Going strong and solo

P Anima | Updated on March 10, 2018

I said it Quality Street marks the return of Rao the comic performer, much missed in the theatre circuit   -  S Thyagarajan

The Non Stop Feel Good Show   -  S Thyagarajan

In the Name of a Cow   -  Monica Dawar

Ravanama   -  S Thyagarajan

It took the versatile Maya Krishna Rao years and countless trials and errors to find the form of theatre she is now synonymous with

Maya Krishna Rao is reviving Quality Street. The acerbic Nigerian comedy, a relentless ping-pong between a disapproving, quick-witted “bourgeois” mother and her US-returned, university-educated daughter deserved a cheeky comeback notice. Rao’s daughter gives the play an appropriate poster. It has Rao as Mrs Njoku, mother and diva, resplendent in her green costume and headgear, immensely pleased with something she has just said.

That Quality Street is a comedy is no second guess. But the poster credit in the corner nails the kind of funny it intends to be. It reads: This poster is designed by a daughter for her mother for her mother’s performance about her daughter. Rao, the mother, bullies her daughter into these little favours. It helps that the daughter is a graphic designer. An intimate knowledge of Rao’s work is bonus.

Quality Street marks the return of Rao the comic performer, much missed in the theatre circuit. She spent a large part of the last four years evolving and running a diploma programme on using devices of drama in different learning situations. That left her with little time to revisit her plays.

In the interim, she was called upon to respond to distressing events — of which there were many. After the Delhi rape of December 16, 2012, she came out with Walk. Similar snippet productions, nevertheless sharp and scathing, followed the Supreme Court’s judgement on Section 377 and, more recently, after Junaid Khan’s lynching. Rao performed these capsules of potent protest theatre, put together at short notice, wherever she was asked to. In her sonorous voice and with unflinching passion, she performed at the makeshift stage at Jantar Mantar, amidst chairs left behind by a panel at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and among the dissenting students of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The 65-year-old is now hitting the circuit with vengeance. On September 9, she will perform Quality Street for a Delhi audience. A day later, she will be at Jamia Millia Islamia with In the Name of a Cow tweaked to incorporate the recent SC judgement on privacy. Later in the month, she will perform Quality Street and Ravanama at Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru before setting off to Goa for the Serendipity Arts Festival. Ravanama is another facet of Rao the performer. An interpretation of Ravana, commissioned for Puducherry-based Adishakti’s Ramayana festival some years ago, it draws heavily from the artiste’s training in kathakali.

Solo performances are a genre in Indian theatre today. Not so when Rao began experimenting over 30 years ago. She wanted a form that would sync with the performer she was. It organically led to the solo. Now, revisiting her plays, Rao has hand-picked Quality Street to get back into the groove. “Quite simply, we seem to be lacking a sense of humour,” she says.

The Sangeet Natak Akademi had commissioned Rao for a play during the Commonwealth Games in 2010. She picked Chimamanda Adichie’s “charming” and “delightful” short story precisely because it was not grave, unlike much of postcolonial literature. And the engaging tussle between Mrs Njoku and daughter Sochienne could happen as much in Delhi as in Lagos.

Rao’s preparation gained perspective when she ran into Sabaina Jurschewsky, a Nigerian woman in Delhi. Jurschewsky was not merely a reference point, but also a seamstress who readily became the costume designer for Quality Street. Rao spent hours listening to her, picking up her accent and gaining a flavour of life in Lagos. Jurschewsky also introduced her to parts of Delhi’s INA market she never knew existed. “Imagine, my mother has been dragging me to INA market to buy fish ever since I was a child,” Rao barely manages to conceal surprise.

On the first floor of this crowded market known for seafood and goods from Kerala, Rao found Mrs Njoku’s costume. “I never knew those buildings had a first floor. We crouched our way up and ended in front of a row of shacks. The African community in Delhi shopped here.”

Jurschewsky picked up metres of cloth and turned them into Rao’s costume and headgear. She, however, had a basic discontent. Rao was just not large enough to be a Nigerian matriarch. To make amends, Rao turned to the upholstery at home. Her sofas were undergoing repair and castaway foam suddenly had new purpose. Rao’s Mrs Njoku, heavily padded with foam, is nice and big. “She became my idea of a Nigerian woman, though I haven’t ever been to Nigeria.” When Jurschewsky and friends watched Quality Street years ago, they were pleased with Rao’s accent. Jurschewsky has since left Delhi. A week away from her next show, Rao realises it’s time to bring out old foam, dust and sun it.

