In Sharanya Ramprakash's Kannada play Nava, a guide for greater transgender presence in Indian theatre

Around April every year, a ceremony associated with the Bengaluru Karaga — a deliriously popular festival in which Draupadi is worshipped as patron goddess — involves a man working himself into a heady trance while assuming stree vesha (the guise of a woman). Mythological implications aside, what shores up his passage into Draupadi is a posse of trans women hovering around him. Their feminine energies ostensibly supply him the power of ritualistic transformation, in much the same way as actors get into character in the theatre.

Last year’s observances took place at the Lakshmipuram burial ground which also houses a temple dedicated to Kali at her most potent and dangerous. An intrigued onlooker at the event was the Bengaluru-based theatremaker Sharanya Ramprakash, who had begun work on Nava, a play in Kannada featuring an ensemble of nine urban trans women, some of whom participated in the Karaga ritual. "It was striking to see them in their element against this backdrop, where symbols of womanhood are used so powerfully," said Ramprakash.

In their play, the women are no longer peripheral to the proceedings, but bring "bodies, voices and stories, deliberately silenced and wilfully ignored, to reclaim their rightful place: the centrestage."

The actors are affiliated with Poornima Sukumar’s Aravani Art Project, an arts collective for trans folk, with a particular focus on vivid larger-than-life murals and portraits that allow its members to visibly inhabit the public spaces that traditionally exclude them. Other stopovers that helped Ramprakash to better grasp her collaborators’ many worlds, was a guided tour dubbed as the Balaji Bar walk, that explored a frenetic night scene near the teeming KR Market in Old Bengaluru. “Unlike the day with its prejudices, in the night, the space becomes theirs, with all its companion associations and friendships,” explained Ramprakash.

 In Sharanya Ramprakashs Kannada play Nava, a guide for greater transgender presence in Indian theatre

Sharanya Ramprakash's Nava. The play features Veena, Chandri, Shanti, Prarthana, Jyothi, Sandhya, Swetha, Purushi and Thara sharing different kinds of Navarasas. Photo courtesy: Dramanon and Aravani Art Project

One of the collaborators on Nava is Shanthi Muniswamy, a poet and illustrator who moonlights as a popular RJ for a community radio station. Her first foray into theatre was Sujatha Balakrishan’s When The Rainbow is Enough, the digital recording of which was released online on 15 May. The play opened in Bengaluru last year, and stylistically draws on Ntozake Shange’s seminal work, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, performed as a set of ‘choreopoems’ — dramatic expression in which ‘real speak’ poetry compellingly interacts with lyrical movement. Balakrishan assembled marginalised women who lacked visibility in the mainstream, including women cabbies Yashoda Satyanarayana and Divya Srinivasalu alongside Shanthi, amplifying their voices with standard-issue monologues. “I’ve delivered motivational talks before, but I was nervous as it was my first time as an actor on stage even if I was recounting my own story,” recalled Shanthi.

Conversely, Nava has been put together by its team using collaborative devising methods, selecting precious moments from personal stories to create a mélange of nuanced offerings that piece together the obliterated contemporary history of urban trans women. The name itself carries several connotations. Ostensibly, it’s a reference to the navarasas of Indian aesthetics, with each woman enacting a piece with a rasa as its central motif. Shanthi’s testimonial channels the Vibhatsya (or disgust) rasa, as she recounts a particularly disquieting encounter from the past. During her early days as a sex-worker, she fell into a manhole while being chased by policemen. As she crawled across a stretch of sewage that her khaki-clad pursuers couldn’t quite negotiate, she was struck by the sheer revulsion in their eyes. “I enact the disgust that I received from those policemen on my trail,” she said, charged by the memory. In Kannada, nava means new, attesting perhaps to the ‘newness’ of the project vis-a-vis the straight-laced artistic mainstream. And, in a subversion, the title recalls a term used to slander trans women and feminine men — ombattu, or ‘nine’ in Kannada, merely one in a long catalogue of local transphobic slurs.

Supported by the India Foundation for the Arts, Nava premiered at Ranga Shankara, one of Bengaluru’s thriving cultural venues; as the curtain-raiser at its annual theatre festival — dubbed the Festival of Laughter and Forgetting (a nod to the classic novel by Milan Kundera) — in November last year. Ramprakash was initially wary of an open-to-all showing that seemed to be at odds with the piece’s intimate ethos, and perhaps positioned the women as objects for onlookers. The performers themselves soaked it in — the excitement of a first show, and the generous applause from the festival audience — lending credence to the idea that, perhaps, trans folk did not consider themselves ‘different’ in the way an uncomprehending society-at-large projected upon them.

