Destabilizing Impersonation, Cleaving Gender Non-conformity: Akshayambara and Lady Anandi

Supraja R*

Abstract

This article offers an analysis of two theatrical productions that have graced the proscenium stage in India by utilizing an intersectional axis privileging gender nonconformity. It situates the destabilization of the category of impersonation, and the consequences that such a cleaving in theatricality effects on the public sphere. First, we look at Sharanya Ramprakash’s wildly popular play Akshayambara that draws on the traditional genre of Yakshagana whilst mediating and troubling binarizations of gender, class and caste. The second, Anuja Ghosalkar’s meditative documentary theatre production Lady Anandi, takes on an intimate rendition of the archive of her personal legacy as steeped in colonial theatre practice—of “female” impersonation on the colonial Bombay stage.
Keywords: Akshayambara, Lady Anandi, impersonation, gender non-conformity (GNC), performatic, assemblage

The turn of the twenty-first century witnessed the Indian public sphere positioned amidst the proliferation of many protests, movements and contestations focusing on queer and trans* liberations. Despite the threat of larger mainstream subsumption, these movements have worked towards honing an intersectionality of caste, class and ethnicity pertaining to intra- and inter-regional discourse, by attempting to bridge solidarities.

The last twenty years have been marked by the need for (self-) reflexivity and a constant engagement with reviewing intersectional politics, the efforts of which have been palpable in myriad ways in scholarship and activism.[1] However, engaging the archive of queer and gender non-conforming subjects (GNC) is threatened by the hegemony of dominant caste and class rhetoric.[2] Nevertheless, the discourse surrounding these subjects has morphed since the initial explorations it posed at the end of the twentieth century.[3]

An interrogation of the colonial archive has brought forth issues of obscenity, gender, race and caste anxieties mediated via the corporeal of movement and performance practice surrounding GNC subjects (Hinchy). Given the zero-sum relations in the effacement of GNC publics by the heteronormative, dominant castes in anti-colonial nation-building, these historical contingencies need to be examined comparatively.[4] A space that has not been interrogated of these details is that of the theatre. I would pose that the anxieties around these subjects’ hereditary performance practices[5] and their criminalized sphere of movement also came to be pitted at a tension with the emergence of the female impersonator on the urban proscenium stage. In many ways, this overtly gestures to the performatic valence of female impersonation—an assemblage of the proscenium stage caught amidst the performative encounters of gender, caste, class, urbanity and nationalism (Hansen, Making Women Visible).

Video 1: Promotional trailer for Akshayambara by Dramanon Theatre. Directed by Sharanya Ramprakash. 2020

The theatrical assemblage is further complicated by the postcolonial nation-state in the move to institutionalize performance categories such as that of the “classical,” “traditional” and the “folk” performing arts. This is contingent upon contemporary times (the shift to the digital with the pandemic included), wherein we see that the theatre draws niche urban audiences, with major cities fostering their own (regional) circuits. The catchphrase of “Queer,” over the last few years, has gained a peculiar neoliberal currency within the urban performance-scape.[6] This catchphrase has parallelly been on the rise with the postfeminist backwash of the #metoo movement: feminism severed of its radical impulses and repackaged for a particular dominant caste/class consumption. It is at this juncture that I situate this essay and the two contemporary plays in interrogation—Anuja Ghosalkar’s (of Drama Queen) Lady Anandi (2016) and Sharanya Ramprakash’s (of Dramanon) Akshayambara (2015). This entails taking cognizance of their citational, self-reflexive histories which destabilize impersonation as a category of the stage (a theatrical convention; also practiced still in many living and folk traditions), while cleaving gender non-conformity at the same.

Video 2: Promotional trailer/fund-raising video for Lady Anandi by Aliasger Dhariwala. Directed by Anuja Ghosalkar. 2016
The Assemblage of Impersonation
Figure 1: “The canonized female impersonator.” Akshayambara. Written and directed by Sharanya Ramprakash. Performed by Sharanya Ramprakash and Prakash Cherkady (the latter seen above centre). The Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival, Bangalore. Première, 2015. Photo: Suresh Babu

The question of the “modern” vis-à-vis theatre/performance practice in India is a particularly fraught one due to the heterogeneity of its assemblage. It cannot be pinned down to a linearity of time, to that of the colonial encounter, or even to that of changes within the regional and intraregional (if not interregional) genre formations. The interlocking components of this assemblage constituted

[a] new genre called the ‘Modern Indian theatre’ that first emerged in the eighteenth century. This genre was urban and elite, and interwove European and indigenous theatre practices and focused frequently on current social and political issues through a lens of contemporary global developments and ideologies.

