-specific play which takes place in two sari shops in Leicester and Manchester, the sari becomes a symbol of the past, the future, and the migrant story. We talked to writer and performer Rani Moorthy about developing the script and why it’s important to tell this story.

Culture Calling: Hi Rani thank you so much for talking to Culture Calling. Why did you decide to write about the sari?
RM: My backstory is that I am Malaysian born, but I am Sri Lankan Tamil and also have moved to several countries; I moved to Singapore, was educated there and now I’m here. I think that the whole idea of a migrant story is very much in my DNA. I’m always looking for metaphors that express the kind of anxieties and celebrations that we feel as migrants. When I first came to live in Manchester from Singapore in the late nineties I remember seeing women on Curry Mile who would wear everyday saris, and slowly over the years I realised that people have stopped using them. I realised second and third generation kids are pretty much estranged from their own culture and they would pass these sari shops and the girls would probably be forced into a sari.
 
Bearing all that in mind I wrote a trilogy of plays. The first part was a one-woman show looking at the sari from a woman’s point of view, as quite a complicated garment for a lot of women. The other aspect of it for Handlooms – the second play in the trilogy - is the idea that the sari very much represents the migrant journey. Mainly it was men who ran the businesses, who went to the auction houses in the sub-continent to buy the saris to bring back to customers around the world. I wanted to represent that male point of view. I remembered visiting a sari shop with my mother and aunties, and this is why I wanted to specifically set the play in a sari shop; it is almost impossible to replicate that intimate, almost boudoir like quality. I wanted to see men who sell saris navigate this very unique space where there’s a kind of gender fluidity. Both the sari shops where Handlooms takes place are traditional. They’re almost theatrical spaces, where the clients would be seated in front of a raised platform, where the, usually male, salesman would be demonstrating the sari to them, the drape and how to wear each sari that he is inviting them to see, and hopefully buy.
 
CC: Tell us about what happens in Handlooms.
RM: It is a story about a young man who has inherited the sari shop from his grandfather and subsequently father. They come from Tanzania originally, so they’re very much a migrant family, Gujarati originally, but Rajesh the lead character, is third generation. You expect him to give up and turn to something else, but he has this ongoing battle with his mother who wants to expand the business. It’s a reversal of roles because you expect her to be more traditional and go for the more old-fashioned ways. Instead she is the one who wants to go online, doing big marketing strategies, is very much of the moment.
 
CC: Can you tell us about using both live performance and recorded audio?
RM: The director, Alan Lane, is artistic director of Slung Low, who are known for their site-specific work, very big, in unusual spaces. One of the ways in which they take you on this imaginative journey is through the use of technology, they use headphones, and actors are miked. The audience receive the intimacy of the story in a way that is quite unexpected within the situation and context in which the play happens. It allows us a lot more imaginative freedom within the confines of a sari shop. We’re looking at ways in which we can expand the wonderful conjunction of live performance, and when characters go off into their personal world.


Rani Moorthy at Alankar House of Sarees. Image Credit: Anthony Robling
 
CC: Were you thinking about this whilst writing?
RM: Yes – I was thinking about how to use that space, where the family live above the shop, the idea of families jostling within a family business, living cheek by jowl within these very iconic spaces. If you go into a sari shop, it’s a really different atmosphere from anything. I looked at how I could do a scene between a mother and a son that’s in a domestic context, that isn’t in the world of the shop. Then it started to become obvious that you had to do it like a radio play, where you had a sense of action happening above you but you’re actually hearing every whisper, every hushed tone, or the loudest quarrel you can think of.
 
CC: This is the second in your sari trilogy – have you got plans for the third?
RM: I’m intrigued by weaving communities, especially in the sub-continent, who are being threatened by machine-made saris. Age old looming techniques and loom-woven saris might be a thing of the past. It’s being threatened by commercialism and by Western designers who buy silks really cheaply and then use it for their designs on the red carpet or couture, with no Fairtrade. I’m thinking of a musical, almost like West Side Story. Two very different families meeting and using the sari as a kind of thread, forgive the pun, that weaves round the story. I want to use a lot of South Indian folk music that is rarely heard in Western musical theatre, but still using the trope of the Western musical. I call it ‘Sondheim meets South Indian folk!’
 
CC: How do you find working with Alan Lane?
RM: We’ve worked together before. He’s one of those dynamic directors who can only enhance your writing. He comes with all the experience of doing huge spectacles so something that is set in a sari shop is as much an adventure for him as it is for me. Like a lot of dynamic and artistic people, he is very curious about my culture and what I bring to the table. I like the attitude of being asked questions about my passions and I think he’s very much in simpatico with that.
 
CC: What is it about Manchester and Leicester that makes them the right home for this play?
RM: The first sari shop, outside of London, was in Leicester, and coincidentally, the same family owned the two shops that I was thinking of. I have known Alankar in Manchester since I came here because they were my go-to sari shop when I needed sari blouses or when I needed costumes for other pieces of work, so they were part of my research. I knew Belgrave Road, because almost every Diwali I go to the street celebrations there, and I knew that there were sari shops and a huge community of people who wore the sari. I knew these two iconic roads, Curry Mile and Golden Mile, so it just seemed to work. Part one of my sari trilogy premiered at The Curve in Leicester so I was in talks with them about Handlooms already. And I did a part of my tour at Contact so it all worked out really well.  
 
Handlooms is written by Rani Moorthy, and is on at Alankar House of Sarees in Manchester 12-24 March, and Anokhi House of Sarees in Leicester 10-22 April.
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