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The ‘real’ thing: On Kutiyattam, Surpanakha and significance of live performances

In my last column, I began to look at what happens when dance meets the camera. Does the act of watching or seeing always function in relation to the ‘live’? Can one ‘embody’ on a screen and still find something tangible, material and multi-dimensional in the experience of engaging with a dancing body on screen? In the weeks that followed, these questions have continued to pop up in different ways. In relation to the dancing body, what is ‘real’? What is ‘tangible’ or ‘live’? Channelling Baudrillard, what is ‘simulated’ in our experience of the moving body across different media?

I was recently introduced to the Japanese popstar Hatsune Miku, who happens to be a hologram with a sizeable human fan following that attends her concerts across Japan. Concerts where she is advertised as singing ‘live’, lead me to wonder what it means for a hologram to be live. The act of being live reinforces a sense of the individual, of a distinct presence that is possessed of a certain materiality, which can’t possibly exist in two places at the same time. How does the notion of liveness speak to various possibilities at the same time, from the singing hologram to performers that you might share a physical space with, missing tiny fragments of what unfolds every time every time you blink your eyes or turn your head?

 The ‘real’ thing: On Kutiyattam, Surpanakha and significance of live performances

Margi Madhu during the performance. Image courtesy: Sahapedia Facebook page

I was introduced to Hatsune Miku between two evenings spent watching Kutiyattam by the Moozhikkulam-based Nepathya, which brought the story of Surpanakha to the lawns of the India International Centre in New Delhi over six whole evenings of intricate narration. The Nepathya group consisted of performers of various ages, who swapped roles on and off stage with dexterity, playing Sita one day and working at the tech console the day after. This edited video gives you a glimpse of the breadth of their work.

Kutiyattam takes its time telling a story. The English script that supplemented this particular performance gave the audience insights into the multiple layers that Kutiyattam populates around a story. There are conversations between the characters, metaphors for every characteristic or feature or observation that a character seeks to make, and a great deal of investment in the act of seeing and listening. Actors frequently spend long periods of time on stage, listening and offering tiny non-verbal responses to the actor who is speaking. The make-up and costume of Kutiyattam draw particular attention to the face and its mobility and vitality, so it is nearly impossible for an actor to switch off and pretend to listen. Even young actors display great control, activating every conceivable muscle in the face to tell a story and to nuance their expressions. This expressivity also turns the face into the central site of performance, what the audience is drawn to, especially when actors are in the process of listening to a dialogue unfold.

On the fifth evening, Rama and Sita were in conversation, each commenting on their strong relationship, further cemented by the hardships they face while in the forest. It is this intimate conversation that Surpanakha, played by a female actor that evening, interrupts. There are ritualistic elements to the performance that run parallel to the unfolding of the narrative. As angry and menacing as she is, Surpanakha, when she first takes the stage, acknowledges the mizhavu, edakka and manjira players, partly shielded by a curtain which is slowly lowered once the actor fully commits to inhabiting their character. The ritualistic tone of each character’s entrance serves to underline the act of performance itself, almost as if to ask the audience to acknowledge the theatricality of what it is witnessing.

As Rama and Lakshmana play games with Surpanakha, sending her back and forth and being dismissive of the intensity of her feelings, she longs to find herself in Sita’s shoes – Sita – who is viewed with great desire and love by Rama. Between the two women, there is fear but also empathy – it is Sita who attempts to caution Rama against incurring Surpanakha’s wrath through their blatant mockery of her feelings. Towards the end of the fifth evening, there was a moment when the actor playing Surpanakha, Indu G, described the anger, jealousy and sadness that Sita’s marital bliss led her to feel. This complexity of emotion brings us to question simplistic portrayals of Surpanakha as a ‘demoness’. Here is a character who loves with great intensity – despite the violence she is capable of. There is no brash and unthinking display of supernatural powers, but a reasoned elucidation of her feelings, which heads towards a dramatic conclusion when both the brothers repeatedly turn her away and mock her desires.

On the sixth day, Surpanakha, played by Margi Madhu, is furious and intent on revenge. Rejection makes for potent drama. In a cannibalistic vein, she laughs Rama and Lakshmana’s threats away, commenting on how amusing it is to have her future food talking to her. The moment of Surpanakha’s mutilation happens offstage. When she returns, her nipples gruesomely tethered to her breasts by slivers of flesh, moaning in pain and rage, led by actors holding fire-torches, she walks through the audience, condemning what Lakshmana has done, consolidating her desire for revenge in each step. The audience points their screens at Surpanakha, who makes eye contact with us as she enumerates the horrors in store for Rama, Lakshmana and Sita.

Is this an actor or a person encountering deep humiliation? Shall we level eyes with them, point our phone screens at them, or look away? How, if at all, do we empathise? Must we clinically separate performance from reality, rasa from emotional response? Mediated through the camera and in the flesh, as we stand to make way for #Surpanakha, what experience of liveness does she enable?

Ranjana Dave is a dancer and writer based in Delhi. She tweets at @chaltipatang

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Updated Date: Sep 02, 2018 09:38:47 IST

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