For a period of six months, a group of transwomen worked closely with a theatre practitioner. “The result was a lot of singing and dancing,” says Sharanya Ramprakash, director of Dramanon Theatre, Bengaluru. It also culminated in a performance that broke gender barriers and expanded horizons of the ‘performative’.
Nava, a play that first premiered at the Ranga Shankara festival in 2019, had its journey cut short by the covid-19 pandemic. It has now undergone a revival, of sorts, to return to the stage, this time in Mumbai. The cast features nine transwomen: Veena, Chandri, Shanti, Prarthana, Jyothi, Sandhya, Shweta, Purushi, and Thara.
In a telephonic interview from Bengaluru, as she prepares to travel with the cast, Ramprakash tells the story of the making of this unique play. “Most of the nine transwomen, who form a part of the cast, are associated with Aravani Art Project (an art collective for trans people based in Bangalore). I am friends with the founder, Poornima Sukumar, and have known many of them as her colleagues. So, when they got a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) with a play as one of the outcomes, they reached out to me,” she says about the beginnings of Nava.
From then on, the process, spanning six months, involved dancing, singing, sharing, theatre exercises, and clowning. The performance, which emerged from this, was based on the navarasas.
Like her earlier work, Akshayambara (that takes the traditional form of yakshagana and turns it on its head to include women in a male bastion), in this one too Ramprakash delves into the idea of gendered performances. “While these women have never been on stage as actors before, they understand performance so well. There is performance in everything that they do. It’s just that they have never been in a rehearsal room,” she explains.
Ramprakash also believes that with their bodies and voices, and stories, the very definition of performance seeks expansion. She goes on to elaborate how each of the traditionally-structured emotions in dance and drama have been reinterpreted by the cast. “We have a story of a transwoman, who finds a particular graveyard in Ulsoor, Bengaluru, a safe space. She talks about how she goes and sleeps there. People who don’t identify as transgender, would never think of it as a safe space. So, the story reinterprets fear or bhaya,” she explains.
Similarly, the emotion of veera (bravery) comes to us through the story of a Rajinikanth fan, who sees his displays of might on screen and looks at her own life of struggles. “While he depicts bravery on screen, her own life involves everyday acts of bravery,” she says.
The emotion of hasya (laughter) is also turned on its head. “The joke here, is on us. They say you call us Shikhandi, you call us hijras, you brought the Trans Bill without consulting us, it’s funny. They laugh and laugh,” Ramprakash adds. In yet another story, a transwoman recalls the first time she wore a saree and how that became a metaphor for her rebirth.
Through Nava, Ramprakash has been questioning the idea of consistency in theatre as well. “The saying—the show must go on—simply doesn’t work while working with people who are marginalised and vulnerable,” says Ramprakash. The performance makes way for changes and absences.
When a cast member cannot make it to a performance on account of the uncertainties of illness, grief, and arrests, the absence is marked by silence. “The silence tells her story and it’s important to acknowledge that she couldn’t be there,” says Ramprakash. It’s also why she chooses never to replace actors in this ever-evolving project. The changes in their lives are incorporated in their stories, or sometimes new stories replace older ones.
On regrouping after two years of the pandemic, the cast and crew were introduced to changes in one another’s lives. “Someone doesn’t have a leg owing to an accident and is learning to walk with a bionic leg. Someone found a partner, and yet another person was detected HIV positive and is coming to terms with it. In their lives, changes take place daily and not necessarily connected to the pandemic,” says Ramprakash, “This changes their stories. For instance, the story of fear could change after having been in prison”.
While the director has only emerged richer from these experience, she admits that the process of putting Nava together came with its share of challenges—from finding a rehearsal space that would open its doors to transwomen to making sure there was access to public transport.
However, individuals and organisations offered support too. A Bengaluru-based not-for-profit, Ashraya, offered its terrace for rehearsals. Ramprakash realised that certain spaces in the city that had been invisible to her had suddenly become visible. “Nava made me more aware of my femininity and helped me own it. With them, I learnt to dance, to forget about tomorrow, and above all, to wear red lipstick,” she smiles.
Nava will be performed at G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, Mumbai, between 1-3 April. Tickets are available on www.insider.com