Bhanumathi Rao, a formidable matriarch, pushed her daughters to pursue culture seriously. It mattered little if they were learning rigorous forms such as kathakali or twist. “We had to do it perfectly. If I was singing the Beatles, I better get the intonation right,” says Rao. She would dip into each of those separate trainings — kathakali, Carnatic and pop music — when she devised her solo performances. She came to theatre after years of detour through academics. Most of the 1980s were spent as visiting faculty at the National School of Drama. Rao missed being a performer. But she knew she would not meld into a conventional play format. “I had to ask myself if I was a director’s actor.”

The process of finding theform which belonged to her and to which she belonged was long. It eventually happened sometime in 1992-93, when she moulded Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story ‘Khol Do’ into a one-person performance. “It represented another phase in theatre,” says Rao. Solo performances were rare and tended to be directed. Rao was experimenting with artistic autonomy and self-contained theatre. Singular talents no longer sufficed. She dipped into multiple pools and found strength in her years of training in kathakali. A free-flowing performance grammar slowly evolved. In her studio, Rao improvised, recorded, watched and edited.

Khol Do was critical. Rao created it while recuperating from a slipped disc. The Sangeet Natak Akademi gave a grant of ₹15,000 and it was first performed at the basement of Shri Ram Centre in central Delhi, which was then available for hire at ₹2,500. Much of the grant, remembers Rao, was spent ferrying sound designers from Mumbai. Manto’s succinct and searing Partition story of a father and daughter caught in the mayhem was evocative theatre. Rao pulled it off without words. A non-verbal interpretation of Manto evolved rather naturally. She sought to evoke such intensity that words failed. “It was as if you opened your mouth and words never came out.” She became the father, the daughter, and the chaos at the railway station. She became the mayhem and the loss. “Many in the audience were left crying,” remembers Rao.

Khol Do is among the plays Rao plans to revisit. Before she gets down to it, there are more mundane concerns such as getting her demolished studio floor back in shape so that she can rehearse.

Rao effortlessly intersperses the intense with the over-the-top. For every Ravanama, Lady Macbeth Revisited and Khol Do, there are Deep Fried Jam, The Non Stop Feel Good Show and Quality Street. She can be intimidating, particularly when she begins to speak. Hence her straight-faced humour is a surprise. Soon one realises it is intrinsic. There are no holds barred when Rao plays loopy. Her costumes get adventurous. Again, Rao’s mother had shown her the way. As a child she watched, admittedly with “deep embarrassment”, as Bhanumathi appeared in Malayalam comedies staged at New Delhi’s Kerala Club in the ’60s. The roles required her to appear comic — schoolgirl’s double braid, colourful petticoats. All were fine if they aided the part.

The comedies nudged Rao towards childhood obsessions and she cheerfully modelled herself on them. Helen, the star, had ceaselessly fascinated her. So did the starlets regularly featured on the last page of Blitz. “Making the dash for the magazine when it arrived is vivid in my mind.” Much of those appear in Deep Fried Jam and The Non Stop Feel Good Show.

Rao’s arc as a performer who reacts to political and social upheavals has happened simultaneously. It began with street theatre but acquired form and frequency when she was called upon to perform at the Safdar Hashmi memorial held every January 1. The first of those happened soon after the Babri Masjid demolition. News bits from the day’s newspapers found their way into her performance. Rao relied on comedy to see through grave situations.

Much changed after Jyoti Singh Pandey’s gang rape in 2012. “The event was so hard-hitting. The incident happened on December 16, it was out in the papers a day later. And she died on December 29.” It had simmered within Rao so much that the first version of Walk was performed the next day.

Videos of Rao performing Walk at Jaipur are available online. She does not ask for much. But the right to walk — at 12am, at 2.45am, at 4am. The right to sit in a bus and go. The right to sit on a park bench and read. The faces in the audience grow blank, the mood turns sombre. Some nod in agreement. Others despair in remembered grief.

A day before the #NotInMyName protests in June 2017, Rao was asked to ready a piece. Her personal anguish and rage at the turn of events lend her performances honesty. “For In the Name of a Cow, I was writing till I reached Jantar Mantar. But that is part of the excitement. You are spurred by that adrenalin rush and nervous energy. You don’t know if it will work. But you go ahead and do it.” At Jantar Mantar, Rao is seen performing with a sheaf of papers in hand. And she asks for Mohammad Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan and Junaid, “ Swachh Bharat ke naam pe mera hi safaya kar diya?” (Have I been wiped clean in the name of Swachh Bharat). There were no answers. Only whistles and applause.

Published on September 01, 2017

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