Solomon 7–8

The legacies of the stage in the burgeoning colonial metropole of Bombay and the northern “Canarese” country (an anglicized rendition of what is now “Karnataka” state) are brought forward by the two contemporary pieces in discussion. Diana Taylor’s conceptualization of the “performatic” in conversation with the performative[7] finds mediation through the two plays of analysis within the contemporary urban. Her discussion on the (Western) logocentrism of the “performative” has been understood through iterability, citation and subsuming practice into a discursive realm, whereby it becomes “less a quality (or adjective) of performance than discourse” (6). Utilizing the category of the “performatic” brings us back to the corporeal of performance (significant to Global Majority regions), shifting us from text, category and narrative to scenarios of gestural embodiment and what they trigger and transfer in cultural memory. Nonetheless, the two strands of the performatic and the performative are important for the following discussions on the two plays as we shall see subsequently. Indeed, the heart of Taylor’s project is in the mediation of recording, storing and transmission—something that both the archive and repertoire do in different ways. Both plays trigger scenarios of the gendering of dominant caste publics as they have come to be. This transference is alienated and made evident in different ways in these two plays, impacting the performative discourse in the contemporary.

The performatic of impersonation on the colonial stage naturalized the ideal public (as per Habermasian formulations delineating an ideal bourgeoisie—and here—dominant caste, class and religious sphere) given the encounter amongst the elite, dominant caste spectators (men and women). This was heightened by a “homoerotic valence” (Hansen, Making Women Visible 139), whereby a sanitized titillation was mediated by the network of gazes amidst the hero, the masculine spectator and the female impersonator. This influence is marked in the genres of performance practice that the two contemporary performances draw upon. Indeed, the theoretical underpinning of the assemblage would prove beneficial to the aesthetic framing of the two plays and work beyond it as well—leading us to grapple with the subversions of gender in an intersectional order that they breathe or (to use the language of theatricality as defined by Josette Féral and Ronald P. Bermingham) cleave into.

Thomas Nail expounds on Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s formulations, stating that the assemblage is a presentation of a layout of heterogeneous elements which are conjunctures of a fragmentary whole (22). An assemblage does not cater to an essence yet consists of singularities that are brought together and is also continually available for linkages that are durable across systems. Assemblages pose a political change at work: wherein their constituting conditions, elements and agents are ordered in unique means in time, through which new emergences and modes of intermingling arise (Rae 124). The aesthetics of the two contemporary pieces in conversation with the erstwhile modern theatrical assemblage of the proscenium draws on the relations amongst human and non-human materialities of cultural memory. There is a new emergence, then, in the contemporary assemblages of Akshayambara and Lady Anandi, working through the histories of the performative of impersonation.

The colonial assemblage’s layouts consisted of an intermingling of concrete elements and agents involving European and Indian play/dramatic texts, stagecraft and practice, replete with architectural and hybrid cultural artifices of varied traditions and citations (Solomon 10). The “Parsi” or “Company Theatre,” as the genre of this assemblage came to be known as, had commercial/industrial organization and linkages too. Oftentimes, the staged productions had appropriations and adaptations by urban elites, these shameless borrowings circumscribed by the cultural labour (Prakash) of the marginalized. This led to shifting the terrains of performatic livelihood, labour and visibility, affixing a bourgeois consensus of degraded morality on these bodies: those of the courtesan, oppressed caste communities of folk cultures and so on.

While this was and still is the larger picture, it must be noted that certain traditional performance practices “evolved” or had within their ontology the formalist aesthetic logics of the proscenium much prior to the colonial encounter. One of such forms (of this western region in question) is that of the folk form/genre of Yakshagana (K. V. et al. 2). See figure 1 for the female impersonator of this genre entering the stage, pushing back the traditional curtain (yavvanika), as is in the play Akshayambara.

Figure 2: Confronting gender.” Lady Anandi. Written, Devised and Performed by Anuja Ghosalkar. The Breakthrough, New Delhi, March, 2016. Photo: Harsh Bhavsar

Fraught contestations of masculinities (of race and caste) intertwined at this time to give rise to a novel performatic of gender expression, indexical to the figure of the female impersonator. Much of Kathryn Hansen’s scholarship describes this in great depth and nuance; yet, there is a usage of a rather archaic terminology to delineate this figuration, even if such jargon is reflective of its times. The impersonator has been referred to as the “transvestite” or the “transsexual,” terms that emerged in the Euro-American medico-psychiatric contexts referring heavily to pathology à la gender non-conformity.[8] To affix these terms to a uniquely different encounter amidst (what I would term) the homoecology of the senses in the colonial theatrical assemblage would be to conflate them with a binarized “naturalism” of gender from within a western temporal, geopolitical context.

