Discussions around gender and sexuality are increasing among the open-minded factions of Indian society who have slowly but surely begun to question traditional notions that have been so rigidly held for far too long. While talks of sex, sexuality and gender has grown overtime, gender-bending in Indian theatre is not a new phenomenon. It has existed prominently in folk theatre in the 18th and 19th century in the form of female impersonators, during a time when women were not allowed into the theatrical space. Things have changed over time with women being ‘allowed’ entry into this sphere of men, but it still isn’t easy nor very welcoming. Anuja Ghosalkar experienced this firsthand when she made the decision to become a full-time actor. Based in Bangalore, Anuja was involved in the arts and been a part of the theatre circuit for some time now as a writer, director, and film researcher before she took up full-time acting, but it was when she dug through her family archives that she realised her connection to theatre was so much deeper, when she came across photographs and written materials of her maternal great grandfather and female impersonator, Madhavrao Tipnis.
Madhavrao’s journey as an actor, especially as a female impersonator, fascinated Anuja and she began scrounging through archives for as much material as she could find, deciding to create a text and performance about two actors, herself and her great grandfather, separated by time. “The idea first came to me a few years ago when I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In that she writes about Shakespeare’s imaginary sister, Judith--would she have been given the chance to be a playwright like her brother? Or would she be married off?” Anuja tells us. “That had me question my own place in theatre, the roles I was given and the lines I was made to say.” The responses she got when she declared her decision to act at thirty-four made her deeply uncomfortable, “I decided to create a text and performance that resonated with me...Two actors, separated by 100 years--one who plays female characters convincingly and the other struggling to be a lady,” she said, and thus Lady Anandi was born--a mix of history, photography, biography, fact and fiction.
The era of female impersonators may have ended over the years, but at its prime numerous male actors indulged in the practice, and thrived. Madhavrao Tipnis was one such “reluctant actor,” as Anuja puts it, who along with his older brother Yeshwantrao founded a theatre company called Maharashtra Natak Mandali around 1904. Madhavrao and Yeshwantrao focused primarily on prose plays, the trend of the time, which had strong political undertones. Anuja told us that one of their immensely popular plays ‘Khichakvadh’ was even banned by the British on grounds of sedition, which is ironic considering the recent events involving Jawaharlal Nehru University. Madhavrao wanted to be a wrestler, but his brother needed a heroine for a play and pushed his younger sibling into the part of the lady.
Anuja wrote Lady Anandi while she was an artist-in-residence at Art Lab Gnesta, in Sweden, relying heavily on texts of plays that her great grandfather’s company did, newspaper and magazine articles, photographs, autobiographies of other female impersonators and other archival research. “In the absence of material, I wrote fiction.” Lady Anandi is a work in progress : “I hold the script in my hand and read it, at times the speaker icon for sound will be seen by the audience on the screen, in mainstream theatre this would be blasphemous,” she said. The piece is constantly evolving, on an intellectual and conceptual level, with scenes being re-written before a show or a change in the climax before a performance.
With no director, Anuja breaks the fourth wall and hosts a question-and-answer session with the audience after the performance too. She says, “In a way the audience is the outside eye or the director of the piece. Therefore, I try and incorporate feedback from the previous show. That’s why I call it a work in progress...Unlike a conventional piece, which is neat and complete, mine is rough around the edges. I like to have space to make mistakes, it’s liberating...The burden of a finished piece is too much to carry.” With no external funding, Anuja follows a kind of do-it-yourself method, finding technicians on the go in whichever city she is set to perform in. “Too much is made of slickness, I enjoy the uncertainty of the organic. Through the piece my work process is visible, which the audience also enjoys. Once an audience member came up to me and said ‘thank you for making us feel that our opinion counts in your artistic process.’”
Lady Anandi is set to make its debut in Mumbai on Sunday April 17 (today) at Sitara Studio. What should the audience expect sitting down to watch this performance? “They should expect to be challenged! Since it’s a non-linear narrative, they have to connect the dots themselves. Working with archival material is tough, you find an anecdote here, a photograph there, the form of Lady Anandi is very much like that. The audience has to draw out the complete picture, fill in the gaps--that is, if they are interest in finality. As for me, I like the in-betweenness of things, people and events.”
The performance will be followed by a discussion with award-winning filmmaker and installation artist Shumona Goel who has worked extensively with archival material. “I was very inspired by her site-specific installation work ‘Family Tree’ which she did a few years ago, it was personal and evocative. The Q & A with her is an integral part of a performance like mine, there are gaps and questions that the audience has and Shumona, who has previously seen the work, will be able to draw attention to things like the importance of form while creating work, the relation between image and text, and so forth, during our conversation. Given her background in experimental film, Sociology and Anthropology, I think it will be a spirited and open conversation the audience will enjoy.”A woman impersonating a man who impersonated women may be a bit confusing, but Lady Anandi promises to be a performance like you’ve never experienced before, and you don’t want to miss it.
When: Lady Anandi opens on Sunday April 17 at 6 PM, tickets cost Rs. 250.