Anuja Ghosalkar

Lady Anandi   Performing Archival Absences

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To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her. Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination. And undoubtedly, I thought, looking at the shelf where there are no plays by women, her work would have gone unsigned.[1]

Grappling with Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, on a performed version of the text, had me question my place me in theatre, the responses I received when I decided to be a full-time theatre actor at 34, the roles I was given, the lines I was made to say. Deeply uncomfortable with these constraints, I decided to create a text and performance that resonated with me. Personal archives and oral histories had always intrigued me, having successfully completed an oral history project on my grandfather, Ram Tipnis who was the oldest living make-up artist in India. This time I chose to tell the story of his father, Madhavrao Tipnis. Madhavrao Tipnis, my maternal great grandfather was a female impersonator in late 19th century Marathi theatre. He along with his older brother, Yeshwantrao Tipnis and a few others, started a theatre company called Maharashtra Natak Mandali. This company produced prose plays that were political in nature. At the time, all the female characters were played by men. Madhavrao Tipnis, Mama Bhat, Vamanrao Potnis and Balgandharva were famous female impersonators of the time.The premise for my performance was simple—two actors separated by 100 years, one who plays a lady convincingly and the other, me, struggling to be a woman on the stage. I started searching for material on him. I looked online—nothing. In theatre history books—he was a footnote. My excavation was drawing dust. It was becoming apparent to me that he was absent from theatre history. I looked at family albums, one aunt had three photos, the others a few more. In the scant stories, I had heard of him growing up, he seemed like a hero, who played both male and female characters with ease, received critical acclaim, drank five litres of milk a day, loved wrestling. Could these stories be made up to feed my young imagination? Or was he an apparition? If not, why was he missing from the archive? Since he had died several years before I was born, I had no memory of him. Extended family remembered him as a “good man”. How was I to negotiate this amnesia? How do we remember the dead? Especially if there is little or no record of the deceased persons?

Eventually I found twenty odd photos of him. With that, I started identifying the plays he performed— Baaykanche Band, Kichakvadh, Bhaubandaki, Shah Shivaji, Sangeet Chandragrahan, Manjirao[2]. I found a few scripts in dusty libraries, and surprisingly one on the Indian Institute of Science’s website. Through the parts he portrayed and reading autobiographies of other female impersonators, I started sketching his character, imagining Madhavrao, the person. Essentially, I turned to fiction, in the absence of memory to create the life of my great grandfather. Using anecdotes, photos, documents, interviews and reviews, I constructed a performance titled Lady Anandi. The title is a reference to Anandibai Peshwa, a historical character that Madhavrao played in Bhaubandaki (1909) written by Khrushnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar. Anandibai is infamous for instigating her husband Raghunathrao to murder his younger brother, Narayanrao, in order to usurp the throne. Anandibai intrigued me, she was a lettered woman with a dark lust for power, who changed an alphabet in a letter, (Dh cha ma) that lead to the death of Narayanrao. In that letter written by Raghunathrao to ‘catch’ (Dhara) his younger brother, the manipulative Anandibai changes it to mean ‘kill’ (mara). Thus the famous refrain in Marathi, “dha cha ma”. I frequently refer to the phrase in my show  as “from catch to kill”.

I started to write scenes based on the scant information available to me. I did not write the scenes chronologically, but as and when I found research or archival material on him.

Figure 1

This is one of the first photos I discovered- Madhavrao, dressed in a blood red, nine yard silk saree, covered in shimmering gold, as Anandibai. I stared at it for hours, since at the time, it was the only material evidence of Madhavrao. I looked at his eyes, his body, the way the saree was draped, the slightly bent knee, shoulders lowered. As an actor, I tried to recreate that ideal of womanliness. The harder I tried, the more I failed. It was becoming clear that, the portrayal of women by female impersonators like Madhavrao and Balgandharva was an idealized notion of the feminine, even hyper feminine if you will. Instead, I decided to let my body of a middle-aged woman, with its folds and curves and ungainly, awkward movement play out on stage. I made my failure to copy Madhavrao’s Anandibai apparent in a scene—as I try to imitate each gesture, a male voice is heard, telling me “Believe you are a real woman”.  It is at that point that I ironically draw attention to my imperfections. “Can I be a convincing Anandi?” “Do I hold the pallu right?”, “Is my wait the perfect size?”, “ Is my voice the right pitch?”, “ Is my gaze too stern?”, “Hey mister am I woman enough for you?” These lines are said directly to the audience, as a provocation.

