Kannada play Akshayambara explores the male-female fluidity on and off stage. Director and actor, Sharanya Ramprakash dwells on this
It’s the scene of Draupadi vastra-apaharan, Dushyasana pauses in the middle of disrobing
Draupadi; the moment passes and then he begins to disrobe her again. At the end of the scene, both the actors (Draupadi and Dushyasana/Duryodhan) sit in their green room, silent, but communicating their vulnerabilities to each other and to the audience.
While watching the Kannada play Akshayambara (akshay means unending, while ambara means cloth and together it refers to Krishna coming to the aid of Draupadi in the vastraharan episode), one tries to comprehend — What does it mean to be a man? And should a woman symbolise femininity and nothing else?
These are the questions that we grapple with in our everyday lives. Watching them unfold on the stage, we gain a third eye perspective. That’s because the role of Kaurava or Pradhan Purush Vesha was played by a woman actor, and Draupadi was enacted by a Stree Vesha or a male actor.
The Kannada play is in many ways unique and simple — simple, because we are used to male actors playing the role of women. However, when a female actor steps into a man’s shoes, the tradition is questioned. That’s the USP of this play.
Sharanya Ramprakash, who has written and directed Akshayambara, also enacted the role of the two Kauravas. The format of the play was Yakshagana, which has been a male domain until recently. Ramprakash won a scholarship to study Yakshagana art form at its centre in Udupi. Explaining about the male-female fluidity as seen in it, she says, “I wanted to tell a story that questions assumptions and challenges status quo in a traditional set up. The play examines how the entry of women into the intellectual discourse of Yakshagana can affect traditional interpretation of the male-centric narrative. What happens to the interpretation of gender when a Stree Vesha and an actual woman occupy the same stage? What happens when this woman is cast as the Pradhana Purusha Vesha? Who then is the real woman and the real man?”
The Yakshagana art form, prevalent mainly in Karnataka, is performed through the male perspective. It is a tradition of argumentation, so it gives great freedom to varying interpretations of our epics and gods and goddesses, depending on the scholarship and ability of the performer. “But,” Ramprakash points out, “since female roles are performed by men, the representation of women and their arguments and positions in performance are also in the male perspective.”
The crux of the play is how the real life equations change when genders are reversed in performance. When tradition allows a man to be accepted as a woman, can the same tradition accept the reverse?
To expound on this question, Ramprakash chose the Draupadi vastra-apaharana episode. A woman in the garb of a man plays the rapacious Dushyasana, driven by lust and power, while the man plays Draupadi, who has to beg Dushyasana to spare her dignity, appealing to the court and espousing the cause of a woman.
“Off stage, in the cauki (green room), the power equations between the two actors are completely reversed. The play shifts constantly between the prasanga and scenes in the cauki. I wanted to explore the many conflicts this situation throws up and ask questions about tradition, gender, power and morality,” explains the actor.
So in future, can we see women enacting the role of men in Yakshagana? To which Ramprakash replies, “This is not important. What is important is that women are able to find their own space for intellectual discourse and debate — whether it is within Yakshagana or in a corporate office. This is the real concern. When a woman enters a male dominated space, things change — assumptions are questioned. I want this performance to be the beginning of a new artistic journey, I want to undertake as a woman and a performer. I want to negotiate and challenge both modernity and tradition, for I feel the answer lies in both and neither.”.