The aesthetic and sartorial choices of these impersonators and their theatre companies made these fraught negotiations evident, their embodiments of putative feminine wiles chartering a finesse of womanly suffering rather than that of titillation (Hansen, Making Women Visible 137–38). This recasting found resonances in the intertextual codification of the “Mother India” image onto which the female body of the dominant caste woman was mapped, repurposing the homoecology of the gaze essentially amongst men. This we see thrown into new accoutrements as in figure 2, where Anuja Ghosalkar in Lady Anandi critiques the female impersonator and the masculine figure (looming large over them both), her posture challenging the rectitude of demureness.

This seems rather ironic given that the horrors of the Criminal Tribes Act (1871) had genocidal consequences on hijras and various other gender non-conforming subjects during this time. Indeed, trans* and non-binary figurations need to be understood as separate from gender non-conforming ethnic Indian figurations—for instance, most prominently the figure of the hijra, the kothi or the aravani. The hijra, a figure who is largely subsumed within the contemporary rhetoric of the nation-state, has held contested and contentious positions of power through revenue collection historically, yet constituted vulnerable populations. Amongst other things, this law criminalized GNC subjects’ performance-based labours: their very presence determined unlawful and unnatural by colonial legislatures which reverberated with the anxieties that their sphere of movement held for dominant caste publics.

While GNC communities were criminalized and persecuted, the female impersonator became the exalted model for dominant caste women who were soon part of the active spectatorial publics of various plays of a Hindu mythopoeic imagination. The nationalist rhetoric imbued within this assembled model of engagement brought about the emergence and reification of the dominant caste/class Bharatiya Nari (Indian Woman). This “legitimized” embodiment of womanhood is something that both the contemporary plays engage with in fervour, parsing subversive valences in their intersectional performatic of impersonation.

The Plays

While the scenario of theatrical impersonation triggers the cultural memory of the colonial proscenium assemblage, it does not have the same kind of impetus and charge. Yet, this charge is subtle (and at times overt) in its manifestations within the artistic and performatic milieu of the last two decades. Akshayambara and Lady Anandi present to us the potentials of engaging with varied genres honing a critical temper, their concerns with womanhood opening up to a surplus of gender expression that destabilizes the binary actualizations of the (modern) impersonator performatic. Employing assemblage theory carves (responsible) space in this reading of the two pieces of what are deeply personal, intimate portrayals of the artists’ own decades-long engagement with stagecraft, involving their personal encounters within such systems. It is through such encounters imbued by a truth (or reality) protocol that the open-ended capacities of these discussed pieces are revealed, parsing a deeper discourse of the politics subsuming oppressed genders.

Akshayambara

The theatre company Dramanon defines their play Akshayambara as “an experimental Kannada play that uses both modern theatrical tools and the dance drama form of Yakshagana to create a contemporary narrative that raises questions on female representation and male ownership.”[9] Indeed, Yakshagana is a traditional form that employs dance, music, speech and drama in the staging of Hindu epics and mythology, espousing at times a ritualistic modality activating performance efficacy (Bapat).[10] Yakshagana performances developed and evolved coeval to the proscenium. However, what is different about the streevesha (female impersonation) in living traditions such as this one, is an embodied overt sexuality. This is pitted in stark contrast against the crafted interiority of suffering that came about with the Company/Parsi theatre’s female impersonator.

