Does life inform the stage or is it the other way around? Sample this: As one playwright captured a portion of life, as it were, and rendered it on stage, another used the stage itself to understand why life is the way it is.
Staged on different days as part of Ranga Shankara’s recent theatre festival, ‘Youth Yuga’, Neel Chaudhuri and Tadpole Repertory’s Still and Still Moving and Sharanya Ramprakash’s Akshaya Ambara took opposite routes to the same goal. And, interestingly, the plays intersected in more ways than one, even though their plots had almost nothing in common.
Still and Still Moving narrated a love story between Partho (Oroon Das), a reserved writer in his forties and Adil (Anirudh Nair), a college student entering his twenties. It is a tumultuous affair that not only takes place between these two men but also between New Delhi’s raging north campus and its quietly rising, posh suburban Gurgaon -- the two locales that inform the sensibilities of the two men. As we travelled from one end of Delhi to the other watching this tale of love unfold, Chaudhuri punctuated our journey with snippets from the men’s compartment of the Delhi metro rail. So, while in the foreground of the stage were Adil and Partho, behind, intersecting their narrative at interesting junctures were small scenes from the men’s compartment.
What was fascinating about the play was the fact that there was not a semblance of pretence both in the play’s narrative as well as its form. For instance, it was a play about homosexual love, but Chaudhuri did not overemphasise that. Instead, he focused on the love story. All the essential ingredients of a torrid affair could be found in the play: unsaid expectations, the passion that cannot be quelled, the stolen moments of intimacy, the fear of society accepting the relationship etc. It was uplifting and almost a relief to see such a deeply insightful and mature portrayal of a gay relationship and the reason it worked was because the play was so steeped in Chaudhuri’s study of life itself.
Painted in white, the sets were minimalistic. On it, the sounds and images of the city were projected mirroring the narrative that spoke of Delhi’s role in the lives of Partho and Adil.
Now, where the play really soared in the eyes of the audience was in the depiction of the scenes from the Delhi Metro. It was here that Chaudhuri’s observational powers came to the fore; it was here that life informed the stage. A group of fantastic performers used their bodies to recreate scenes from the train. In his exploration of relationships, especially those between men, Chaudhuri could not have chosen a better venue.
Tying the two tracks of the story rather well, the repertory even offered ample opportunities for heartrending laughter .
The next day, Sharanya Ramprakash’s Kannada play, Akshaya Ambara was staged which was drastically different in both design and plot from Chaudhuri’s play. Through Akshaya Ambara , Sharanya took an established dance tradition such as Yakshagana and attempted to turn it over its head. As per the Yakshagana tradition, a male performer normally adorns the costume of a female character and essays her role. There are separate ensembles for women performers and one is never ‘allowed’ to have a mixed cast. In her play, Sharanya introduced a female performer into a male Yakshagana troupe in order to uncover what this experiment would tell her about the dynamics of gender and power in society. Further, she complicated it by assigning a male role for the female performer.
So, the play opened with a male artist (Prasad Cherkady), seen getting ready for a Yakshagana performance in which he would play the role of Draupadi. In came a female artist (Sharanya) who had been assigned to perform the role of a Kaurava. What followed was a terrific ego battle between the two sexes that not only took place off stage but on stage as well. While there was one argument back stage, the same argument almost got reversed on stage. The two performers, on stage, were forced to defend the genders they were portraying as opposed to the ones they have been assigned by nature. The debate reached its zenith during the scene of ‘Draupadi Vastrapaharana’ where the conversation surrounding men, women, power and morality got further complicated. What does the portrayal of each gender entail? Does a woman playing a male character allow her gender to interfere with that of her character’s? Which gender is more real or closer to each of the performers, asked Sharanya.
Akshaya Ambara stood out for its ability to use the stage to question the status quo in society. With a clever use of dramatic monologue and set design, Sharanya blurred the lines between the stage and life. A small rectangle marked the stage in the play within the play with the space outside of it serving as the backstage, the sphere of the real, if you like. The performers navigated these two spheres with ease. The highlight, however, was when the drama on stage informed the debate that was taking place off stage, even granting a solution to the conflict.
Sharanya and Chaudhuri, therefore, took opposing routes to the same goal: of making life more perceptible, perhaps more liveable too. Chaudhuri delved quietly into society and its different strains to find inspiration for the stage while Sharanya wandered across the stage in an attempt to understand society better. Which then would you say is the correct route to life? Or, to theatre? More importantly, where does the stage and life begin and end?