THEATRE Baduku Bayalu by Janamanadata was a very convincing portrayal of the life of transgender activist Revathi. It also left us with uncomfortable questions about the way we read art
What happens when real life testimonies journey into artistic spaces? If they acquire a creative existence, they will perhaps be seen as great works of art. But if an aesthetic space becomes a platform to articulate the insurgency of the subaltern, can we, then divorce it from its circumstances and view it as “pure” art? Can we, in such a mode of understanding, enter someone else’s history and alter its nature of truth?
Mahashweta Devi’s stories about the histories and struggles of peasants, tribals, women and the poor – the disenfranchised subaltern groups as critics call them – are shocking. It doesn’t stem from the creative brilliance of the writer, but because they have evidence in real life. For those familiar with Mahashweta Devi, among the most incisive writers of our times, we know her stories came from geo-socio-political spaces that lie faraway from the cocooned environs of the mainstream, hence our imagination. They were part of the writer’s eco system, as she walked with them through forests and hills for several decades. If in Dopdi , or Pterodactyl, Puran Sahay and Pirtha , or The Hunt , Mahashweta Devi speaks of struggles and models of resistance hitherto unfamiliar to her readers, it’s an endeavour to bring into our consciousness the lives of these people even as she gives them a voice.
Let’s fast forward to two decades later. When Marathi playwright and director, the late Chetan Datar wrote 12, Madhav Baug about the ‘different’ sexual preferences of a young boy from a respectable middle class family, the shock of the protagonist (mother) trickled down to the audience as well. In a way, the boy’s angst could be called subaltern and the resistance he faced may well be the resistance we would pose.
Now. A similar shock was evident among the characters as well as the audiences of Baduku Bayalu (directed by Ganesh M.), a play based on the transgender activist A. Revathi’s autobiography, The Truth About Me . Staged by Janamanadata, Heggodu, in Bangalore recently, the play unravels the horrors of sexuality minorities in vivid detail. The normalcy and simplicity of Revathi’s narration (translated to Kannada by Du. Saraswati), at times bordering on raw and crude, is something that may elude a chaste, creative work: this is our point of discomfort too. The transgender is part of many of our rituals and religious practices, but to keep them on the periphery without knowing too much about their anguish and trauma is to bestow a lightness to our beings.
Presented superbly and poignantly by a talented set of actors, the play took you through the life of Kelunni Kutti and his transformation into Revathi. A biological state that cannot be suppressed faced by institutional tyranny forms the story. Minimal sets and stage design, and simple costumes kept you as close to reality as possible. The play, even though an autobiography, succeeds in presenting a multi-layered narrative. Each storyteller (character) brings in a different understanding of the problem, thereby re-presenting the narrative. The theatrical devices used never overshadow the issue, in fact, they sharpen the ironies. For instance, the mythological connection of the transgenders narrated in the harikathe mode.
Objective, forthright telling is the major strength of Baduku Bayalu – while it clearly empathises with the self (Revathi), it privileges none. The autobiography, and hence the play, provides an important counterpoint to the total silence and erasure of this voiceless section of society.
From the conviction of the performance, it seemed that the play had a cathartic effect on the actors. In the discussion that ensued after the play, “I empathise better with my dead uncle who was like Revathi,” said one of the actors. But what about us? Did we still stand on the periphery ‘watching’ the ‘play’ with all our notions of good and bad theatre? Is that why we said things like we should have brought in a real transgender to play Revathi, and give it more authenticity? The solutions to a complex problem are also complex. It neither lies in the brutal suppression of the State machinery nor does it lie in the helpless pleas of families to thwart organic seeking of the body. It certainly cannot be found in the comfort of our drawing rooms. At least in consciousness, we have to get close to the storyteller. Only then does the ‘play’ become a part of the discussion.
Janamanadata seemed to challenge us: were we prepared to make the leap?