The name “Akshayambara” translates to “the vastness of the sky” and is part of the Yakshagana compendium of plays which draw from the epic Mahabharata. Ramprakash uses it as a device to stage not only the contestations of gender that are steeped in the genre’s performance paradigms, but also foregrounds the structures of caste and class that invariably are a part of the performance-scape. As for the former, I refer here to the fact that the canonization of the streevesha has been and continues to be in tension with the recent (since the 1970s) installation of the pradhana purusha vesha (lead masculine impersonation). Ramprakash recounts her experiences while learning Yakshagana:

In the women’s troupe I was at the centre of things, while in the male troupe I was the observer, the apprentice, the backup. While it was true that the level of expertise in the male professional troupe was more than the women’s team, the extent of this discrepancy struck me as overt. What was more interesting was that this difference in treatment was an accepted fact. It was an unquestioned conclusion that I would not stand a chance against the ‘better’ male performers, but I could certainly shine among the women who were much more experienced and proficient than I was. . . . I strongly feel the “acceptance” that a male performer has of his own role as a streevesha has a lot to do with the fact that his co-performers are all men. I suspect things will be radically different when a man has to play a streevesha and the pradhana purusha vesha is played by a woman.[11]

Video 3: Sparks fly. By Dramanon Theatre. Directed by Sharanya Ramprakash. 2021

In video 3 above we see how the initial verbal encounter between Ramprakash’s character and that of the male performer in streevesha is riddled by the inexplicability that her presence in the chauki (also known as the “green room,” it is the dressing room/space) could only mean that she is his fan. The fact that it is an “unquestioned conclusion” (as Ramprakash mentions above) gives us the impression that the probability that she could be his co-actor, much less the lead masculine impersonator, is an impossibility for him. Ramprakash divulging about being given plum roles over experienced women in Yakshagana troupes also brings us to understand the intersection and complexity with which these issues osmose into her character who holds a dominant caste and class position in the play. This is thrown into a unique tension with that of the male performer’s oppressed caste and lower-class location.

The employment of the genre-mythological device in the piece, as was aforementioned, is from the Mahabharata. The episode termed “Draupadi Vastrapaharana,” enumerated in Dipti Misri’s words tells us that:

[the epic] has since at least the nineteenth century been a source text for the mythology of the Indian nation in anticolonial as well as postcolonial phases of Indian writing. In the epic, Draupadi is the polyandrous wife of the five Pandavas, who stake and lose her in a game of dice with their enemy cousins, the Kauravas. Summoned to the Kaurava court after being thus won, Draupadi first refuses, whereupon the Kaurava prince Dushasana drags her in by her hair. As Dushasana pulls at Draupadi’s sari in an effort to disrobe her publicly in the Kaurava court, Draupadi prays to be rescued by the male Lord Krishna; miraculously her sari extends to never-ending length even as Dushasana pulls on it, and Draupadi cannot be disrobed after all.

609-10

This “never-ending length” of the saree is what is metaphorically referred to as Akshayambara here. By foregrounding the tenacious complexity of the caste-class-gender structure, the assemblage that is Akshayambara works these into the blocking/spacing of the stage as well.

Figure 3: “Spatial Collisions.” Akshayambara. Written and directed by Sharanya Ramprakash. Performed by Sharanya Ramprakash and Prakash Cherkady (both visualized above). Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival, Bangalore. Première, 2015. Photo: Suresh Babu

The proscenium is divided into four parts emulating the green room set-up. In the center of the stage is what I would call the “meta” stage (wherein the episodes from the epic are performed)—demarcated by tape in a rectangular boundary. It is now a truism of how deeply imbricated the Mahabharata imagery has been for the rise of the Hindu nationalism since the 1980s. The meta stage signifies the self-referential quality it poses in the dominant, hegemonic public’s imaginary. This creates an aesthetic posturing of the dramatic tension, working nearly cyclically—where conflict leaks out of the binarized links between the meta stage and the various chaukis, through which episodes/scenes are performed in graduation. This layering of a stable mise-en-scene is in a continuous disruption by the viscerality of the performatic embodiment, adding to the dynamism of the assemblage that is Akshayambara.

Figure 4: “Performing vulnerabilities.” Akshayambara. Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa. 2018. Photo: Suresh Babu

To be naked is to present a double entendre in the play. In the chauki (as seen in figure 4), the male artist, marked by oppressed caste/class locations, can present to us semi-naked. However, in the garb of the streevesha and particularly as Draupadi (who is largely an upper caste symbol),[12] he is subjected to the morality and respectability that is afforded to an exposed upper caste (and class) gendered female body. Material, sartorial choices are significant to the play and add to its theatrical assemblage. The resplendence in attire that the performer of the streevesha holds at the start of the play is mirrored by the pradhana purusha vesha performer towards the end, a mediation in the seemingly zero-sum relations at directing the embodied politics of respectability.

