How does someone become a feminist theatre-maker? For Sharanya Ramprakash, simply being a woman who makes theatre is enough to make the work feminist. When I told her that this article would be to spotlight her work on International Women’s Day, she was overjoyed. She believes that women need to wholly claim March 8th each year to counter the overwhelming amount of men who argue the need for women to be celebrated.
What is my theatre?
Sharanya’s consciously feminist practice began when she went to the Yakshagana Kendra in 2014 to ask some critical questions of herself as a theatre-maker. She had become bored with urban theatre in India, where Indian performers pretended to be white people with names like Nora and Willy, acting in classical Western styles of performance on proscenium stages. Sharanya felt this urge to search for her identity in the theatre—a want for stories to be more contemporary and rooted in her regional culture, language, and experience. She had already been enthralled with the form of Yakshagana, and wanted to simply explore it further without any grander agenda. When Sharanya talks about her first meeting with her guru, she recalls the generosity with which he welcomed her. All he said to her was, “Come.” Because of this invitation, Sharanya says she “went there with a lot of love and surrender, but also with my politics.” There was a radical openness in his unconditional invitation, something that is so rare in the world of the classical arts in India.
But Yakshagana is not a classical art form. It exists in the space between folk and classical forms— in between the olden world of mythology and the contemporary world that is so governed by ancient myth. Sharanya spent a year marinating in this space. She studied the form, she went to performances. She observed how Yakshagana is a form made by the farmers, of the farmers, and for the farmers. She saw how audiences didn’t come to watch the story of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, but to watch performers argue as their characters. Sharanya noticed how, “Yakshagana is about the epics, but there is this shared knowledge, culture, and history with which you argue, and the whole village is involved in those politics.” This tradition of argument is what she realized kept Yakshagana alive—the form engages itself with the contemporary world. The actors roast each other, bring up their personal lives in character, and root mythology in the politics of today.
Sharanya’s practice in Yakshagana was sustained by a want to occupy and own some part of it. What would Yakshagana look like if a woman made it? While Yakshagana still is a form that is dominated by men, it professes a politics of openness and accessibility. “But the form was not at all insecure that my presence would somehow topple it,” she says. It is this very same security in itself that allowed Sharanya to enter and stay in the Yakshagana tradition. Each day, she lived and performed with men. Each day she was sharing the space of men, and each night, she watched these men transform into women, and then back into men. “In that ritual of man becoming woman, just the presence of another bra in the room gave me such a sense of relief. But at the end of the night, he would go back to being a man but I am still a woman,” and it was this dynamic of power that prompted Sharanya to question masculinity, gender, and power, culminating in her critically acclaimed original play Akshayambara. It is a play within a play where a male artist Prasad Cherkady plays Draupadi, and Sharanya is cast as the Pradhana Purushavesha of Kaurava. The two actors flit between green room and stage, going from female to male to female to male over and over again, brewing tensions and arguments of femininity and masculinity, and playing with the female struggle to become a man and be masculine.
Straddling the grey spaces
Sharanya jokes that a large part of making feminist work is the simple boredom that comes out of watching male stories. She rejoices when Baboo Liao, her director in Mythology Upon the Table calls the performance an “Asian, feminist, queer response” to Homer’s Odyssey. She is delighted by the choice to radically claim intersectional labels in a world that asks us to shed them in favour of safety. Even though Akshayambara exists in the male-dominated space of Yakshagana, Sharanya asks which spaces are not dominated by men? Every sphere of society has had a patriarchal past. The question then becomes is there anywhere a woman can go where she doesn’t have to redefine masculinity or question the conditioning of the patriarchy?
For her play Nava, Sharanya worked with nine transgender women from the Aravani Art Collective, exploring their definition of performance and emotion through the nine rasas. This collaboration brought about a transformation in Sharanya’s femininity. Bearing witness to how the performers celebrated their femininity with style, beauty, and adornments made Sharanya long for her own ritual of performing femaleness. She saw how trans women claimed style and beauty as a response to violence, and to move beyond the margins of heteronormative oppression. After the first rehearsal, Sharanya says, “I went and bought myself three tubes of lipstick!” She too wanted in on the self-love and personal choice that transness upholds as a means to revolutionise and break the binary.
The past in the present
In the pandemic, Sharanya started the #MalashreeChallenge on MX Takatak, noticing the breadth of regional users on the app. She used popular clips of the brilliant gender-bending Kannada actress Malashree to make everyday social media users interact with gender by “remixing” and reacting to the clips. One such clip was #UncleShockAitha, meaning “what shocks uncle.” This sort of question inadvertently makes people think through a feminist lens as they question what shocks uncles, the upholders of patriarchy—is it a bra strap, heavy make-up, perhaps no-make up at all? By centering this challenge around Malashree, Sharanya also asks what is the legacy of female Kannada actors?
Sharanya is currently researching and documenting the lives of Kannada company theatre (1940 – present) actresses. She was consumed by the question of, “Who are these female actresses who existed before me?” Supported by India Foundation for the Arts, she is excavating their stories from frozen pictures, and celebrating their lives as feminist purely because of their existence as female artists in the oppressive male structure of the past.
A theme often seen in Sharanya’s work is to cast a contemporary gaze at mythology. Our mythologies form a base of shared stories and cultural knowledge that have influenced a large part of our collective consciousness, and asking contemporary questions through mythology can have interesting results. “One little inch, if moved or reclaimed can challenge an entire cultural belief system,” she says. But critiquing our myths is something that is getting more dangerous and terrifying by the day and Sharanya worries that the poisonous gatekeeping of our myths by Hindutva forces will lead to a decline in debate around them, and put the form under threat.
Sharanya Ramprakash’s work straddles multiple shades of gender and flows effortlessly through time. She believes that generosity, the warmth of collaboration, love, and the power of a perfectly red lipstick have collectively enabled her cohesive yet diverse practice of feminist theatre.