 

Figure 2

Figure 3

Archival photographs formed the core of my performance. In the absence of written documents, the images were an evidence of a past, of which I have no recollection since I was unborn. The non-linear narrative of Lady Anandi unfolds through these images. Instead of merely re-enacting these photos, I tried to enter them, projecting them on my body. It was designed such that “the performance, was not meant to imitate aspects of the photos, but rather to act as the embodied condensations of complex social attitudes. This form of gesture distills social structures and power relations in a simple pose or condensed scene rather than in a naturalistic imitation of a past occurrence or the impression of history coming alive before-your-very-eyes. With a few stark gestures and movements, I hoped to invoke something of the personal and political complexities bound up in the photographs.” [3]

Figure 4

It was to draw the audience’s attention to my living body, in the present, in relation to my great grandfather’s, frozen in time. It was also intended to juxtapose, an archival image with all its beauty and historicity with my body that holds its own narratives and is an archive of those experiences and struggles. The photographic memory of a performance in 1909, and the memory of the current performance etched in the audience’s mind. How will they remember Lady Anandi after today? Where does my body end and the photograph begin? Can my body unravel mysteries of my ancestors if you cut deep into my skin? “First: that memory may embed itself within bodies like pieces of glass pressed into the palms and hearts of the tellers and listeners, and secondly then: that these lovingly painful “cuts” are both wounding and life-giving.” [4]

I believe that the body is an archive of the past, of what we have suffered, endured and it holds stories of our ancestors. And that act of accessing the past can be “wounding” and “life giving.” Lady Anandi has three characters, all three played by the great grand- daughter of Madhavrao Tipnis. Me. Why? This question was raised over several shows.  My response was simple. In a conventional play, there would be three actors. But this wasn’t a play with a classical structure. It was a response to find a missing person, Madhavrao Tipnis. In my being physically present on the stage, it revealed some part of that lost man and his stories.

 

Figure 5

While the performance is designed as a solo, the LCD projector is an integral character in it. I used it to project images on the screen and my body. When there are no images, I perform in front of the haunting white light of the projector, casting a sharp and constant shadow on the screen or curtain or cyclorama behind me.  I continuously intersect the projector light. It first began as a simple device to avoid using theatre lights, but as the show developed, the stark white light, softened to a yellow one, with the texture of fading pages of history. Lady Anandi’s text is structured such, that all the fiction scenes are “read out”, weaving in the stage directions, holding a piece of paper. And the research parts are recounted by heart. Each research section is accompanied by an archival photo. And each fictional scene is played out in the yellow projector light— historical research seemed to need photographic evidence but fiction only needed some light and shadow.  At first, both these seemed oppositional, but I soon viewed it as the grand historical narrative constantly being challenged small histories or personal narratives, even fiction. As a structure in Lady Anandi, fiction extends the narrative that history created and thus a historical imagination and a narrative experimentation make an intricate and textured collage.

Figure 8

Figure 7

This choice of holding the pages of the text was vital to underline that fiction was filling in the gaps of history, that imagination was replacing memory. It was an outrageous leap of fiction that enabled a piecing together of Madhavrao’s life. Lady Anandi, is an act of remembering, and that exercise is seldom linear, often incomplete, embellished and jagged. I wanted to make that process of piecing together fragments of memory and research apparent to the audience. The process of finding historical documents in archives triggered an imagination, which was deliberate. Through that, I constructed the text of Lady Anandi. Neither research nor the writing process is neat and I wanted the performance to make obvious those rough edges and show this spirit of exploration. As an unfinished piece Lady Anandi has shown over 30 times across India, keeping it raw, fresh and exciting.

