An im­print of sur­vival

Opera gives Pak­istani rape sur­vivor louder voice

Los Angeles Times - - CULTURE MONSTER - By Cather­ine Wo­mack cal­en­dar@la­times.com

Some­times, the small­est child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences can have the big­gest im­pact on a life.

As a kid in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in the 1980s, Ka­mala Sankaram rode to school with her In­dian fa­ther ac­com­pa­nied by the hyp­notic, war­bling vo­cals of South In­dian clas­si­cal mu­sic. When her white mother was at the wheel, Beethoven’s de­ci­sively West­ern melodies flowed through the speak­ers.

A fu­sion of those two dis­tinct child­hood sound­tracks per­me­ates the score for “Thumbprint,” Sankaram’s ripped-from-the-head­lines cham­ber opera about Mukhtar Mai, a Mus­lim Pak­istani woman who over­came a bru­tal sex­ual as­sault to bravely pur­sue jus­tice and so­cial change.

“Thumbprint” re­ceives its West Coast pre­miere Thurs­day through Sun­day at REDCAT as part of Los An­ge­les Opera’s “Off Grand” se­ries, of­ten con­tem­po­rary works with un­con­ven­tional for­mats or edgier themes. Mai is fly­ing to L.A. from Pak­istan to see the pro­duc­tion for the first time.

Just as she did at the opera’s 2014 world pre­miere in New York, Sankaram is play­ing the lead role of Mai in the L.A. per­for­mances of “Thumbprint.”

“Ka­mala be­ing Mukhtar just makes so much sense,” said Beth Mor­ri­son, the cre­ative di­rec­tor for “Thumbprint,” not­ing Sankaram’s South Asian ancestry. “I think Ka­mala is a unique ex­am­ple of a very high level com­poser/per­former. I feel like her ca­reer is re­ally just about to ex­plode.”

Jug­gling mul­ti­ple roles is some­thing Sankaram has man­aged through­out an eclec­tic ca­reer.

An easy­go­ing thir­tysome­thing who lives in the Bronx with her long­time part­ner and two cats, Sankaram has a ré­sumé that in­cludes singing gigs at a Catholic church and a re­cent jazz fes­ti­val in Ger­many, voice-act­ing on Com­edy Cen­tral and Car­toon Net­work shows, com­mis­sions from Hous­ton Grand Opera and Washington Na­tional Opera and an up­com­ing record­ing pro­ject with her in­die-Gyp­sy­op­er­atic rock band, Bom­bay Rickey.

Sankaram plays the ac­cor­dion and sitar, the lat­ter picked up at 19 af­ter her In­dian grand­fa­ther gave her the in­stru­ment as a gift. Her PhD, how­ever, is ac­tu­ally in psy­chol­ogy from the New School for So­cial Re­search in New York.

She be­came in­ter­ested in mu­sic and the­ater as a high school stu­dent in Ra­mona, Calif. With the help of friends, she launched the school’s drama club. She also was ac­tive in show choir.

“I started do­ing ar­range­ments for my choir and wrote a cou­ple songs that we sang in the tal­ent show,” Sankaram re­called with a bub­bly laugh. “Af­ter that I stud­ied mu­sic and the­ater and psy­chol­ogy at Sarah Lawrence Col­lege.”

The PhD in psy­chol­ogy was, to some de­gree, a way to ap­pease her fa­ther, who was “never com­fort­able with the idea of mu­sic as a ca­reer and of­fered to pay for a de­gree that was more prac­ti­cal.”

Sankaram stayed in New York af­ter school. It was there, among the young ex­per­i­men­tal opera the­ater crowd, that she met pro­ducer Mor­ri­son.

In 2008, Mor­ri­son had seen a pro­duc­tion of “Seven,” a doc­u­men­tary play that re­lays the true sto­ries of seven women who fought for so­cial jus­tice. One mono­logue in par­tic­u­lar — play­wright Su­san Yankowitz’s telling of Mai’s story — struck a chord.

Mai was gang raped in 2002 by mem­bers of a pow­er­ful Pak­istani clan as an act of honor re­venge. Lo­cal cus­tom called for her to com­mit sui­cide af­ter the rape, but the young woman de­fied tra­di­tion. Not only did she choose to live, but she took her case to the po­lice in an at­tempt to pros­e­cute her rapists.

As she nav­i­gated the court sys­tems, Mai had to use her thumbprint to sign doc­u­ments be­cause she could not read or write. Mai’s ex­pe­ri­ences in court in­spired her to start Mukhtar Mai Women’s Or­gan­i­sa­tion, a foun­da­tion ded­i­cated to ed­u­cat­ing young women in Pak­istan.

Mor­ri­son sug­gested Mai’s story to Sankaram as the ba­sis for a song cy­cle. The re­sult­ing mu­sic pre­miered in 2009 at Beth Mor­ri­son Projects’ 21C Lieder­abend con­cert at Gala­pa­gos Art Space in Brook­lyn.

But Sankaram felt that more mu­sic needed to be writ­ten to tell Mai’s story fully. Mor­ri­son agreed.

Mor­ri­son put Sankaram in touch with Yankowitz, who be­came the opera’s li­bret­tist. Her “Seven” mono­logue and her “Thumbprint” li­bretto are based on in­ter­views she con­ducted with Mai through a trans­la­tor.

As she com­posed the mu­sic, Sankaram said she fo­cused on “mak­ing a piece that was true to peo­ple who had been as­saulted.”

Sankaram ac­knowl­edged that “Thumbprint” is a dif­fi­cult story to tell. Still, in the end, it’s a piece about op­ti­mism and hope.

“That’s part of why I’m glad that we’re do­ing it now,” she said. “I think that the cen­tral mes­sage of the piece is that one per­son with con­vic­tion can make a change, even to some­thing that is deeply en­trenched in a so­ci­ety. We shouldn’t give up hope even if it seems kind of im­pos­si­ble. I think that mes­sage is im­por­tant for us now more than ever.”

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

KA­MALA SANKARAM is com­poser and lead singer of opera “Thumbprint,” a story about a Pak­istani woman named Mukhtar Mai who bravely seeks jus­tice af­ter be­ing bru­tally sex­u­ally as­saulted.

Noah Stern We­ber Beth Mor­ri­son Projects

LA OPERA Off-Grand will present the West Coast pre­miere of “Thumbprint,” about a Pak­istani woman’s long fight against in­jus­tice.

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