Lady Anandi
Figure 5: “Selving: the spectre of gender” Lady Anandi. Written, Devised and Performed by Anuja Ghosalkar. Breakthrough New Delhi, March 2016. Photo: Adrien Roche

To quote from Anuja Ghosalkar, who devised, wrote and performs in Lady Anandi, from her article (published online) on the development of Lady Anandi:

Personal archives and oral histories had always intrigued me, having successfully completed an oral history project on my grandfather, Ram Tipnis who was the oldest living make-up artist in India. This time I chose to tell the story of his father, Madhavrao Tipnis. Madhavrao Tipnis, my maternal great grandfather was a female impersonator in late 19th century Marathi theatre. He along with his older brother, Yeshwantrao Tipnis and a few others, started a theatre company called Maharashtra Natak Mandali. This company produced prose plays that were political in nature. . . . The premise for my performance was simple—two actors separated by 100 years, one who plays a lady convincingly and the other, me, struggling to be a woman on the stage.

As we note from above, Ghosalkar takes on the archival remnants of this particular time in theatre history, tracing it through her personal ancestry—her great-grandfather was a female impersonator of the colonial proscenium stage. Lady Anandi is a fluid documentary theatre piece, working with minimal objects—oftentimes adapting to and drawing from the place it is performed at. Most particularly however, she uses a projector and archival photographs, some which reference the eponymous play surrounding the figure of Anandibai Peshwa from Bhaubandaki (1909), including as well that of Kichaka Vadha (1907)—both plays in which Madhavrao had performed and both written by Krishnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar.

Ghosalkar uses the term “documentary theatre” to affix the genre of her piece (and she might just be one of the first artists employing such a format in Indian proscenium theatre history), with liberal borrowings from verbatim theatre. This piece, which I’d witnessed in January 2019 at the Krishnakriti Foundation’s State Gallery of Art at Hyderabad (India), is mediated by various registers of truth, wherein speech implores upon an actuality protocol. The assemblage of Lady Anandi is also grounded in Ghosalkar’s own experiences in various theatre circuits and of encountering sexism, ageism and elitism. In many senses, this piece works with and against these anxieties, the genre aiding in creating a poignancy in vulnerability and a subversion of norms.

The genealogical stakes in the play stress on a particular primacy in embodying these archives whereby her corporeal follows the principles of the repertoire. Ghosalkar has noted that she strives towards creating a sensibility of archiving: “My body indeed was holding all the “incomplete pieces”, I was the living, breathing archive. Until I lived, the stories of Madhavrao would hold. Perhaps, that’s why early on I decided, that I will be present on stage, the story will be mediated through me.” I would hold that the performatic here assuages a repertoire, assembled from the archival valence of family photographs (of Madhavrao and her own) and her personal anecdotes.

While the relationship between the archive and the repertoire is not essentially an antagonistic one, it is yet different in mediation. Further, there is a return to the body (performatic) in the opening scene which stages impersonation as it has been for the (generations of the proscenium) spectator—the theatricality of the piece activating this scenario (Taylor 28–33). There is a constant state of againness that has been activated by the repertoire (as also seen in Akshayambara), whereby the embodiment constitutes and reframes memory, transmitting and generating knowledge (Taylor 21).

In the particular rendition I witnessed, the stage was set with one side holding a mirror lined with glowing bulbs as found in a dressing room (recalling the traditional green room/chauki as we had seen in the former play). We also see a screen on which archival photographs are projected—this is where a traditional cyclorama/painted curtain as per the Parsi/Marathi Company theatre would have been. Right in front of it is a pedestal, lined with colourful lights on a daisy-chain. At the play’s opening, we see that the screen holds a red full moon at its upper right corner (as seen from the audience). Ghosalkar enters the stage from within the audience and stands tall, smiling, surveying the horizon of spectators whilst meeting their gaze—acknowledging their presence with a slight nod. She proclaims “Lady Anandi” and falls to her knees to pick up some sheets of paper. She begins:

The characters in Lady Anandi are as follows: Character 1: A male actor in his 60s. He plays Madhavrao Tipnis, my great-grandfather. He is known for his female impersonation of the character Lady Anandi. Character 2: A 40 year old female actress, the narrator. That’s me. He’s my great-grandfather, I’m Anuja. Character 3: Any “capable” female actor. She plays Indumati—the fan, Yeshwant—Madhav’s older brother, and Malati—wife of Madhavrao. The play begins with the image of the moon projected on the screen.[13]

Video 4: A Stop-motion rendition of Lady Anandi by Guftugu Journal. Directed by Anuja Ghosalkar. 2017

This act of reading out loud throws up the performatic of painstakingly scouring archives: Ghosalkar’s own praxis of sifting through various institutional and familial archives and memories in recreating Madhavrao Tipnis’ life on stage culminates in this gestural utterance. Ghosalkar continues in this vein reading out the stage cues. “Enter Anandibai,” she says. “She’s dressed in a blood . . . red . . . nine-yard silk saree, covered in shimmering gold,” she continues, taking position on the podium as a spotlight captures her form against the screen. At this point, a pre-recorded audio clip of the supposed impersonator starts playing, speaking lines in Marathi which Ghosalkar lip-syncs to.

