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Birth pangs of the new woman

Cupid's Broken Arrow treads a new ground in both content and form.

PRASANNA IS back on the Bangalore theatre scene, after a gap of several years, and this time he threatens to stay. His new production, Cupid's Broken Arrow, under the banner Angika, could mark the beginning of a new bilingual theatre repertory. Sponsored by Norwegian and Swedish embassies in India, on the occasion of the Centennial Celebrations of Norway's independence from Sweden, the play brings three great playwrights from the three nations — Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and our very own Rabindranath Tagore.

What binds together these three playwrights, writing in different parts of the world around the same time, is their interest in the emergence of the new woman and their sensitive handling of the struggle between femininity and masculinity within an individual. Cupid's Broken Arrow, scripted by Zac O'Yeah, a Swedish writer living in Bangalore, explores this concept by interweaving scenes from Ibsen's A Doll's House, Strindberg's Miss Julie, and Tagore's Chitrangada.

Written by Henrik Ibsen in 1879, during the rise of the women's movement in Europe, A Doll's House captures the spiritual and social conflicts inherent in being a woman and a mother in the modern world. Set in the affluent household of Nora and Torvald Helmer, the play depicts the awakening of Nora to the superficiality of her apparently happy life and marriage. Nora, after playing "child-wife" in her "doll's house" for eight years, finally walks out in search of her "essential self". Her action calls into question all the compromises we make in our lives to remain within our own dolls' houses.

The scenes chosen for the present production focus on the relationship between Nora and Helmer and Nora's reasons for her decision to leave. The focus becomes exclusive because the other characters in the play are replaced by a chorus-cum-sutradhars consisting of two deities — Manmatha and Vasantha, dressed in Yakshagana costumes. The very incongruity of their presence alienates Nora and Helmer from their surroundings and places them on a neutral ground so that their predicament becomes universal. The transformation in Nora is made clearly visible through the use of the Yakshagana screen to substitute the flighty, feminine, fragile Nora of the earlier scenes with a different actress costumed and made-up to project the image (Prasanna's image, of course!) of a strong, iron-willed, liberated woman. The new woman is a half-male and is stripped of all feminine attributes.

Though, at first, Strindberg's Miss Julie appears to give a changed picture of the man-woman relationship, it is not long before we realise how superficial the change is. But the image Strindberg presented of the new woman was so disturbing that the play, written in 1888, was banned in Sweden for several years.

Miss Julie is a play about the treacherous gulf between men and women and the interplay of sex, money, and power. In what appears like a reversal of roles, we see Miss Julie, the beautiful and aggressive daughter of a Count, trying to prove her superiority by seducing her father's footman, Jean. Having loved her, as a child, to the point of contemplating suicide, Jean gives in. He is also motivated by the fact that this amorous adventure with Julie can lift him out of poverty. What begins as manipulative flirtation soon turns into a dangerous and erotic game of passion, power and betrayal. After the sexual thrill has dissipated, they realise that they have little or nothing in common.

But this sexual union changes the power equation. Though a servant, Jean, by virtue of being a man, is the lord of creation. Once aroused, he takes over the initiative and makes Julie realise that he is the aristocrat in the sexual sphere. His social inferiority is temporary and he can shed it along with his livery. But Miss Julie, being a woman, is "born stunted". The play is thus a literary expression of the theory of Social Darwinism. Once again we have the Yakshagana gods ushering in the more feminine, weaker Julie, who is none other than Nora, to take the place of "the man-hating half-woman".

The split between the masculine and feminine attributes within the modern woman finds powerful expression in Tagore's poetic drama Chitrangada. Having been brought up like a son, warrior princess Chitra has none of the feminine wiles and is contented that way until she meets Arjuna, who has taken a vow of chastity for 12 years. To help her win him over Manmatha and Vasantha turn her into a great beauty. Though her beauty casts a spell on Arjuna, Chitra grows increasingly dissatisfied with the duplicity of the situation. Since the borrowed body is not really her, she cannot accept Arjuna's love as a homage paid to her true self.

Cupid's Broken Arrow treads new grounds in both content and form. A play of ideas, it fuses the naturalism of Western theatre with the stylisation of Indian theatre. Like the three extracts chosen, the opening scene between the Sutradhar and Nati too focuses on man-woman relationship, but in a less serious way.

The Yakshagana gods add to colour and quaintness of the play. The absurdity of their situation, apart from providing comic relief, makes the mixture of plays and accents more acceptable.

Though one cannot appreciate the way feminine and masculine attributes are presented in binary opposition, the play forces one to think seriously about the construction of the modern woman.

As far as performance aspects are concerned, Prasanna and his team are absolutely professional. Casting is superb. Mallika and Raza Hussain get into their numerous roles with ease while Ashwini looks a fragile female.

Veena and Anand strut about the stage most comfortably in their Yakshagana costumes. Firm gestures and measured movements lend power to ideas the play expresses.


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