25 February 2017

Manly Women, Womanly Men

My Mirror column, on Akshayambara and Harikatha Prasanga:

A new play and a new film step into the world of Yakshagana performers to sharpen our sense of what it means to be a man — or a woman.

A still from Sharanya Ramprakash's play Akshayambara
The seated figure, stage right, is in the middle of buttoning a blouse over a patently false bosom. It is a tightly fitted sari blouse, closing laboriously over the hardness of the fake breasts, and yet transforming them before our eyes into an imagined curvaceousness. Still, when the man – for of course it is a man who turns this intimate act into something so frontal, so prosaic – stands up, what draws the eye is the line of hair that runs down his muscled torso, between where the blouse ends and the petticoat begins.

But then he covers himself with more of the paraphernalia of femininity: the twinkling nose ornament, the brilliant green sari swirling, the long thick plait that snakes down to the waist, the girdle that circles it. And lo and behold, we have before us Draupadi — on the morning of her swayamvara, picking flowers from her father's garden to weave into a veni for her hair. We are enchanted, thinking about how the humming Kshatriya princess is just another girl. Then our performer ambles back into his corner, hoists up his gorgeous sari and pisses – standing, like a man. Just as swiftly as the spell was cast, it is broken. The audience breaks into laughter.

The scenes above are part of Sharanya Ramprakash's remarkable Kannada play Akshayambara, staged in Delhi during the National School of Drama's annual theatre festival last week. Ramprakash is a Bengaluru-based theatre practitioner who started exploring the traditional folk form of Yakshagana with the Udupi-based Guru Bannanje Sanjeeva Suvarna after receiving an Inlaks fellowship in 2013. Akshayambara, which emerged out of this interaction and won Ramprasad the Best Original Script META award last year, casts long-time Yakshagana performer Prasad Cherkady (who won at META for Best Male Performance) in the role of a male actor who plays Draupadi. The play deals with his response to the arrival of a female actor (Ramprakash herself) who has been cast in the role of Kaurava (Duryodhana).

Performing in public has been socially stigmatised for women in South Asia. So most traditional dramatic forms, from Ramleela in the north to Yakshagana in the south, have a long history of men who play popular female roles. In the Kannada cultural sphere, the female impersonator of Yakshagana has clearly emerged as a lens through which gender and performance -- and gender as performance – can be thought about.

pushes Yakshagana's seeming embrace of cross-dressing to its political limits by bringing in a woman. When it is a woman who takes on a male role, the play asks, why does that seem to shake the traditional structure? Ananya Kasaravalli's debut feature film Harikatha Prasanga (Chronicles of Hari), itself based on a short story by Gopalakrishna Pai, approaches the same subject from a different angle.

Akshayambara needed to bring in a (biologically) female actor to push the man-acting-as-a-woman to actually encounter his vulnerability. Harikatha, in contrast, gives us a male protagonist who is vulnerable because his performative engagement with femininity has transcended the stage.

A still from Ananya Kasaravalli's film Harikatha Prasanga
What makes someone or something feminine is a recurring question here, too. The one time Hari (an affecting Shrunga Vasudevan) tries out a more vigorous style on stage, his jumping attracts his guru's ire as signifying the 'masculine'. “What kind of dance is that? When you act like a woman, you should make your gestures like a woman.”

Hari complies on stage. But soon he finds it harder and harder to persuade others – and soon, himself – of his masculinity off-stage. A proposed wedding falls through because a seasonal Yakshagana performer does not fulfil the traditional masculine role of breadwinner. He goes to see a sex worker, only to be distressed by her charmed reiteration of what she sees as his feminine softness. Gradually, he finds himself adopting female garb daily: a long skirt, and later a sari. Again, like with Akshayambara, we encounter the question of what makes up femininity: soft hands, long hair, feminine clothes?

While challenging us to think about what femininity and masculinity mean, Kasaravalli's film occasionally compresses both into stereotypes — and deliberately lets the moments ring out, waiting to watch if they will resonate. “[Women] need women to share agony with, and men for pleasure,” says a woman who has come to watch Hari act. Akshayambara moves more in the direction of an essential selfhood: “You can never be disrobed,” says the woman to the man.

What makes a man a man? Or a woman a woman? Is it about who struts and who mocks? Who performs, who applauds? Who deflates, who builds up? Who steps back? Must vulnerability be identified with the feminine? Both play and film, happily, do not provide pat answers. It is enough that they ask the question at all.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 19 February 2017.

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