In another scene in the play, Ghosalkar speaks of her lived experiences of not being “woman enough” in the theatre, when the tonality of her voice yet again draws attention to the innate sartorial codification of Madhavrao in Anandibai’s garb:

Years later, a director once said to me, “Don’t stand like a man!”. Like a man? I thought. And another one said, “Mmm, baba, you read beautifully! But you don’t physically fit the part.” You know, as an actor of a certain age and a certain size, as I struggled to play women characters convincingly, I was really surprised to encounter my great-grandfather dressed in a blood . . . red . . . nine-yard silk saree, covered in shimmering gold, dressed as Lady Anandi. (my emphasis as per the tonality of utterance).[14]

At this point, the lights are off, and our attention is arrested by the projection on screen as seen in figure 5, witnessing the attempted mimesis of the impersonator’s photograph. Ghosalkar tenderly caresses the projected image on screen, her body transforms into a palimpsest, a surface (as made plainly evident in figure 6, of a different scene)—this ephemeral gesture long lasting on the spectator’s retina, a provocation on the performative of gender norms.

Figure 6: “Peering into the past: emblazoned parchment.” Lady Anandi. Breakthrough New Delhi, March 2016. Photo: Rutwij Paranjpye

The assemblage that is Lady Anandi carries with it also the performatic of masculine impersonation, met as it is via Ghosalkar’s professed fascination with moustaches. “Can a woman love moustaches?” she drawls, “No, I really do!” she proclaims, pulling one out. “Look! Thick . . . black . . . long . . . hairy moustache. (She puts it on).” The modality of the utterance regarding the moustache follows suit as with the description of the nine-yard silk saree. Saying so, she ascends the pedestal again, ties her hair up and turns towards the audience, striking a pose—an arm across her chest, the other nearly astride her form. Her hands are balled into fists, her eyes are squinting – an effort to appear imposing. The projection follows this gestural cue, and we see that she attempts another still mimesis of the impersonator, Madhavrao, except now, he is dressed as Kichak, from the play Kichak-Vadha (fig. 7).

Figure 7: “Sepia awash.Lady Anandi. Breakthrough New Delhi, March 2016. Photo: Harsh Bhavsar

Kichaka Vadha translates to “The Slaying of Kichak,” a seditious play that was banned by the British in 1910. This play was deemed as seditious as it was felt that it positioned the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, as raping Mother India—India emasculated and effeminized—adding further to the deifying-vilifying binary of gender within a caste locus. The popularity of this play lies in the fact that it rehashes an episode from the Mahabharata wherein the Pandavas, who were disguised under impersonatory (not necessarily gender, apart from Arjuna as Brhannala) garb, needed to endure a year incognito under such strife before staking claim to their kingdom, usurped by the Kauravas.

As they seek shelter for one year, Draupadi is leched at by Kichaka (the commander of the army of the kingdom they seek shelter in) and her five husbands are “helpless to help her” without risking their disguise. However, she schemes covertly with one of them, Bhima, and draws Kichaka in at night to a dance hall where he is to be bludgeoned to death. Interestingly, the location of the climax scene in the play by Khadilkar is altered to intensify the nationalist, anti-colonial sentiment. The location is set at a Hindu temple, instead of the dance hall where Arjuna is in what Solomon calls “transvestite” garb, the impact of the latter’s mise-en-scene deemed too scandalous to be staged (37).

Subverting Gender, Parsing Caste

Both the plays trigger the inheritance of the homoecology of the senses, troubling the pervasive obsession as within fandom cultures. Akshayambara works with this framework head-on, whereby Ramprakash’s character is interpellated within the legacies of the overarching public sphere of dominant caste (and class) women who were to fashion themselves accordingly by the impersonator’s performatic (fig. 8). We note how in the opening scene of the play where we see the female impersonator dressing in the blue saree in the chauki, Ramprakash’s character aids him in getting dressed, her gestures and touch holding an intimacy that is tender and very nearly worshipping of his form.