Sharanya Ramprakash's Nava. Photo courtesy: Dramanon and Aravani Art Project

Sharanya Ramprakash's Nava. Photo courtesy: Dramanon and Aravani Art Project

At the outset, Ramprakash wanted to participate in the project as an ‘outside eye’ theatre consultant. But seeing the team falter when it came to fundamentals, saw her step in as director. The demands of professional practice were difficult to adhere to, but the actors soon realised they were working on a project that was as much about the means as the end. The production schedule, spanning eight months, was riddled with hiccups — so much so that Ramprakash worked in actors’ absences into the play’s performance grammar, as a testament to their unpredictable and gritty lives. Nava was in the midst of a state-wide tour of Karnataka’s Rangayanas — theatre institutes in places like Mysore, Dharwad and Shimoga — before the lockdown ended cultural activities in the state.

“During Nava’s making, the actors’ natural lack of inhibitions made me feel like an insider,” said Ramprakash. “We frequented their bars and haunts, where people asked me for my rate. We laughed about that later.” When the circle of trust was finally established, it was difficult for Ramprakash to process the aching stories of trans vulnerability that emerged. Sukumar attended some sessions and helped in making the ethical choices that provided the play with its defining material. There was great abandon and spontaneity in the actors’ improvisations, but post the play’s opening, Ramprakash felt that they needed an interface with other skilled professionals.

Photographs from Puja Sarup's workshop with the Nava ensemble. Photo courtesy: Dramanon and Aravani Art Project

Puja Sarup's workshop with the Nava ensemble. Photo courtesy: Dramanon and Aravani Art Project

In January this year, Mumbai-based actor and trainer, Puja Sarup, was flown down for a workshop. An alumnus of the Hélikos International School of Theatre Creation, Sarup often works with masks as a mode of transforming actors’ physical bearings, allowing their imagination to take over and build characters. “I wondered how my process would work with Nava’s performers, in that I initially felt that they already wore such a strong veneer of femininity,” said Sarup.

“What I learned was that their feminine trappings were not any mask, but innately a part of who they were as people.”

Puja Sarup as Shammi Kapoor with Sheena Khalid and Rachel D'Souza in The Gentlemen's Club. Photo courtesy: Punit Reddy

Puja Sarup as Shammi Kapoor with Sheena Khalid and Rachel D'Souza in The Gentlemen's Club. Photo courtesy: Punit Reddy

Both Ramprakash and Sarup are cisgender women who have created material for the stage that stands on resolutely gender-queer turf. In the Patchworks Ensemble’s The Gentlemen’s Club, Sarup is an irrepressible drag king — a female performing artist donning masculine personas — with a Shammi Kapoor act replete with a sequinned gold jacket and 1960's hair-do. In Akshayambara, a play Ramprakash wrote and directed, she enacts a woman who takes on the male part of a Kaurawa opposite a female impersonator (Prakash Cherkady) playing Draupadi, in a traditional Yakshagana performance — a male domain for centuries.

Prakash Cherkady and Sharanya Ramprakash in Akshayambara. Photo courtesy: Suresh

Prakash Cherkady and Sharanya Ramprakash in Akshayambara. Photo courtesy: Suresh

Interacting with Nava’s performers has allowed them to look back at their own work with new eyes. “It just tastes different now. When Prakash finishes with his act, he removes the stree vesha, as embodied by a lipstick, and reclaims his manhood so quickly and violently. The same lipstick in Nava is owned with such heart by the women, as a way of rejecting the manhood narrative,” explained Ramprakash. Similarly, Sarup is revisiting her own drag personas — currently on air on Instagram Live is Elvis-lookalike Ronny — that shuffle between masculine prototypes (both toxic and benign) with an adroitness perhaps not available to her characters themselves.

