Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts

A woman is slapped on stage and the audience applauds

Performers Prasad Cherkady (far left) and Sharanya Ramprakash (left) in Akshayambara, by Indian theatre troupe Dramanon's arm in Bengaluru.
Performers Prasad Cherkady (left) and Sharanya Ramprakash (right) in Akshayambara, by Indian theatre troupe Dramanon's arm in Bengaluru.PHOTO: SURESH BABU

A shocking moment in the twohander play Akshayambara has the male character slapping the female for asking a feminist question. Even more shocking was how some audiences applauded the act at past performances.

Writer-director Sharanya Ramprakash, 37, says over the telephone from Bengaluru, India: "At many performances, there is applause because if you ask a feminist question, you should be slapped."

The co-founder of Indian theatre troupe Dramanon's arm in Bengaluru, she explores the tension between the roles of men and women in art and society through Akshayambara. It takes viewers into the backstage intrigues of a male-dominated dance drama form called yakshagana.

It is a rural art form performed by farmers for farmers. It recreates scenes from mythology, including the epic Mahabharata, but there is space for improvised speech and argument, in which performers tackle issues of the day.

Women learn yakshagana, but only men perform it professionally.

Ramprakash says: "Yakshagana welcomes people who are not elite, not Brahmin", considered the highest caste of Hindu society.

  • BOOK IT / KALAA UTSAVAM –INDIAN FESTIVAL OF ARTS 2018

  • WHERE: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Friday to Nov 25

    ADMISSION: Various prices. Go to www.esplanade.com/kalaautsavam or call the Esplanade Box Office on 6828-8377; also from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

  • DISCO SHEELA AND OTHER INDIAN SUPERWOMEN

  • WHERE: Esplanade Recital Studio

    WHEN: Saturday,7.30 and 9.30pm

    ADMISSION: $30

    INFO: Performed in English; contains coarse language

  • AKSHAYAMBARA

  • WHERE: Esplanade Annexe Studio

    WHEN: Saturday and Sunday,6pm

    ADMISSION: $30

    INFO: Performed in Kannada with English surtitles. Admission for aged six and older; recommended for aged 13 and older

  • PARASU: THE STORY OF AN ULTIMATE WARRIOR

  • WHERE: Esplanade Theatre Studio

    WHEN: Friday, 8pm; Saturday,3 and 8pm

    ADMISSION: $30

    INFO: In Tamil with English surtitles. Admission for aged six and older; recommended for aged 13 and older

She adds: "It's open to everyone who is not a woman. In a form that's so open, why is this exclusive?"

She began researching performances and met yakshagana artists across the state of Karnataka.

In 2014, she became the first woman admitted into an all-male school for the art, under the renowned guru Sanjeeva Suvarna.

Akshayambara looks at the backstage dynamics of two yakshagana performers: A male performer who plays the role of Draupadi, the wife of the Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata who is nearly stripped of her clothes in public in order to humiliate them, and a female performer who plays the male aggressor on stage.

Ramprakash takes on the role of the female performer and stage male in Akshayambara, while actor Prasad Cherkady plays the male performer and Draupadi.

The play was developed through the INLAKS Scholarship 2014, supported by the India Foundation for the Arts and premiered in 2015.

Ramprakash's yakshagana guru is the choreographer. She says: "My teacher was so happy to support this play because it's an argument that needs to be told."

In contrast to what the script shows about male-female dynamics, her teacher deferred to her while developing the play.

"He kept telling me, 'It's yours and you must own it. Tell me if you're satisfied.'"

She laughs. "That's the spirit of yakshagana. It should be that open."

Akshita Nanda

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2018, with the headline 'A woman is slapped on stage and the audience applauds'. Print Edition | Subscribe