Tripurari Sharma's “Roop Aroop” creates a mirage of the real and the unreal.

His lifeline is his form. The actor, the dancer. He sets hearts aflutter on stage with his practised daintiness, studied coyness, supple movements and a body tuned strictly to be the epitome of womanhood. Until she comes along, bringing with her all that is perceived unwomanly. Unlike his snaky braid, her hair and spirit knows no bondage. Unlike him, her persona is not imprisoned in a mirror image. Unlike him, her voice and singing throbs with abandon. Rules for her are not sacrosanct. She is being herself — naturally feline, remarkably flexible.

Tripurari Sharma's “Roop Aroop” staged on the inaugural day of the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards at Shri Ram Centre, exuded meaning with each scene. An offshoot of the nautanki tradition where men took on the roles of women, the play settles on the moment in time when women came to stake their claim on stage, forcing the male actor to discard an identity that he had imbibed with practice and learned to love.

The male actor who stretches his stage persona beyond it cannot shake off his roles. He lives again and again in the postures and movements — all the perfect, sophisticated women he portrayed on stage. “I am in love with this form,” he claims again and again as he reflects on his sari-clad self, his thin arms sparkling with bangles, his feet given life by lively anklets.

He scorns her when she comes — a token of everything unlike a woman in his eyes. If he is picked from his village to don the roles by his master, she is presumably from the Bedin community, singers and dancers by caste. She believes the stage will earn her respectability, stardom and security. If she can't match his singing, she gently tells him to lower the notes, if she cannot glide down the stage like him, she tells him women don't walk like that.

Clever tussle

At the end of this clever tussle, the man is left to reclaim his manhood, but lose his persona. She takes on the stage and brings abandon to it. Happy Ranajit and Gauri Dewal absorb their roles as the male and female actor well and deliver with zest.

On the evolution of “Roop Aroop”, Sharma who has also scripted it, says, “I have been working with the people in nautanki. The marginalisation of the male actors happened as the company owners capitalised on women, the female persona.” She adds the women were not allowed to do the roles they wanted but to fit the persona propagated by men. In the play too, the female actor hopes to own a company one day and do roles of her wish.

The tradition of male actors, she says “designed by men for the entertainment of men had persisted for a long time.” However, the sorrow of the actor forced to give up and let go of his identity is where “Roop Aroop” centres itself. “It is about how difficult it is for the actor to give up. On the stage, art exists only in one's lifetime — no recording, no chronicling. This becomes like life breath, and giving up becomes a tough moment,” says Sharma.

The male actor has internalised the feminine to a large extent. She adds, “That's why he can't be brutal beyond a point.” Despite his internalisation, he cannot deny the fact — the woman before him, wanting to take away his female roles, is a real woman.

Sharma says though there was a script and some ideas, what began as a gender game grew layers, meanings and dialogues through the work with the actors. “Roop Aroop” succeeds as it emanates interpretations — of women reclaiming their space, the transience of things, of creativity ebbing away from an artiste, of the archaic usurped by the contemporary, of the real and the created — yet tells an engrossing tale.