Peasant Woman’s Courage Inspires Hypnotic Opera

Kamala Sankaram (front) portrays the Pakistani activist Mukhtar Mai in the LA Opera Off-Grand production of Sankaram’s opera ‘Thumbprint.’ (Photos: Lawrence K. Ho)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES — In a season where operas based on current or recent events are proliferating like mad, LA Opera Off Grand added another, Kamala Sankaram’s Thumbprint, to its list on June 15-18. And this one had the rare distinction of having the subject and raison d’être for the opera, the Pakistani activist Mukhtar Mai, present at all of the performances at REDCAT. Talk about having living history right in our midst.

Kamala Sankaram as Mukhtar Mai, who had to sign her rape report with her thumbprint.

Nine years in the making, having begun life as a song cycle and expanded into an 85-minute opera, Thumbprint was first seen at the 2014 PROTOTYPE festival in New York, so this was its West Coast premiere. It’s worth noting that the principal members of the production team, with the exception of music director Samuel McCoy, are female — from Sankaram to librettist Susan Yankowitz, stage director Rachel Dickstein, and in its fifth collaboration with LA Opera Off Grand, Beth Morrison Projects.

Mai was a young peasant woman in the Pakistani village of Meerwala in 2002 when she was gang-raped in an act of revenge by four men from the Mastoi tribe and then paraded naked in front of the villagers. According to local customs, she was supposed to be forever shamed and told to commit suicide. Instead, she found the strength to go to the police station and report the crime, an unheard-of act for a woman in that society. The police chief told her that in order to file a report,  she would have to sign a blank piece of paper and trust him.

But Mai was illiterate. So she had to use her thumbprint; hence the title of the piece. The rapists were brought to justice, convicted and sentenced to death. In the process, Mai gained confidence in herself, founded an organization to fight illiteracy among Pakistani women, using a settlement of 500,000 rupees (about $4,770 today) from the Pakistani government, and became an inspiration to women beyond the borders of her homeland.

Phyllis Pancella, Kamala Sankaram, and Leela Subramaniam in ‘Thumbprint.’

Flown in from Pakistan just for these performances, Mai, 45, appeared on a post-opera panel, always speaking through a translator. It was the first time in which she was seeing herself portrayed on the stage — by Sankaram herself, a powerful singer (at least as heard through REDCAT’s excellent amplification) as well as a composer. Mai said that it made her uncomfortable at first because the portrait was “so real.”

The opera picks up Mai’s story just before the rape where she and two friends (I’m reminded, perhaps strangely, of the three little maids from school in The Mikado) chatter about future husbands, daily tasks, and such. The gang rape was not depicted in front of us; it was symbolically illustrated with a knife-wielding male tearing into three white sacks of rice. Video projections were shown on a large rear screen, mostly for atmosphere (flames and smoke after the rape, for example), and the main props were four cots that served as seats or were turned on their sides to simulate a police station or courtroom.

Samuel McCoy conducted the singers and six instrumentalists in REDCAT.

Sankaram is half-Indian and half-Angeleno, having grown up with Indian classical music in one ear and Beethoven in the other, as it were. Her score certainly reflects the Indian side — with drones, hand-clapping in adaptations of Hindustani patterns, Asiatic scales, and a drummer ably doubling on tablas — but the primary Western ingredient is that familiar contemporary building block, minimalism. It’s a fairly simple-sounding score as the triads and repetitions for a sextet led by McCoy keep circulating, but the piece develops some hypnotic power as it goes along, the ideas being good enough to bear repeating. At one point, the males in the village ridicule Mukhtar to a jazzy beat. The most memorable passages on a first listen occur in the finale.

No synopsis of the plot, beyond a few general words about Mai’s story, was supplied, and although the cast’s diction was pretty clear most of the time, there were no supertitles to back them up. Also, all of the performers except Sankaram (Steve Gokool, Manu Narayan, Phyllis Pancella, Leela Subramaniam, and Kannan Vasudevan) were asked to play multiple characters, so without a detailed guide, this led to some confusion as to who was playing what and when. Nevertheless, even without prior information, one could pick up a straight dramatic line of action fairly easily.

Steve Gokool as Judge and Kamala Sankaram as Mukhtar Mai.

As it happens, there is a post-script to where the opera leaves off: Mai’s assailants were acquitted on appeal in 2005, and further appeals by Mai and the government have dragged on to this day. Also her passport was temporarily confiscated that year, but returned after a few days. She still lives in the same village and house in which she grew up.

So while lasting justice may be delayed for now, Thumbprint still has relevant, dramatically effective points to make on the theme of self-empowerment in the face of unyielding tradition. And LA Opera’s collaboration with Beth Morrison Projects continues into next season with performances of The Hubble Cantata at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre Oct. 11 and Keeril Makan’s Persona, based on the Ingmar Bergman film, at REDCAT Nov. 9-12.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.

Mukhtar Mai (second from left) takes questions from the audience after a performance of ‘Thumbprint.’ With her are translator Gyanam Mahajam, producer Beth Morrison, composer Kamala Sankaram, and librettist Susan Yankowitz.