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Akshayambara, written and directed by Bengaluru-based theatre artiste Sharanya Ramprakash, won two of the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) that were announced on 11 March. Ramprakash picked up an award for best original script while her co-performer Prasad Cherkady won the best actor in a leading role (male). Funded by the Bengaluru-based India Foundation for the Arts, the Kannada play introduces a female performer into the male-dominated world of professional yakshagana, a folk theatre form consisting of dance, music, costume and make-up which goes back several centuries. Akshayambara has a play within the play—Ramprakash plays Kaurava, a composite character of all the brothers, switching, in particular, between Duryodhan and Dushasan (the latter is tasked by the former to disrobe Draupadi, a role performed by Cherkady). The interchanging gender roles result in a subtle shift of power over the course of the play, with both characters able to understand the other a little better. We spoke to Ramprakash about this subversive retelling of a traditional tale. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about the genesis of the piece.

In 2013, I received an Inlaks scholarship to study yakshagana as I was looking for new ways to bring physicality and music into my work. That took me to the Yakshagana Kendra in Udupi (Karnataka), where I met Guru Bannanje Sanjeeva Suvarna, a legend of the tradition. Since it’s traditionally men who perform yakshagana, at Guruji’s residential school, all the students were men. I have been with Guruji for two years now, and Akshayambara came out of that interaction, from the journeys I made with the form and the collisions that I, as a woman practitioner, created within the system and within myself. At the centre, we learn in the guru-shishya tradition. After six-seven months, Guruji got me to travel with the professional troupe attached to the centre, the Yaksha Ranga. We toured different parts of Udupi, and performed in all-night events.

Were you performing only female parts?

They didn’t really know where to place someone like me initially. I would do the Maya Ravan, or the Surpanakha, and then other roles that were not necessarily female. In a repertory production, that is how it works. You have to step in for other actors if they cannot perform. Interestingly, this is when the ideas that the play examines emerged.

Were they open to this fluidity?

Guruji is extremely modern and a pluralist, and rather inclusive in his ideas of yakshagana. He enabled this to happen. Of course, there were a lot of resentments. When I am travelling in a professional space, it doesn’t even have to come down to the idea that someone tells me that I am a woman and I can’t perform. The setting itself makes it so obvious, it creates no space for you. Yakshagana is a very rural form. You perform outside temple premises, where you put up a shamiana (tent). You put on your make-up and perform. Later, you wonder, where do I sleep after the performance? Everyone thinks, there is this woman, now what do we do with her?

Were you more welcome, though, because you were an urban woman researching a form rather than an actual female performer trying to break in? There are now female ‘yakshagana’ performers, and even all-women troupes, although very few in number.

That is a very interesting question that I keep asking myself. The way I look at yakshagana, I find the politics very disturbing; the representation of women and the manner in which the narrative has been taken over by the male point of view. This is not how traditional female performers in this space itself would see it. They are concerned with being allowed to faithfully reproduce the traditional style. There is no introspection, or reinvention, or subversion in their work. My being an urban practitioner created another level of conflict, certainly. One could ask, you are not even from here, who are you to come and critique this form? I think that conflict should exist. These artistes have been performing since they were eight years old. Of course, the form belongs to them.

So their reaction to you is much more nuanced—not just your gender, but also what your background is.

Yes, these conflicts are all there in the play itself. Akshayambara is not just about gender. The idea of privilege works across many boundaries. The female performer in the play comes from the same background as me. Prasad Cherkady, who plays the male performer, has been performing yakshagana for the last 17 years. So, I have replicated some of the real life dichotomies. It could be no other way. I have tried working with urban actors, but the manner in which Prasad would touch an item is so true to this ethos. And although he is a traditional performer, he is open to making a journey.

So, in real life he is somewhat different from the characterization imposed upon him, that of a male performer of female parts trying to hold on to the status quo in which women are excluded.

There was a huge negotiation that we had to do as part of rehearsals for him to look at our exploration objectively, and still feel that there is a fairness ascribed to his character. When I watch the men who perform these female roles, I find that they do it devoid of any empathy, almost like stock figures. Even Draupadi in “Draupadi Vastrapaharanam", which we enact in the play, is performed so perfunctorily, and sometimes her anguish and indignation is completely excised from the narrative.

Yakshagana is one of the most popular professional theatres in the world, running on the patronage of people who come and watch performances night after night. These are stories they already know, but they are interested in an actor’s interpretation of Ram or Ravana, or the prowess of his presentation. There is no such investment in female characters.

In ‘Akshayambara’, you play the Kaurava who disrobes Draupadi in a scene from the Mahabharat. This is subversive in itself.

I asked myself, who is this man and how do I play him? Guruji would teach me from the body, and that didn’t work for me. So, there was a constant translation I needed to make. This dialogue between Guruji and me was very rich and meaningful. What we have done with the play is not to masculinize me, but to bring out the abhinaya (emotion) of the Kaurava’s arrogance, his idea of ownership, within my female framework.

So there is no need to create any illusion of manhood.

That is the most empowering aspect of performance. When I come on to the stage, and say I am Ravana, people should be ready to go with that. A man coming on to stage and saying he’s Draupadi with a gruff voice and hair on his stomach is accepted so easily. So why should it be any different for a woman?

Is there also a transgender aspect that you have explored?

Well, the play is innately queer, with the constant negotiations with gender, and seeing it as something so fluid. Although the characters as I wrote them are not transgender, during my journey in trying to find who this man was, I drew much strength from the experiences of female-to-male transgenders. In the yakshagana space, the criticism I received was that my “manliness" was not man enough.

I didn’t, and neither did my critics, know what standard of masculinity they wanted upheld. The trans men weren’t bogged down by such things. One of them told me he had decided not to go through with hormonal therapy. So he is a man who menstruates, he is a man who can still have a child, and he is perfectly okay with that. His own definition of what it means to be a man came first. I found that extremely empowering. It was something I drew upon, to truly come into my own and own the character that I play. That Kaurava became mine.

Akshayambara will be staged on 27 March, 3.30pm and 7.30pm, at Ranga Shankara, Bengaluru. For details, visit

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