Finding a voice: the story of Mukhtar Mai

The harrowing yet inspiring tale of Mukhtar Mai, the rape victim who went on to become a human rights crusader, is being staged as an opera. Here composer and singer Kamala Sankaram reveals how she approached such a difficult topic

Writing a piece with a strong political message is something of a balancing act. The challenge is to simultaneously open the audience up to a new perspective without beating them over the head with it. This is particularly true when writing a piece that you, the creator, have a strong emotional involvement with, as I do with my new opera, Thumbprint.

Thumbprint is the true story of Mukhtar Mai, the first woman in Pakistan to successfully prosecute an honour crime. In 2002, she was gang-raped as retribution for a crime her 12-year-old brother allegedly committed. Custom dictates that a woman who has been so dishonoured should commit suicide.

However, Mukhtar chose instead to speak out. Despite the fact that she was illiterate and had no knowledge of her legal rights, Mukhtar defied tradition by bringing her attackers to justice, and has become an international spokesperson for women’s education.

As an Indian-American woman, Mukhtar’s story resonates very strongly for me. Although horrific, it is also inspirational in that it didn’t end as so many of these stories do: with Mukhtar’s death, either by her own hand, by her attackers, or by her own family. Her journey touches on many of the issues women face in South Asia, and indeed across the world – lack of essential rights and lack of education.

My librettist, Susan Yankowitz, and I felt that the best way to open the audience up to these issues would be to focus on telling Mukhtar’s story from her own point of view. Her journey takes her from a very insular world into the global community. She goes from having no voice to becoming an international voice for women’s rights. I kept both of these ideas in mind as I wrote the music.

Sankaram in Thumbprint © Carl Skutsch
Sankaram in Thumbprint © Carl Skutsch

A large part of my process involved finding a way to allow the audience to experience Mukhtar’s world. I suspect that the majority of the people who come to see the show will never have travelled to Pakistan, and may know nothing of its traditions.

Music has the power to connect us emotionally in ways that cross national and cultural boundaries. As I began writing, I understood that the music needed to be able to allow the audience a way into a culture that was potentially very unfamiliar.

My approach was to find a way to blend Pakistani and Indian traditional music with Western compositional practices. By using song forms that are familiar to a Western audience, there is a familiar structure for them to hold on to. At the same time, it was very important to me that the music also stay true to South Asian traditions.

I wrote the piece based mainly in Hindustani ragas, borrowing from Qawwali, kirtan, tabla bol, and even bhangra. By combining these musical traditions, I have tried to create something that can bring the listener into the world of South Asian music.

Kamala Sankaram © Terrence Collins
Kamala Sankaram © Terrence Collins

Writing the rape scene was a very difficult section of the piece. In live theatre, you can’t cut away like you can in film, so depicting an act of violence like this is very delicate.

Susan and I decided that, in keeping with the larger decision to tell the story from Mukhtar’s point of view, the rape scene should also be more internal. The musical challenge was to preserve the violence without being too literal (ie screeching violins, etc). My solution was to create a ‘chorus’ of breaths: gasps and inhales.

The other important musical consideration in the piece was to show Mukhtar finding her voice. This consideration also informed the decision to make the piece an opera; I feel the operatic voice is capable of astounding virtuosity and power.

Mukhtar’s vocal line begins as rather small and contained. Over the course of the piece, as she gains confidence and perspective, her vocal line also grows in range and power until, in the finale, it soars.

Thumbprint (pictured top) receives its world premiere at New York’s PROTOTYPE festival, which is founded and produced by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE. The opera runs at Baruch Performing Arts Center from 10-18 January.