Attempting the Male Thing

There are two ways in which women may break into a traditional performing art meant only for male practitioners. They may enter it on sufferance and accommodate themselves to the tradition; or they may enter it as their right and modify the tradition to accommodate their viewpoint. So far, the few women who have entered Yakshagana, the the 800-year-old, energetic, males-only dance drama of Karnataka, have done so in the first way, playing the stock female roles doled out to them. Some have gone a step further. They have set up all-female troupes; but these only substitute female for male performers while adhering to the male template of character interpretation and performance.

When Sharanya Ramprakash, founder-member of the Bangalore theatre group Dramanon, joined the Yakshagana Kendra in Udupi on a scholarship, it was to train under Guru Bannanje Sanjeeva Suvarna. But touring with the Centre's Yaksha Ranga troupe, playing small female and male roles, she began mulling over questions of gender in performance. The outcome of the questioning was Akshayambara, a 90-minute play-within-a-play scripted and directed by her with funding from the India Foundation for the Arts.

Staged last Wednesday at G5A to a resounding reception, Akshayambara, (unending cloth) inserts scenes from Vastrapaharana, a canonical Yakshagana play, within an off-stage conflict between the traditional male actor (Prasad Cherkady) playing Draupadi and an urban female actor (Ramprakash) playing Dushasana. The male actor fumes at the woman for transgressing into territory that is not hers by right. The female actor mildly points out that the troupe owner has cast her as the Kaurava which gives her as much right to play her role as he has to play his. The green room where the argument escalates stage by stage till it reaches the point of physical aggression by the man, is cleverly broken into three spaces of progressively increasing height. Located right-stage, left-stage and upstage, they hem in the space where the real play is performed, like emblems of the new forces that are encroaching on tradition. The space upstage, equipped with two large mirrors, multiplies the images of the male dressing up as a woman and the female dressing up as a man, to create an intriguing space of gender fluidity.

Ramprakash adds other layers to the open conflict between male preserve and female transgression to deepen the issue with a more complex narrative. This narrative is played out in two sensitively written and powerfully performed scenes, both turning our gaze sympathetically towards the male actor. In the first scene which introduces class and socio-economic location into the equation, the male actor tears into the urban woman telling her that, unlike her, he is in Yakshagana not for fashion, but as a professional. Once his sari comes off, he is a man with a family to feed. In the second, light is cast on the actor's sad acceptance of what he may and may not do within the given parameters of the Yakshagana tradition. Here he is a 14-year-old youth yearning to play Abhimanyu instead of Subhadra, the role that's been assigned to him. But no other actor is capable of playing her as well as him. His unique physiognomy, suppleness, grace and voice lend themselves perfectly to a credible portrayal of this female character.

If this is the rationale for casting, how does Ramprakash playing Dushasana fit into it? She is tall but lissone, something you can see through to despite the voluminous costume that adds to her dimensions, and the moustache that suggests a macho male. Her voice too remains thin despite her attempt to deepen it. Altogether, she doesn't make as convincing a male impersonator as Cherkady does a female. But this is precisely what poses the question, what is it for a female to embody a male? Ramprakash's answer is crystallised in a brief moment in which the performer's professionalism, her gender and the ethics of human behaviour intersect to halt her hand in the very act of pulling at the unending length of Draupadi's sari. In that moment the two antagonists exchange looks. His is a blend of pleading as the character and questioning as a professional performer. Hers is imbued with guilt and compassion. The moment passes and the play goes on.

Akshayambara is a deeply stirring play for the complexity of Ramprakash's script, the sureness of her direction, the musicians' singing, Cherkady's light-footed dancing and his ringing, emotionally nuanced speech. Together, these give us an exuberant exposition of the grand art that is Yakshagana.  

Published On : 02-03-2016