Kalaa Utsavam: When tradition reverses gender roles

Prasad Cherkady and Sharanya Ramprakash (also writer and director) in Akshayambara by Bengaluru-based theatre group Dramanon, which will be presented as part of Kalaa Utsavam 2018.
Prasad Cherkady and Sharanya Ramprakash (also writer and director) in Akshayambara by Bengaluru-based theatre group Dramanon, which will be presented as part of Kalaa Utsavam 2018.PHOTO: SURESH BABU

SINGAPORE - A shocking moment in the two-hander play Akshayambara has the female character slapped by the male for asking a feminist question. Even more shocking: at past performances, some audiences applauded the act.

Writer-director Sharanya Ramprakash, 37, says over the phone 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 men's and women's roles in art and society through Akshayambara. It takes viewers into the backstage intrigues of a male-dominated dance drama form called yakshagana.

Yakshagana 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, "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 performers who plays the male aggressor on stage.

  • BOOK IT/AKSHAYAMBARA

  • WHERE: Esplanade Annexe Studio

    WHEN: Nov 17 and 18, 6pm

    ADMISSION: $30 from Sistic and Esplanade Box Office

    INFO: Performed in Kannada with English surtitles. Admission for ages six and above. Recommended for ages 13 and above.

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

The play was developed through the INLAKS Scholarship '14, 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."

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