However, her awe is punctured when facing his thinly veiled contempt and clipping remarks which deride and belittle her role on the meta-stage (and otherwise, within the chauki). It should be noted that these moments are greeted with uproarious applause and laughter from the (Ranga Shankara première) audience. The post-colonial (and even postmodern, perhaps) intervention of having (cis) women performers taking on masculine impersonation is yet a shaky assemblage received with either a patronizing indulgence at best or scathing derision at worst by these mainstream audiences of Bangalore.

Figure 8: “Weaving citations: fandom cultures.” Akshayambara. Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa. 2018. Photo: Suresh Babu

The pervasive fandom culture is embodied by Ghosalkar too, a fictionalized epistolary exchange between Indumati and Madhavrao is noted through Lady Anandi. Impersonation is seen destabilized in Lady Anandi’s concluding scene as well, where Ghosalkar moves out of the spectral, digitized frame, and into the audience as images of her own roll onto the screen (fig. 9 and vid. 3). This forces us to tussle with the social construction of bodies, underlined by her preceding speech as a senile Madhavrao (said to be on stage in nothing but his underwear), “Don’t look at me. Stop looking at me. I don’t want to stand here anymore. This place smells rotten, like a thousand dead were living here. I want to retreat into that black hole, there. Never to return. I have to go. Let me go.”

Figure 9: “Ghosalkar steps out of the many parergons.” Lady Anandi. Piramal Art Gallery, Mumbai, March 2016. Photo: Siddharth Govindan

The employment of direct addressal in Lady Anandi transfigures the spectators into witnesses, working differently from the conundrums as within the traditional dance-drama set up of Yakshagana in Akshayambara, cleaving through reality. These aid in affirming the open-ended conclusions that the two plays champion, charging open the realities that non-heteronormative subjects face. The relationality of this discourse allows us to complicate a singular emancipatory reading of the two plays and accrue of their complexity and intersectionality of assemblage. These pieces command reflexivity, the straddling of leaping temporalities and are intricately committed to the credit of subverting and destabilizing caste-constructed gender normativizations.

Figure 10: “Masculine impersonation: lustful frenzy.” Akshayambara. Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa. 2018. Photo: Suresh Babu

The homoecology of the senses triggered in Akshayambara transfers to the performatic of the masculine impersonator through the progression of the piece, adding layers in collusion with the character’s dominant caste and class location. This is remarkable given that audience appreciation was formerly with the female impersonator. This transference is seen at the very end of Akshayambara, peaking towards the masculine impersonator (fig. 10), due to the viscerality in embodiment of a lustful rage as pointed towards the menstruating, cowering female impersonator. Remarkable, due to the alienation as per menstruation via the theatrical sensible.

Indeed, the female impersonator is visibly enraged at having been emasculated on the meta-stage and hollers at Ramprakash’s character later in the green room: “I cannot be shamed—but you can!” There is a thinly veiled threat of rape as a disciplining weapon in the space of the green room, despite the fact that this rhetoric was just used by the dominant caste over the oppressed one on the meta-stage. The audience’s noted laughter, even at the openly performatic anticipation of rape as the narrative of this epic goes, is disorienting to say the very least. This shift of the modus operandi disturbs the masculine impersonator given the social life of shame and pollution that menstruation accrues in a highly stigmatized, caste-based society.

It is a truism that there exist highly stringent norms particular to the dominant caste woman, expecting adherence to, when menstruating. For one, she cannot be seen or heard; she cannot step into the kitchen or the worship-room, she must wear a certain kind of (minimalist) clothing (fig. 11) and so on. All of these, to maintain the sanctity of purity, embellished by the shame of bleeding. This indoctrination in the sharing of caste-based shame and its accumulation into toxicity is also depicted in a manner to foreground the female impersonator’s intense hostility—he too has been “effeminized” in comparison to a casteist brand of exalted machismo. A hegemony such as this one, fabricated over centuries in reiteration exercised by the dominant castes, is embodied by the masculine impersonator.

It is important here to flag the labor economy that extends beyond the erstwhile household (and now covertly, too) of the dominant caste publics. Sowjanya Tamalapakula draws our attention to the fact that oppressed castes and Dalits (outcastes who signify untouchability) who were not afforded ritual purity and dignity of life became entrusted to accede to the transferability of this periodic pollution from the dominant caste body by way of labour—members of chakali castes, who washed these blood-soiled sarees/garments. This zero-sum relation here adds further nuances to the emasculation and effeminization of the female impersonator’s embodiment triggering cultural memory. The endless length of the saree (read: Akshayambara) comes to provoke questions of the cultural politics of shame (fig. 11).

