NIDA Master of Fine Arts (Directing) and University of Sydney graduate Pratha Nagpal’s Maa Ki Rasoi (My Mother’s Kitchen) is an intersectional feminist meditation on the South Asian immigrant experience. The compelling one-woman-show is performed by current USyd student Madhullikaa Singh.
Singh skilfully exemplifies her character’s metacognitive awareness in the stream-of-consciousness unpacking of her struggle with reconciling her own identity with that of her mother. The play is evocative. Weaving across the spectrum of laughter, sadness, intrigue, confusion, anger, the lighting cultivates the mood of each scene — shifting hues of orange, yellow, pink and red — to create an enthralling dramatic world.
The play is set in the protagonist’s mother’s kitchen — the titular rasoi — where she grapples with her connection to Indian culture and the domesticity her mother embodies. Parent-child relationships can be extraneously complex in any culture, but the added layer of a first or second-generation existence can make this terrain even more challenging to navigate. Singh performs this struggle with ease. Her spoken Hindi sounds exactly like a Punjabi mother’s does, and is reminiscent of the traditions South Asian mothers try to embed within their daughters, resistant as they may be to the pull.
The mother calls out to her daughter, “Darling, come and learn to prepare this meal” and “Take some food with you before you go”. The expectation to be a good wife, good sister, good student and good friend are not lost on her daughter, and her struggle with this becomes clear. She dismisses her mother’s requests to learn to make traditional Indian food, stating that she’ll learn later and that it would be easy. She rejects her grandfather’s assertion that she must learn to cook for her future husband, rebelliously responding that she will never set foot in a kitchen again, yelling “fuck the patriarchy” a few times during the play. As a woman raised in the West, she is defensive to the obligations of daughterhood, though she still longs to feel connected to her mother and to appease her. She struggles with the distance that her desires and understandings of feminism produce between herself and her mother.
Whilst Maa Ki Rasoi begins with prioritising Western feminist ideals through its portrayal of the subversive daughter of immigrants, as it progresses, it brings audiences to an intersectional understanding of the place of Indian women in Western society. South Asian women are often stereotyped as passive, subservient and without agency, as they are raised by the patriarchal dogma of a developing nation. But what Western society often misses is that these traits are not necessarily ‘bad’ — that the descriptors passive, subservient and without agency can similarly, and perhaps more accurately, be synonymous with adjectives like selfless, humble, and committed. We see this in the protagonist’s admiration for her mother’s prowess in the kitchen, and her awe in how her mother expresses care and thoughtfulness in raising her. However, these prescriptions of what it should mean to be a woman were created under the promises of paternalism: this nuance should not be lost on audiences either.
Western feminism can at times disrespect the agency of ethnic women, and project their idea of liberation onto them: which could mean sexualising oneself through clothing choices, embracing promiscuity, or declining to engage in household labour, such as in the rasoi. But for many Indian and other South Asian women, the rasoi is where they are in their element: where they use their skilled hands to prepare matar paneer or aloo gobi in fifteen minutes to feed a family of five; similarly to what the protagonist in Maa Ki Rasoi watches her mother do throughout the play. She studies her, and despite not being able to understand her, adores her.
Maa Ki Rasoi is a modern illustration, a live painting of the complexity of intergenerational relationships, and radical acceptance as a way forward in these relationships. It is about how the value of domesticity cannot be completely understood by Western feminism and by many immigrant daughters, and how it does not need to be. All that is really required is a respect for difference and a curiosity to learn more. It is about bringing untold stories to light, and integrating them into the social consciousness to further an intersectional approach to feminism in multicultural Australian society.