Grant Period: Over eight months
Sharanya Ramprakash is a Bangalore-based theatre actor and director. She is one of the founders of the English language theatre troupe called Dramatist Anonymous (Dramanon), with over 75 theatre performances and six directorial productions to her credit. Most of these productions predominantly dealt with contemporary urban issues such as identity, drudgery of modern life, urban angst, existential crisis, disconnection, longing and hope. However, seven years on, Sharanya strongly felt the need for a new expression that would take her away from text-based, realistic and urban based work. She set out to find her own path and inspiration.
It was during this search that Sharanya came across the Yakshagana form and was instantly drawn towards it. Very soon she began travelling across Mangalore, Udupi and Uttara Kannada in search of Yakshagana artists. She met most of the stalwarts like Keremane Shivananda Hegde, Chittani Ramachandra Hegde and Bhaskara Kogga Kamath. She also accessed the archives at the Regional Resource Centre in Udupi where she could watch B V Karanth’s documentary film on Yakshagana, Shivarama Karanth’s experiments with Yakshagana ballet, some lost Yakshagana dance sequences and the music of the master Bhagavatha Kalinga Navada. ‘The more I watched and learnt about it, the more it fascinated me’, she says in her proposal. ‘I was very impressed with the striking unrealism of the form, the deft use of music and dance in the narrative, improvised dialogue, strong characterisations and histrionic presentation . . . the grand costumes, the highly coded makeup that together created a magical theatrical experience.’ In 2014, Sharanya received the INLAKS Theatre Award that enabled her to train at the Udupi Yakshagana Kendra under the guidance of Guru Bannanje Sanjeeva Suvarna.
During the year long period of rigorous training, Sharanya began performing as the only woman in all male professional Yakshagana groups and with amateur women’s groups. Although women started entering Yakshagana in 1971 and since then, there have been many women’s teams and independent women performers, the professional groups still exclude them. So being able to perform professionally, thanks to her radical guru, placed her in a unique position to understand how the system worked with respect to women. In the amateur women’s troupe, she would have the lead role, whereas in the professional male troupe, she was an amateur playing small roles. The status of the streevesha (female impersonation) itself, as Sharanya describes in her proposal, is very interesting. Male performers playing streevesha are highly regarded as actors, while in women’s troupes, the actors prefer to play purushavesha, since they feel it gives them more scope to exhibit their skills. Sharanya’s experiences with the form has led her, through several inner conflicts, to ponder over her position and the role of women in Yakshagana’s larger discourse.
Drawing from her personal journey in Yakshagana, Sharanya attempts to ‘tell a story that questions assumptions and challenges status quo in a traditional set up’. This she plans to do using the conflicts that already exist within the form and its practice. With the increase in the number of women entering the form, how has the traditional interpretation of the male-centric Yakshagana narrative been affected? How does it especially affect the streevesha artist? What happens to the interpretation of gender when a streevesha artist, essentially a man, and an actual woman occupy the same stage? What happens when a woman is cast as the pradhana purushavesha? Who is then the real man and real woman? How do real life equations change when genders are reversed in performance? These are some of the questions she hopes to explore through the performance and its creation process.
The prasanga (plot) that Sharanya has very aptly chosen to work with is the Draupadi Vastrapaharana. Here, she imagines a reversal of roles, where a woman plays Dushyasana, who is driven by lust and power, and male actor (in streevesha) plays Draupadi, who has to plead with Dushyasana to spare her dignity. However, off stage, in the green room, power equations between the two actors are completely reversed. So the play is envisioned as constantly shifting between the prasanga on stage and the scenes in the green room, exploring the many conflicts that each situation throws up with regard to tradition, gender, power and morality.
The script for the play is being developed by Sharanya herself and will be generated out of her own experiences and her interviews and conversations with practitioners. Percussion masters Murali Kadekar, M L Samaga and Udyavara Madhavachar will improvise the text using the talamaddale (Yakshagana’s percussion language) medium. The script will then be refined for performance with inputs from Yakshagana scholar Ambatanaya Mudradi; music will be by Satish Kedilaya and the production will be choreographed by Sharanya’s guru Sanjeeva Suvarna.
This grant was made possible with part support from Voltas Limited.