International Women's Day: Inspiring stories from day-to-day life

International Women's Day: A look at how theatre is redefining gender roles

Usha Rani   | Photo Credit: N_SRIDHARAN

Image making is a human capacity. How does imagination work in this? What does it do? These questions can be asked from various points.

For instance, how does a woman who cannot read or write remember long dialogue that were written down? How does she produce novel images of situations? How does she combine visual, auditory, kinaesthetic modalities and bring about novel responses to novel situations?

Well, Usharani does that for a living. Working in a genre of theatre form called ‘Novel Drama,’ which deals with social situations and in Isai Natakams, musicals telling mythological stories, proving imagination is the core of expression.

“If someone deserves a Kalaimamani, it is Usha Rani” says A. Mangai emphatically. Usha Rani lives in Vembakkam village in Tiruvannamalai district . “Her theatre skill is of international standard but she needs to be a daily wage earner to supplement the meagre earnings from theatre.”

International Women's Day: A look at how theatre is redefining gender roles

Usha Rani was 10 when she began acting in plays along with her parents, both of whom were artistes in a company, which staged Tamil musicals (isai nadagam). So her career had begun even before she realised what it was all about.

She moved with her family from Thanjavur to Kanchipuram and took part in ‘Special Nadagams.’ A co-actor and she married the same man who wrote plays. The two women developed a close bond with each other. “He wrote plays for me specially,” she says. As she could not read and write, the other woman would read them out to her. She would ask some questions and as she put on make-up, ask for some more reading and once on the stage, the ordinary-looking woman would take on a mesmerising personality delivering long dialogues, singing in a high-pitched voice and bringing on such emotions that in sad scenes the audience would be sobbing.

In 1996, Perungattur Rajagopal selected twelve women theatre artists, trained them and made them perform Vilvalaippu play of the Mahabharata in the Koothu style. That was a turning point for Usha Rani, who was receiving formal training for the first time in her life. Then Mangai chose Usha Rani in a voicing silence production, where Usha Rani got the experience of working with modern theatre directors such as K.A. Gunasekharan and Azhi. She was exposed to contemporary interpretations of ancient texts and questioning some of them.

Mangai directed a solo in koothu form enacted by Usha Rani, who performed ‘Pani-t-thee’ (Frozen Fire), the story of Amba-Shikhandi. The idiom of koothu and isai natakam project maleness and femaleness, while the transformation of male into female, as revealed by costume and make-up, offered a parallel text. As Shikhandi sheds male codes of dress and Amba emerges, the play arouses emotions that transgress boundaries. Usha Rani's dramatic presence in the koothu garb and the transformation into a woman, high pitched voice, confident narration and song made her solo performance captivating. This, incidentally, was her first solo performance.

Usha Rani was overwhelmed when she performed the solo at Purisai in the Kannappa Thambiran Memorial Theatre Festival. As she stood in front of the Draupadi amman temple in koothu costume, Usha Rani later said that her hands literally went cold. She realised the enormity of the situation. “Usha Rani stands for resilience, survival, passion and energy.” says Mangai.

Meera Krishnamurthi in ‘Ponniyin Selvan’

Meera Krishnamurthi in ‘Ponniyin Selvan’   | Photo Credit: G_Moorthy

Meera Krishnamurthi is a woman, who embodies creative energies0. Being the daughter of P.S. Krishnamurthi, a self-taught musician, creative craftsman and exemplary teacher, there was no other world but imagination and creativity waiting for her. “My father taught himself to play the veena and violin and began to create extraordinary pop up scenes of the Ramayana drawing and colouring every little bit himself,” recalls Meera. So music and dance flowed naturally in her. She trained with Padma Subrahmanyam and then joined Chandralekha, while she began her dance explorations of the body through Angika.

Meera takes part in theatre and voice exercises just for experience. Parkour and Dhrupad music are part of her day, as much as teaching theatre and Bharatanatyam are. Grand productions such as ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ or a reading of Indira Parthasarathy’s ‘Aurangazeb’ are equally exciting and engrossing. All these artistic experiences materialised thanks to her converting her terrace into a rehearsal and performing space.

Rukmini Devi Arundale roped in extraordinary volunteers to help her in creating those amazing productions at Kalakshetra. One of them was Padmasini who could create wonderful hairdos and drape a cloth creatively around a dancer. The jewellery, colours and combinations of the costume were unlike anything that was there at that time and has given Kalakshetra productions a unique flavour and identity.

International Women's Day: A look at how theatre is redefining gender roles

In recent times , it is Chitra Jagannathan, who gives that creative twist to make the tresses sit in impossible little knots on a head that will dance vigorously. Chitra is the daughter of K. Srinivasulu, artist of international standing, who Rukmini Devi Arundale depended upon to create the scenery needed for her dance-dramas. As a young girl, Chitra would visit Kalakshetra with her father. After he began to work at the Madras School of Art and, later Kumbakonam, there was a short gap but Padmasini asked Chitra to come and help her and, later Maragatham, during the festival time. She joined Kalakshetra’s costume department. Now, after retirement, she visits the department as a consultant .

The three women, who have given so much to the arts in their own way remind one of what Maxine Greene said, “Instead of taking one’s identity and position as fixed, being yourself is a process that involves surprise. The surprise comes along with becoming different – consciously different as one finds ways of acting on envisaged possibility… One must have an awareness of leaving something behind when reacting to something new and this kind of awareness must be linked to imagination.”


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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 4:51:52 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/drama-queens-of-the-tamil-stage/article26456589.ece

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