Shanthi is hopeful for a future on the stage, “I would love for theatre to be open to all,” she said. “In cinema, men used to put on gaudy makeup to play trans characters. Those portrayals were hard to digest.” She added, “I don’t want to be restricted to trans parts. Any role will do for me, from an old lady to a charming Cinderella, but it has to be a female character.” Ramprakash is not as optimistic about the theatre scene’s preparedness to absorb performers like Shanthi. “If you are going to work with marginalised communities, you have to start thinking differently,” she said. Affirmative projects like Nava are important for trans actors to be integrated into the mainstream. Post #MeToo, even the prevailing set of assumptions regarding the interface between men and women has been challenged. This accommodation of diverse needs and expectations is required across the board.

Pioneers like Living Smile Vidya and Gee Imaan Semmalar founded the Panmai Theatre troupe in Tamil Nadu in 2014, pushing open the door for trans presence in theatre, but when it comes to casting, they might still not be the first port of call for trans roles, let alone other parts. The landscape is rife with cis actors eager to display their acting range by playing, say, a hijra. This is true for cinema and television, and many cis actors routinely garner great acclaim playing trans parts.

The ensemble in Amey Mehta's One Night Only. Photo courtesy: Akvarious Productions

The ensemble in Amey Mehta's One Night Only. Photo courtesy: Akvarious Productions

In 2018, Mumbai’s Akvarious Productions premiered Amey Mehta’s One Night Only, a play based on an important aspect of Indian trans experience — the yearly jamboree at Tamil Nadu’s Koovagam, where trans folk congregate at the Koothandavar Temple to celebrate Aravan’s marriage to Mohini and mourn at his death the next morning. While Mehta sought out trans actors, ultimately the hijras in the play are performed by cisgender men and women. “Giving up their livelihood for three months to work in a theatre project was a tough ask for the few transgender actors we met,” he said.

One performer who impressed with his portrayal of a trans woman was actor Trinetra Tiwari, who drew upon his grandmother’s close associations with local hijras in Ajmer’s Nasirabad, his hometown. Tiwari went on to essay another hijra in a short piece he wrote himself – Pehli Shaadi, in which a hijra-poet, Rangoli, breaks into the stand-up circuit while looking for Mr Right. “These were the first significant roles I worked on, and I did not have any reservations about taking them up,” said Tiwari, one of a growing tribe of contemporary actors who do not shy away from queer parts.

Trinetra Tiwari in InQueerAble's Pehli Shaadi. Photo courtesy: Nazia Khan

Trinetra Tiwari in InQueerAble's Pehli Shaadi. Photo courtesy: Nazia Khan

Commenting on Pehli Shaadi, playwright Mahesh Dattani wrote in a column, “There is something politically incorrect when cis-gendered actors play transgendered characters with flamboyance. The applause from the audience at his entry also shows how we perceive the hijra community — with indulgence,” while Tiwari said, “As long as there is a human connection and enough empathy, any actor should be able to perform any role.”

The South Asian diaspora in North America has thrown up performers like D’Lo and Vivek Shraya — and their success as cultural ambassadors for all aspects of their identity might give an indication of the space trans performers might occupy in a more inclusive environment, albeit one in which the struggle to be seen and heard is still real. The Los Angeles-based D’Lo is a queer multi-ethnic political theatre performer and a hip hop artist who has performed in India as part of The Park’s New Festival in 2012. In an interview, he said, “I do this for a sense of finally feeling like I belong. Even if it is only for an hour on certain nights of the month.”

(Left) Still for Vivek Shraya's How to Fail as a Popstar. Photo courtesy: Heather Saitz; (Right) Tamil-Sri Lankan-American actor/writer/comedian D'Lo. Photo courtesy: D'Lo

(Left) Still for Vivek Shraya's How to Fail as a Popstar. Photo courtesy: Heather Saitz; (Right) Tamil-Sri Lankan-American actor/writer/comedian D'Lo. Photo courtesy: D'Lo

If the world hadn’t shut down, this month would’ve seen the European debut of Shraya’s solo performance, How To Fail As A Popstar, at the Theater der Welt (Theatre of the World) Festival at Düsseldorf. A Canadian artist who actively resists gender classification, she encourages her audience to rethink gender and identity in the 21st century. The play was recently streamed online by Canadian Stage, and even in a piece that is ostensibly about failure in the music industry, it is hard to see it as anything other than a triumph of the spirit, with Shraya remarkably coming into her own during the course of its 20-minute running time.

(Disclaimer: This writer was part of the devising team for The Gentlemen’s Club, and commissioned Pehli Shaadi for InQueerAble.)

Updated Date: May 20, 2020 11:18:37 IST



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