Figure 9

I am overwhelmed by what I discovered and experienced in this process of making Lady Anandi. There have been moments of deep self-doubt, joy, fear and anger. But none more mystifying than the ephemerality of performance as act to archive.  During a Q&A at JNU, a young student asked, “how can a performance be an act of archiving? After this evening, you have nothing to show for it.”  Struck by that, I sought to answer that question through my following performances. Indeed, what was I attempting? An act of finding my great grandfather through a fifty-minute theatre performance? Was I creating yet another fleeting moment in time? My discomfort was somewhat alleviated, when I started thinking of the archive, not as something permanent, but like a memory, that is bound to fade, change shape.  “What seems the most ephemeral and fragile may in fact be the most enduring. Flesh fades, diminishes and dies. On the breath and through the performing body, story keeps its airy lightness and flooding force, suggesting one possibility of life- beyond-death. In this sense, memory endures, paradoxically, because it moves. Only through movement can memory take up residence and build a dwelling place within us. As sites of accumulation we become shelters, or living archives, for memory. Our bodies hold a myriad of incomplete pieces, the presence of which we are sometimes unaware.” [5]

My body indeed was holding all the “incomplete pieces”, I was the living, breathing archive. Until I lived, the stories of Madhavrao would hold. Perhaps, that’s why early on I decided, that I will be present on stage, the story will be mediated through me. That instinctive artistic choice was criticized by many. Reason dictated that I be an onlooker, a director, a writer but not the performer. But I persisted, unaware of why I needed to be on stage, be exposed, be vulnerable.

Through the many performances, I continued to re-search Madhavrao. Finally, I found one [6] interview with him. In that, he says he was a regular akhada goer and at first, thought it difficult to act a like woman on stage. For him to walk like a lady, delicately, he was made to wear heavy lead anklets. In his first play Kanchangadachi Mohana, he was the lead, Mohana. Before the premiere show he was extremely distressed and upset to wear a padded blouse so that he had firm breasts. He couldn’t control his tears. His older brother tried to console him but he wouldn’t relent. Madhavrao concluded saying, “thankfully Mohana’s first entry on stage was a teary one, and my melancholic face made it very realistic.”

Figure 14: Madhavrao Tipnis seen here in his late 80’s. Date of birth unknown, year 1878, died 25th September 1965

It was his melancholia and reluctance to be an actor, that I have tried to capture throughout the performance. It culminates in the very last scene of the performance.[7]

Scene 11

Anuja stands on the level, close to the screen.

Madhav is now a very old man and is standing on stage in his underwear and nothing else. He has a senile, almost delusional look in his eyes. Sound of the audience hooting.

(All the photos we have seen thus  get projected on this body. She is still, doesn’t move. The speed of projection of these photos become faster and faster. While the actor remains still. And she starts speaking very slowly.)

Don’t look at me. Stop looking at me. I don’t want to stand here anymore. This place smells rotten, like a thousand dead were living here. I want to retreat into that black hole, there. Never to return. I have to go. Let me go. Another will come, much brighter. I must leave to make place, for another. Be patient. Wait. Another will come.

Actor moves away and her image with photos is projected on the screen and she is sitting and watching herself as an image.

End of Slide show.

Slide show ends. Actor leaves. The lights don’t come on and the audience stays in darkness for two minutes with sound. Sound out. Lights on.

The End

 

Anuja Ghosalkar is an actor, writer and director based in Bangalore. Drama Queen, her Documentary theatre company focuses on oral histories, personal narratives and archival material to extend the idea of theatre to unsettle the status quo.

References:

[1] A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf, chapter 3.https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/chapter3.html

[2] Reference to Madhavrao playing Lady Macbeth or Daryabai –

[3] Page 116, Remembering Toward Loss: Performing And so there are pieces- Rivka Syd Eisner in Remembering: Oral History Performance edited by Della Polock, afterword by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall. Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

[4]Page 106, Remembering Toward Loss: Performing And so there are pieces- Rivka Syd Eisner in Remembering: Oral History Performance edited by Della Polock, afterword by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall. Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

[5] Page 116, Remembering Toward Loss: Performing And so there are pieces- Rivka Syd Eisner in Remembering: Oral History Performance edited by Della Polock, afterword by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall. Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

[6]  Page 81, from an essay titled Madhavraovanchi Smurti by Chandrakant Martand Pradhan in Natya Darpan’s Diwali Ank, 1975

[7] All stage directions in italics are read aloud by actor. All characters are played by the same actor. Where no character name is indicated, they are narrations by Lady F. Actual stage directions are written in red.

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