MAYA KRISHNA RAO totters onto the stage in kitten heels, perches elegantly on a stool, picks up her cup of tea, and, as the audience waits with palpable excitement, says her first lines from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story Quality Street.
“We were drinking tea…” And then the face mic clams up. A soloist’s worst nightmare.
“Can’t hear! Can’t hear,” the audience at Delhi’s Habitat Centre complains. Without missing a beat, Rao carries on with the Nigerian pidgin, but shifts the rant to the sound folks. A small crisis averted, she resumes the play, an ambitious Nigerian mother’s rant about a daughter who wants a minimalistic wedding.
Next day, at the Jamia Nagar Ramleela ground, the 63-year-old is doing her viral act, Not in My Name, on hate crimes. It is a pulsating interplay of song and words and it has just reached a crescendo, “Not in the name of Allah, Krishna, Kalburgi, Mohammad Akhlaq…”, when the azaan rings out from a neighbouring mosque. Rao stands still for three minutes and then picks up from where she left off, knitting the break into her monologue. “Jab itni chuppi sadh ke baithe hain azaan ki avaaz pe, kya mangoon (When we listen to the Islamic call to prayer in such silence, what else can I ask)… not in my name…” Activist Bilal Zaidi, who organised the event, is stunned. “Any good actor can deal with an interruption, but this was an impassioned political plea and when she resumed, it was at the same pitch as when she left off,” he says.
Few things can dull Rao’s ardour on stage. There are others who combine theatre and activism, but none like her who absorbs from the surrounding landscape even while the play is on. Performance, audience, actor, prop, stage and setting are all a seamless whole in her unique theatre of one. It has no director, no playwright, no company, no co-actors.
Rao calls it back-to-front theatre, where the process is all. Everything comes alive in her personal laboratory. A small doll with a basket on its head becomes a labourer at a construction site in Heads Are Meant For Walking Into. A contact sheet with 60 images could become the pool from which she would pick her scenes to “see what they say to us”. Her director and co-actor is the camera that she uses to record her rehearsals and improvisations.
“It has always been like this for me. It is the journey that is exciting. I go to a room, start with myself, the thought of what I read about the world around me, and end with myself. I keep myself open, see what comes my way,” she says of her method.
From the Babri Masjid episode and Andhra farmer suicide to Manorama’s killing in Manipur and the 2012 Delhi gang rape, the script for her solo theatre mostly emerges from the day’s newspaper. She might occasionally take the stage at Stein Auditorium in Delhi or the Rangashankara in Bengaluru (she doesn’t care much for the proscenium she admits), but you are most likely to catch her at the street protest, at a city roundabout, at India Gate, outside JNU gates or a makeshift colony podium with her spare costume kit. Most of the material is in her head anyway.
Watch her pull off an absurd babble mixing Gurgaon's condos, TV commercials, beauty tips and big cars and see how the barbs land, sharply en pointe
With exceptions like Saadat Hasan Manto’s Khol Do and Quality Street, she has rarely worked with material scripted by someone else, and then too she owns it completely. But if you think this is arid activist theatre that does not entertain, think again. There is music, dance, movement, mime. “What else is there?” she jokes when you ask her to put a name to her stagecraft.
And there is humour, at all times. Rao has a great sense of the grotesque. Watch her pull off an absurd babble mixing Gurgaon’s condos, TV commercials, beauty tips and big cars, and see how the barbs land, sharply en pointe.
Even a grim work like Not in My Name punctuates Gai ke naam pe mere moonh se roti chheen loge? (Will you deprive me of my livelihood in the name of a cow) with Swachh Bharat ke name pe mera hee safaya kar doge (Will you use the Swachh Bharat campaign to wipe me out)?
“Ironically it was with the Babri demolition and the plays that followed that I realised how well humour works. I went on to the stage with a mixie and started a monologue on dhania chutney but it was nonsense stuff because I was mixing the recipe with Jan Sangh’s history, the ironies flowing in and out. I would use the dhad-dhad-dhad of the mixie to approximate gunshots,” she recalls.
But even Rao was stumped when she was asked to weave in satire in a play on the 2012 Delhi gang rape within days of Jyoti Singh’s death. It was to be staged at a protest at the Munirka bus stop where the horrific events on the night of December 16th, 2012, began and was then supposed to move to the annual Safdar Hashmi tribute on January 1st at Mandi House.
“We were all walking around with a stone in our belly every day. Where was I going to find comedy? Then in search of some music, I logged on to YouTube; the second piece I found started with the word ‘walk’. Usually I do yoga, go into the zone for inspiration. But I realised that for those two weeks we were already in the zone, in Jyoti’s world. It taught me a lot about life and theatre,” she says.
The walk is among Rao's best-loved works. It talks of a woman's right to reclaim the streets at night, rest on a park bench without forever watching the clock
The Walk is among Rao’s best-loved works. It talks of a woman’s right to loiter, reclaim the streets at night, rest on a park bench without forever watching the clock. “Can I Will I Shall I walk…raat ke bara baje I want to walk…sade chaar, paune paanch baje…sochne ke liye mujhe poori raat chaahiye…bus mein baithoongi, letoongi park bench pe…”
Rao’s unique theatre of one is trenchantly feminist. Yet, she sees the tragedy of being a man in a patently patriarchal society. “There are young men pouring into our cities every day. They interact and work with women with minds of their own and then they go back to their cloistered world. They suffer too. It still gives me goosebumps to think that the boy who was beaten senseless that night on December 26th lives in the same world as us,” she says.