Figure 11: “On the politics of respectability.” Akshayambara. Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa. 2018. Photo: Suresh Babu

Furthermore, a cleft opens up at that of the social life of menstruation and its viscerality leading us to discern the emergence of gender non-conformity, shifting us then to realize beyond the biological determinism of the gender binary to “bodies that menstruate” instead. The emergence of the assemblage of the piece unlinks bleeding from false biological determinisms, urging us to rethink the manner with which shame and pollution find a different iteration altogether in the encounter with ethnic GNC communities such as hijras, kinnars, aravanis, thirunangais of the Indian social order. It would be a pertinent reminder then that many of the places where these groups are encountered want to kill them—they are simply not supposed to be there or exist. The structural linkages of caste, race, class and gender are innately dysphoric to their freedom from the gender binary, as noted through the destabilization of impersonation in these two plays.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank both Sharanya and Anuja for their unconditional support in my vision and for entrusting me with their pieces. Experiencing their craft has been nothing short of transformative: my discussions with them have been most enriching and generative and indeed, it was Anuja who had nudged me to think of their two pieces in conversation! I would also want to mention Apeksha Priyadarshini, Activist and Cinema Studies PhD scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics (SAA), JNU for her brilliant insights on caste and gender at the initial stages of thinking through this article. My thanks as well to the Theatre and Performance Studies faculty at SAA, aiding me in my intellectual trajectory. Furthermore, I would like to express my gratitude to the editors of this special issue, Dr. Stefanie Sachsenmaier and Dr. Gigi Argyropoulou for their immense generosity, patience and kindness of spirit throughout the upheavals of the pandemic as has been and in directing critique with care.


Endnotes

[1] Referring here to developments in scholarship surrounding queer and/or Dalit subjects (Arya and Rathore; Kang and Sahai) or that of the activisms in various places. For instance, with the Alternative Law Forum and Raahi in Bangalore, Mariwala Health Initiative in Mumbai, etc.

[2] Wherein the GNC figure of the hijra, in particular, is co-opted through a “violence [that] is discursively appropriated and translated into sympathy for [queer] members of dominant castes and classes” (Fernandes 60). Furthermore, their plight under the current covid-19 pandemic has only been exacerbated (Sahai et al.).

[3] Some of the germinative works on same-sex love in India (an anachronism) were published around the turn of the century.

[4] I am referring here to the “Indian Freedom Movement,” which was anti-colonial in its thrust, an assemblage for the articulation of an ‘Indian’ identity privileging a dominant caste, class and religious ethnicity.

[5] Such as badhai (celebration)—wherein members of these communities are associated with celebratory activities/performances/rituals surrounding birth at (feudal or otherwise) dominant caste families, to name one.

[6] This is not to say that there have not been “queer” performances prior to this. Theatre has been used as a tool by LGBTQIA+ activist groups, apart from proscenium-making for instance.

[7] As discussed by Janelle Reinelt in her article that charts the emergence of Performance Studies as a discipline, locating (as many others) that of the “performative” and “performativity” in the works of J. L. Austin, Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler.

[8] Cáel Keegan mentions this (explicitly) in his talk here.

[9] This can be accessed here.

[10] The training style of Yakshagana acting employs both an improvised method as well as an immersion in the practice – learning from observation of troupes and masters who choose texts and facilitate actions of embodiment of emotion and so on (Herr). For a more detailed overview of the craft, redirect here.

[11] From a personal email correspondence.

[12] Though, of course, subversions to this symbolic in literature and performance exist. For instance, one of the most popular subversions can be noted in Mahasweta Devi’s short-story Dopdi, which later is picked up by Kalakshetra Manipur as a symbolic of the current nation-state’s hegemonization and rape of the women of the Othered North East Indian states.

[13] Transcription of speech is my own from the video of the 2019 rendition of the play, provided by the artist.

[14] As in the previous endnote (13).


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*Supraja R has recently graduated with a Masters degree from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, New Delhi. She/they also have an Integrated MSc in Health Psychology and a Diploma in Theatre Arts, both, from the University of Hyderabad (HCU). Their interests abound in performance studies and in tussling with an interdisciplinarity of the same, privileging a praxis of gender and sexuality.

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