Till a couple of months ago, Rao was working at Shiv Nadar University, designing a theatre curriculum for educators and youngsters. There is today, she says, a great thirst for theatre among the young and the old. Her own packed schedule is an indicator. Her dream now is to revive and restage her early body of works to this new audience. This includes her riveting play A Deep Fried Jam which wove disparate elements together from politics to Delhi’s jamun trees.
What many of Rao’s young fans today may not know is that she is one of the pioneers of the feminist theatre movement in India, literally the moving force behind the earliest plays on women’s issues.
In 1979, when the so-called dowry deaths had become numbing everyday tragedies, women’s groups were grappling with means to take the issue to the people. It was then that Stree Sangharsh, a feminist collective, decided to rope in Rao, then a lecturer, and Anruradha Kapoor who later went on to head the National School of Drama, to craft a street play on dowry deaths. This was the birth of Om Swaha, among the earliest feminist plays in India.
The play was based on the true story of Hardeep Kaur, a young mother who was burnt to death for not bringing enough in Delhi’s affluent Jangpura area in 1978. Among neighbours who witnessed her death—almost in public view because she could be seen struggling with flames against her bedroom window—was feminist activist Subhadra Butalia and her daughter Urvashi. Subhadra, who had founded Stree Sangharsh, rallied around women activists to take Kaur’s story into Delhi’s streets and gallis.
The collaboration between activists and theatre-waalahs wasn’t all that easy. “They were activists so they would go on discussing, but they wouldn’t get up and move. I told them ‘No, no, let us begin, we will get ideas later.’ They were impassioned, concerned, but my presence was important to inject the fire of theatre into it,” she says.
Ironically, it was the Babri Masjid demolition and the plays that followed that I realised how well humour works
Rao also played the role of Kaur in the play with chilling effect when it was first staged and still recalls the impact it had on citizens. They would play outside the many government bhavans and men would land up, lunch dabba in hand. “It was a learning experience, for me and for the activists,” she recalls.
But the roots of her work go back to the 50s and 60s, when Delhi was home to a nascent community of Malayalee migrants. Rao’s mother Bhanumati was a Malayalee, and a keen Bharatanatyam dancer and actor. She was an enthusiastic member of the community’s culture scene in those days, particularly Malayalam theatre.
Kerala Club in Connaught Place used to be the hub of a lot of Rao’s theatre work in the 1960s, especially Onam/ Vishu events. And Bhanumati Rao was something of the comedy queen known for her vidhi vesham (clown role).
“I used to be deeply embarrassed by this. And I used to resent being dragged from school (Modern) to these events at Triveni, AIFACS hall, etcetera, where huge crowds would come to watch. But, drop by drop, all this was seeping into my system,” she says.
It is easy to see where the Maya Rao theatre’s origins lay. Bhanumati Rao’s plays, profiles, and comic sketches drew much from reality. Room for Rent, which was about a Sanskrit scholar from Kozhikode who comes to Delhi—mundu, monkey cap and all—was based for instance on a grand aunt. The Rao drawing room at all times was a rehearsal space, a green room or a performance area.
In the early 1960s, Madhava Panicker, a Kathakali asan (master), was summoned by her family to Delhi to teach the children of a few keen families. The classes were held in Karol Bagh and Rao recalls being picked up from school by her mother for her lessons.
“A quick snack and change of clothes from skirt to salwar kameez—crouched on the floor of the car—and I would be at the class which only had girls. For some reason, I was always made to do male roles,” she says.
For eight years she trained in Kathakali. Its many elements, such as the mudras, eye movements, sense of the elaborate and the slow unwinding of emotions are all visible in Rao’s work. But Kathakali moved into the bottom drawer of her life when she joined college, and being a ‘modern’ artiste became an imperative.
“I was introduced to Brecht at Miranda House and became besotted with him. We were mostly on stage during college, we went little to class,” she says, with a laugh. By the end of college, Rao was ready for theatre. But Kathakali was to return to her life. “I was an idiot to leave it. But 10 years later the International Centre for Kathakali came up in Delhi and I would go to Sadanam Balakrishnan (a Kathakali maestro) for the sheer joy of practising cholliyattam (mudras to express the meaning of the songs),” she says.
She would go on to teach Kathakali, hold workshops in it and record padams in England where she did an MA in theatre at Leeds.
Ravanama, one of Rao’s best known works, draws hugely from Kathakali. “I drew on how beautifully Kathakali imagines Ravana, his udbhavam (evolution). It sees him as an accomplished character, and I went in search of as many stories about him as possible. In the end, they all linked up to create some great solutions,” she says.
She likes to keep her works in progress, reworking themes for different contexts. The Walk could be about gender but it could also be about a repressive establishment. “The idea is to link things so people see that there is a connection between gender equality and a state that cramps free thought,” she says. “The point is to make people think and join the dots.”